If you have gone to therapy with me, or maybe even if you are a friend of mine, you may hear me say from time to time: “Don’t SHOULD on yourself!” And then sometimes in jest I have said, “It’s bad enough when we should on ourselves, but it is really rude when we should on others.”
Shoulding happens! It’s a really common “cognitive distortion” (which is therapist speak for messed up thinking that may not be based in reality). Catching cognitive distortions and challenging them can be a key to feeling better. So many of our thoughts are automatic and are running in the background….and can lead to anxiety and depression. There are several common cognitive distortions out there. Today I am talking about shoulding.
Instinctively, you probably know what I am talking about. We say, “I really should wake up earlier” or “I should have raised my hand when I didn’t understand the teacher.” It can come in the negative, too. “I shouldn’t have made that joke to my friend when she was talking about her dog dying.” And then it can be sneaky and not even use the word “should.” It might have the word “ought” or “must.”
The danger of should is that it is a way we punish ourselves, shame ourselves. The part of us doing the shoulding may think it is trying to help….to motivate us to change or avoid discomfort. But….it tends to create more pain, and we end up feeling worse and seldom is it long-term effective in creating change. No one really likes to be forced to change or shamed and humiliated into change. Not even when we are the ones doing the forcing, shaming, or “motivating.”
Another thing I say quite a bit is: “Awareness is half-way there.” Just become aware of when you should on yourself. Notice it. An alternative title I considered for this blog post is, “Oops, I should on myself.” And if you are wondering, the play on words here is on purpose. I think it helps us to make light of this shoulding we do. But….and this is an important but here….my hope is that it keeps us from shoulding about our shoulding. Make a little joke about shoulding on yourself. And then if you want to take it to the next level, write the thought out and see if you come up with a way to re-say it. I personally like getting curious…. “I wonder how things would be different if I set my alarm earlier each morning.” Or….”I wonder what my friend thought when I made that joke.” Sometimes we can be more positive and proactive. “I didn’t understand that concept the teacher was talking about. When can I meet with them and ask some questions?’
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