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The Tyranny of “Should” Thoughts: 3 Questions to Fight Back

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

One of the most common and most problematic types of unhelpful cognitions are “should” thoughts.¹ Sometimes they take the form of thinking you “should” want or not want something, be some special way, or meet some particular (and usually arbitrary) standard. Other times, “should” thoughts are embedded in a deeper sense of whether our actions or someone else’s behaviors are right or wrong. These thoughts are often so deeply ingrained into our way of seeing the world that we might not even notice their presence.

These slippery and subtle “should” thoughts are worth trying to catch because they can really get in the way of our happiness, positive relationships with others, and ability to fix the real problems in our life. How many times have you found yourself upset with a friend or spouse because they weren’t acting the way that you thought they should? Or tried to motivate yourself by telling yourself that you should do something, only to find you want to do it even less? I’ve seen people get so caught up with how a particular situation should be different than it is that they can’t even take steps to fix the problem.

Here are some questions you might ask when you catch yourself stuck in a “should” cycle:

  1. Why? Where does this “should” come from? There are certainly things we all should do, like stop at red lights and brush our teeth, but most of the shoulds that we tell ourselves aren’t legal edicts or prescriptions from our doctors. Often, our ideas of how we should be or how the world should be have emerged from our life experiences, and not always in a way that is helpful. Who said you should be a certain size or be able to get perfect grades? If this “should” doesn’t come from law enforcement, see if you can instead choose a more flexible or realistic standard.
  2. Can I instead use language around choice? Changing “I should go running this morning” to “I choose to go running this morning” or even “I get to go running this morning” leads to a very different cycle of emotions and behaviors.
  3. Can I open up to accepting things as they are, right in this very moment? Sometimes we take the perfect or best-case scenario and think it should always be that way, even though that is not realistic. We are imperfect beings, the people around us are imperfect, and this world is certainly not a perfect place. It’s usually not helpful to spend time banging your head against the reality of the way things are. Ironically, if you can start from a place of acceptance that this just is right now, you can free up the mental energy to figure out how to move forward in a way that brings you closer towards how you want things to be.

[1] Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: Guilford.

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