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What Really Underlies Our “Shoulds”

Shadow of woman in the window, Evan Kirby, Unsplash

Each of us carries a collection of different “shoulds.” Beliefs that we are convinced are pure, hard facts. Beliefs that dictate our actions. Beliefs that often don’t support us. A range of beliefs about everything from our bodies to our hearts. Beliefs both big and small.

I should weigh myself every day. I should weigh X number of pounds. I should say yes to every invitation. I should be there for everyone every time. I should go to grad school. I should stop eating sweets and count my calories. I should work until 9 p.m. I should work harder. I should work through lunch. I should keep this a secret. I should exercise six days a week no matter how I feel. I should burn X number of calories when I work out. I should be “strong,” and not need anyone’s help. I should be getting all As. I should be able to finish this in one hour (not a day!). I should know how to do this by now. 

Yesterday, I shared this exercise to help us reevaluate and maybe eventually relinquish damaging shoulds. It comes from the book What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now by Michael G. Wetter, Psy.D, and Eileen Bailey. In it the authors suggest digging deeper to pinpoint what we really think would happen if we don’t follow our shoulds. Because what we forget is that our shoulds aren’t set in stone.

What would happen if you stopped weighing yourself every day? What would happen if you weighed more than you think you should? What would happen if you said no? What would happen if you ate intuitively? What would happen if you took a break? If you stopped hustling? If you shared a slice of your story with someone you trust? If you took it easy and started practicing self-compassion?

What I’ve realized is that the reason our shoulds are so influential, so overpowering is because beneath these beliefs is fear. Fear that no one will love us. Fear that we’ll be judged, criticized or rejected. Fear that we’ll stand out (in a bad way). Fear that we’ll be abandoned. Fear that we’ll end up alone. Fear that we’re officially inadequate. Fear that we’ll be found out as fakes and phonies and impostors.

Consider the fear that underlies your should statements and beliefs. What are you trying to prevent by following this should? What are you really afraid of? Where does this belief and fear stem from? Where did you learn it? How did it evolve? Does it originate from an emotional or traumatic experience (e.g., bullying; a caregiver who equated weight loss with love)?

Maybe uncovering your deep-seated fear can help you better understand yourself and become a bit more flexible. Maybe you can work through that fear instead of driving yourself to burn out, instead of making yourself miserable striving for something that you’re striving for purely out of fear. Maybe, instead, you can adopt beliefs or intentions that serve you. That meet your needs. That honor you.

After all, life is too short to spend adhering to shoulds that only sap our spirit and steer us away from living a fulfilling, nourishing, satisfying life. Of course, exploring and letting go of our shoulds can be difficult, especially if we’ve clung to them for years or decades.

But remember that you just have to start. Start where you can. That is enough. It is more than enough.

What fears underlie your shoulds? What’s one step you can take to work through your fear (instead of forcing yourself to follow an empty should)?

Photo by Evan Kirby.
What Really Underlies Our “Shoulds”

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2016). What Really Underlies Our “Shoulds”. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Oct 2016
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