I should weigh X number of pounds. I should have a super clean home. I should have muscular legs. I should always look “put together.” I should say yes whenever people ask me for help, no matter what it is. I should exercise every day. I should be happy. I should know how to do that. I should be able to do it all. I should keep my needs to myself. I should keep my emotions to myself. I should be organized. I should finish everything on my to-do list. I should know what he wants. I should know what she needs.
The way that we see ourselves and the world—in shoulds—can have a big impact on our well-being, on how we live our lives, on how we care (or don’t care) for ourselves. Because, over time, we start viewing these shoulds as absolutes, as rules we must follow. Maybe even at any cost.
Are your shoulds stressing you out? Keeping your life frantic? Keeping you from practicing compassionate self-care? (For instance, you say ‘yes’ to everyone and let their needs dictate your days. You end up exhausted and resentful with a whole lot of chaos in your life.)
In the book What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Michael G. Wetter, Psy.D, and Eileen Bailey share several helpful suggestions for changing should statements.
- Keep track of your should thoughts. Any time you have a should thought, write it down. Also, write down the details of the situation. After you’ve recorded several statements, pay attention to any themes and patterns: Do you use should statements when you’re stressed out? When you’re feeling frustrated? When talking to certain people? When you’re in certain environments? When you’re feeling certain feelings?
- Explore the belief beneath your statement. According to the authors, we typically create should statements to help us feel in control and to avoid pain or disappointment. If you’re not sure what belief underlies your statement, “try to finish the sentence with what you think will happen if you [don’t] follow your rule.” I should weigh X number of pounds. If I don’t, no one will find me attractive or lovable. I should always look put together. If I don’t, people will think I don’t care. They’ll reject me.
- Explore how you feel when you don’t follow the should statement. Write that down, too.
- Test your statement. Look for evidence that supports and doesn’t support your statement. Think of your statement as a hypothesis, and you’re simply conducting an experiment. For instance, you might make a list of the “for” and “against” evidence. Or you might ignore your rule and see what happens. The authors share this example using the statement “I should clean my house every Saturday morning.” Your “for” evidence is: “People will think badly of me if they stop by and my house is not clean.” Your “against” evidence might be: “Missing one week of cleaning or cleaning on a different day isn’t going to make me a bad person; it just means I was busy or wasn’t up to cleaning the house on Saturday,” and “This rule makes me feel bad about myself all week if I did not clean the house on Saturday morning.”
- Revise your should statement, and create a more balanced one. Instead of a demand, try to look at your statement as a preference. For instance, “I prefer to clean my house on Saturday mornings, but sometimes that isn’t possible.”
If they go unchecked, should statements can easily rule our lives—and not for the better. Notice when you’re making these statements. Notice what beliefs underlie them. And see if you can let some flexibility in. Even tweaking a statement can have a powerful effect on how you practice self-care and on how you live your life.