The 1 Word Therapists Say You Need To Stop Using With Yourself

And you've probably said it multiple times today.
According to therapists, "shoulding" yourself — or saying that you should do this and should do that — can lead to guilt and shame.
Kelvin Murray via Getty Images
According to therapists, "shoulding" yourself — or saying that you should do this and should do that — can lead to guilt and shame.

If you’ve ever uttered sentences like “I should really spend some time cleaning,” “I should just get over this already” or “I should work on my presentation,” you may be “shoulding” yourself, according to therapists.

“Shoulding yourself is a cognitive distortion, and ... so many of us often engage in it,” said Carrie Howard, a licensed clinical social worker and anxiety coach who is based in Texas but provides services to clients worldwide.

“I shouldn’t eat that cake” and “I should have responded differently in the situation” are two examples of this, said Howard, noting that it can also involve words like “must,” “ought to” and “have to.”

“It’s basically a sort of automatic thought or statement that you might use on yourself that creates this sense of obligation that hasn’t been mindfully or rationally weighed out by factual information,” she said.

Though there are certainly things that you should do, not every task or action needs to fall into this category. These kinds of “should” statements can add a sense of obligation or shame to the equation, Howard noted.

This is often damaging, since feelings of guilt can immobilize people or lead to procrastination instead of healthy action, she added. Think about it: Have you ever told yourself that you should finish a work project when you don’t feel like it, only to pick up your phone and scroll through social media instead? This can create a cycle of feeling bad about yourself.

What’s more, shoulding yourself can be a sign that you’re disconnected from your likes and dislikes, according to Meghan Watson, the founder and clinical director of Bloom Psychology & Wellness in Toronto.

“There are elements that are rooted in uncertainty, there are elements that are rooted in confusion, detachment [and] disconnection from self — like, ‘what should I do?’” Watson said.

Some people find it hard to separate what they truly want from what they’re told to want by external influences and societal pressures, she said. These influences might come from your family, culture, friendships or role as a caregiver, parent or partner.

For example, if outside forces make you feel the need to be perfect all the time, you’ll be carrying around huge amounts of pressure with every decision. Or, if you tell yourself to just get over a disagreement with a friend, you’ll rob yourself of the time you need to move forward. Eventually, you’ll feel governed by the shame and guilt that accompanies these “should” statements, Watson said.

“Every time that we automatically jump to shoulding ourselves, we bypass the important process of really checking in with ourselves, learning to trust ourselves to make the best decision, and being able to mindfully weigh out how the potential decision does or doesn’t align with our goals, values and desires,” Howard explained.

Telling yourself that you "should" do something can be harmful. To put the power back in your hands, try replacing that word with "want to" or "choose to."
FG Trade via Getty Images
Telling yourself that you "should" do something can be harmful. To put the power back in your hands, try replacing that word with "want to" or "choose to."

This doesn’t mean you need to totally erase “should” statements from your vocabulary. But being aware of your obligations and responsibilities is different from mindlessly giving in to something that you feel you should do.

“There are times when there are legitimate expectations and obligations that we have in life, and there are times when it’s wise to do something that we don’t feel like doing,” Howard said. For example, maybe you don’t feel like going for a walk, but you know it will benefit your physical and mental health.

“The difference here is this: Shoulding yourself is an automatic process that doesn’t have mindful reason attached to it,” Howard said, emphasizing that this is what leads to a sense of guilt.

Instead, you can mindfully weigh and understand your obligations and expectations, she explained.

“Stating the facts around the situation, weighing the costs and benefits of our decision, and deciding whether or not the decision aligns with our goals and values are ways that we can mindfully navigate our responsibilities and true obligations,” she said.

Watson said there are positive “shoulds” in life too, like “should I take this job?” or “should I respond in this way?”

“The actual word ‘should’ really invites the question of, is this where I want to go? Is this who I want to be?” she said.

These are big questions, but it’s easier to answer positive “shoulds” (and avoid negative ones) when you rid yourself of toxic narratives and focus on your beliefs and values, Watson said.

How To Stop Shoulding Yourself

Using mindfulness is one way to push back against any shoulding you do, said Howard.

“Because shoulding yourself is such an automatic habit, we can really begin to combat this by taking the process off of autopilot,” she explained.

Take note when you hear yourself say or think words like “should” and “have to,” she suggested.

“Challenge the assumption that you ‘should’ be doing this,” said Howard. “Are you basing this on facts, or on feeling? Are there any underlying fears attached to your ‘should’ statement?”

You might ask yourself: What are you afraid will happen if you don’t go along with your “should”? What are the benefits or consequences of your choice, and does it align with your goals and values?

“By asking yourself some of these questions with curiosity, you begin to mindfully weigh a decision instead of automatically getting hijacked by the unchecked ‘should,’” Howard said.

“Challenge the assumption that you 'should' be doing this. Are you basing this on facts, or on feeling? Are there any underlying fears attached to your 'should' statement?”

- Carrie Howard, a licensed clinical social worker and anxiety coach

It can also be useful to replace the word “should” with something else. One option is the phrase “choose to,” Howard said.

“This is another way you can mindfully notice that as an adult, you have the agency to weigh a decision and choose the best thing for you,” she noted.

So rather than saying “I should do my homework,” you might say “I choose to do my homework because it aligns with my educational goals,” Howard explained.

Unlike the inadequacy and shame that accompany “should” statements, the word “choose” can inspire “meaningful action, motivation, a sense of agency or accomplishment,” Howard said.

Watson suggested using “want to” or “need to” as other replacements for “should.”

Then, “you can really ... start to think about those decisions in a more constructive way,” she said. “Instead of ‘should,’ maybe there’s a want or a desire there, or there’s a need. And I think people have a better conceptualization of ‘is this something I want versus need?’”

Since resorting to “should” statements is often habitual, this change may not be easy.

“Give yourself room to be a work in progress when it comes to dealing with this shoulding mentality,” Watson said.

But by removing the pressure of “should,” you’ll be better prepared to do what you truly want to do and the things that align with your goals and values.