I should do this. I should be like that. I should know already. Ever find yourself saying these things to yourself? You’re not alone. Many of us set expectations for ourselves that start with “I should…” that are actually damaging to our mental health and personal growth. Below, we unpack the “shoulds” and how to reframe your thoughts around these expectations.
Why “shoulds” shouldn’t be a thing
We all have rules that underlie many of the things that we do. We call these “shoulds” because we often think in terms of “I should do this” or “I should do that”.
In our society, certain behaviors and qualities are promoted as desirable, while others are given very little importance. For instance, things like being good at our work or being attractive, outgoing, sociable, self-disciplined, etc. are often reinforced by our parents, schools, friends and the media.
Some of our “shoulds” can be helpful. For example, believing you should be friendly and supportive to others will help you get along with people and have better relationships. Similarly, the belief that you should work hard at school may help you do well on your exams, and the belief that you should look for solutions when problems arise may help you to solve problems.
In an effort to be liked and accepted by other people, we often take on many of these rules, which become part of our own belief system. However, these should statements can get us into trouble, especially when we can’t live up to them. Often we aren’t even aware of our “shoulds” until we start to think about them.
Should statements can make you feel bad
While some of our “shoulds” are helpful, when you hold onto these beliefs in an absolute, inflexible way it raises your chances of feeling bad about yourself and can damage your self-esteem. This is particularly the case when we can’t meet our own expectations. For example, if we believe that we should always do well in our assignments but in reality we fail to do so, or if we believe that we should always be confident and relaxed, but in reality we feel shy and self-conscious, we may end up feeling very stressed and unhappy.
Whenever we tell ourselves that things must be a certain way or that we must achieve certain things, we put ourselves under a huge amount of pressure and increase the likelihood of upsetting ourselves. Of course, learning to be flexible doesn’t mean that you have to ignore your values or preferences. It is important to know what you want and to work towards your goals, while also being aware of how realistic your goals are.
You also need to accept that things won’t always work out the way that you would like. For example, self-talk such as: “I would like to do well in my assignments, and I will try my hardest” is healthy and appropriate because it is flexible—it doesn’t demand that it must be perfect. This type of self-talk doesn’t create stress or anxiety because the thoughts are preferences rather than rigid rules.
For more information on challenging thought patterns, check out our Common Thinking Errors article.
Some common “shoulds”
Take a look at some of the common “shoulds” or rules that many people live by. Are any of these relevant to you?
I should be liked and approved of by everyone
I should always be successful in the things that I do
I should always do things perfectly
I should be thin/muscular/sexy, etc.
I should always look good
I should have a boyfriend/girlfriend
I should be the same as everyone else (I shouldn’t be different)
I should feel confident in every situation
I should be clear about my future and know where I am heading
I should always say the right things at the right time
I should always be able to meet other people’s expectations
I should always do what people want
I should always feel calm and in control
I should always be happy
I should never make mistakes
I should put other people’s need before my own
I should never say anything that might make other people feel uncomfortable
I should always make the right decisions
The trouble with “shoulds” is that they are inflexible. While there is no problem with wanting or preferring things to be a certain way, when we believe that things must be a certain way we make ourselves feel bad.
Converting “shoulds” into preferences
Example: Michelle: “I don’t have as many friends as some of the other girls in class.”
Michelle’s shoulds: I should be popular. I should be more outgoing and make friends with everyone. Everyone should like me and want to hang out with me. If I’m not as popular as everyone else, then I am no good. Because I don’t have as high a number of friends, it means that I am no good.
Converting Michelle’s shoulds into preferences. I prefer to be popular, but this isn’t always possible. People are different and have different personalities. Sometimes it’s better to have a few friends I truly care about than a lot of friends who I hardly know. I am OK as a person, whether I have 10 friends or 100. My friends do not define who I am as a person.
You’re allowed to have ideas on how you wish to present yourself in this world and how you want to be seen. However, those ideas are not always possible as we are complex beings living in a complex world. Remember to be forgiving of yourself and that the perceptions of others don’t have to be yours, too!
People let us down at times, and sometimes you might do things that you later regret. It is reasonable to be disappointed or annoyed when this happens. However, if you have very strong ‘shoulds’ about how people should behave, you may end blaming people for their actions. For example, “They should do the right thing!”, or perhaps, “I should do the right thing!”.
The problem with blaming is that it makes you feel angry and frustrated, but it doesn’t solve the problem. In the end, it is a waste of your energy. Even if other people are at fault, telling yourself that they should not be this way doesn’t change the situation—it just makes you feel bad.
Try it out
You can avoid getting upset in all sorts of situations by learning to think flexibly. This means learning to prefer things to be a certain way, but accepting that situations will not always be the way we would like them to be. Often times, life affords us a learning moment or the opportunity to have patience and forgiveness when things don’t go our way, and that’s okay.
Try it out! Try and identify any “shoulds” that cause you to feel bad, and change that should into a preference.
What thoughts are the sources of my pain and frustration?
How can I transform those thoughts into preferences?
What would be the advantages of doing this?
What would I need to say to myself to do this? (Hint: try repeating the mantra, “It is what it is”)
How might changing this should into a preference affect the way I feel and respond to those around me?
Information for this article was provided by:
This fact sheet came from: Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions. By: Dr Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond
Foundation for Life Sciences (2005) www.fls.org.au
Acknowledgements: This article was originally developed by youth and staff for us.ReachOut.com