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Unhealthy Thinking Patterns: Should Statements

One of the unhealthy thinking patterns I struggle with the most (and the one I see many creatives struggle with often) is “should” statements.

Should statements can tear down your confidence and sense of self-worth. They can demotivate you. They can take a demoralizing situation or circumstance and make it so much worse.

In short, should statements don’t serve you at all. 

What should statements are

A should statement is pretty straightforward: it’s a statement you tell yourself that expresses what you think you “should” be doing/thinking/saying, how you think you “should” be, etc.

When talking about should statements, it’s important to note that every “should” statement exists only within our minds. There’s a reason I define should statements as what you think you should be doing. It’s because no “should” is universal. There is no set criteria that everyone is measured against.

In reality, there’s no such thing as “should.”

Should statements are ultimately comparative: they compare reality to possibility. The big problem is when you do that, reality is going to come up short, every time. 

In other words, where we are now is never as good as where we think we “should” be. Should statements leave you in a state of discontent—about yourself and your life.

“Should” is not part of the recipe for “happy.”

What should statements look like

Should statements are easy to identify, because they include some form of the word “should” or one of its synonyms.

“I should be able to handle this”
“Public speaking shouldn’t be so hard for me.”
“I ought to have this figured out by now.”
“I should say yes more often.”

Some “shoulds” aren’t expressly stated, but are implied. These statements might sound like:

“Why haven’t I called that friend in so long?” (Implication: I should call them more)
“When will I ever learn?” (Implication: I should already know this.)
“I’m so annoyed with myself!” (Implication: I shouldn’t be feeling this way.)

To be fair, some should statements can be helpful, if (and only if) they motivate immediate action, such as:

“I should put gas in the car tonight so I don’t have to stop tomorrow morning.”
“I should study for that exam.”
“We need clean dishes for tomorrow; I should run the dishwasher.”

Each of these examples leads to a clear and immediate action. These are the only kinds of should statements that can actually benefit you. 

Why they are harmful

As a longtime sufferer of should-ism, I am well acquainted with the negative effects of should statements.

They compound the bad.

Should statements come up as a reaction to something that we perceive as “bad”—a negative character trait, a mistake, a missed opportunity, etc. We’re already experiencing negative feelings about that “bad” experience, but when we add a should statement to the mix, we’re just piling more bad on to the heap.

For example, if you miss a deadline at work, you might be tempted to think, “What is wrong with me? I should be able to hit all my deadlines!”

This should statement doesn’t motivate you to take immediate action. It doesn’t uplift you or motivate you. And perhaps most importantly: it doesn’t change the fact that you missed the deadline.

The only thing it does is compound negative energy on top of existing negative energy. You still missed the deadline, and now, you’re beating yourself up over it.

They contribute to guilt and shame

When you think in should statements, you send yourself on a guilt trip. You convince yourself not only that you messed up, but that you “shouldn’t” have messed up, for one reason or another.

Similarly, should statements aggravate shame. Shame is easily triggered by comparison, and should statements compare your current self with your imagined ideal self. Of course you’re going to feel shame when you think you “should” be better!

People with mental health struggles, including depression, anxiety, and panic disorder, can have a particularly hard time with this. These people may recognize their sad, anxious, or fearful feelings, but because they think they “shouldn’t” have those feelings, they become even more anxious or avoidant.

They put unreasonable demands on us

Should statements represent ideals. They describe the best versions of ourselves. When we use them, we are putting unreasonable pressure on ourselves to achieve that unrealistic, lofty ideal. We are telling ourselves we should be perfect, when in reality, there’s no such thing. 

Such unreasonable demands can easily lead to burnout, depression, and feelings of inadequacy.

How they affect you as a creative

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, creatives seem to have a hard time with should statements. 

Like other unhealthy thinking patterns, should statements can be paralyzing for creatives. Consider this:

“I should be able to come up with a great idea.”

When you think this thought, any idea that doesn’t automatically qualify as “great” feels inadequate. This could deny you the opportunity to brainstorm or to develop weak ideas into strong ones. Essentially, “should-ing” on yourself makes you less likely to even try. 

Should statements also cause you to ignore your true self and/or your true feelings—both of which are absolutely essential when it comes to creating in an authentic, meaningful way.

Embracing yourself—imperfections and all—is the only way to create wholeheartedly. And telling yourself you “should” be something you’re not is only going to create unnecessary turmoil and hold you back from creativity and growth.

How to overcome should statements

How can you stop should-ing all over yourself? Once you’ve recognized that the unhealthy thinking pattern of should statements is a problem for you, there are a few exercises you can try.

Write them down and say them out loud.

When you catch yourself thinking a should statement, write it down. Repeat it back to yourself (preferably while looking in a mirror). Or pretend you’re saying it to someone else.

Chances are, the statement is going to sound a lot harsher when you bring it outside your mind. When you recognize just how harsh it is, and how hard you’re being on yourself, it will probably be easier to recognize that it’s an unhealthy thought, which will allow you to let it go.

Change “I should” to “I could” (or something similar).

Remember: should statements are always false. There is no such thing as “should.” 

With that in mind, when a should statement tries to sneak in, try adjusting it to be both more realistic and more gentle.

Let’s say you haven’t spoken to a good friend for a long time. You might think, “I should call them more.”

Try changing it to “I could call them more,” or “I would like to call them more,” or even, “I wish we had more time to talk.” 

These alternatives take the pressure off of the situation while providing a realistic look at your feelings. They are also much more likely to motivate you to take action. 

Find what really motivates you.

Some people justify their use of should statements by saying that should statements make them feel motivated or spurred on. What they “should” be, they say, makes them want to take action to actually become that.

The problem is, we’ve already established that that’s not true. In fact, should statements often leave you feeling demotivated and discouraged. 

Instead of resorting to should statements to try to motivate yourself, do some introspection to find out what actually motivates you. Then, when should statements pop up, recognize them as unhelpful and latch on to your real motivation instead.

Real motivators could be: love, relationships, passion, individuality, ambition, capability, security, etc.

Give yourself some grace.

I believe that very few people give themselves the credit they deserve. That feeling of inadequacy is what leads to “should” thinking.

Celebrate your efforts. Acknowledge the work you’re putting into creating a life you love. Give yourself as much grace as you can. You are doing the best you can, and that is always, always good enough. 

Unhealthy thinking patterns, like should statements, keep us separated from our truest selves and from the happiness we seek. They convince us that we’re not good enough, that we don’t deserve happiness, that we’ll never measure up, and that we should be something we’re not.

The only thing you should be is exactly who you are. Don’t let anyone—not even yourself—tell you otherwise. 

Be the person you are meant to be.

Design.org can help you break free from unhealthy thinking patterns and “create happy” in your life. Start today by taking our free assessment!