When You’ve Got a Case of the Shoulds

Many of my clients identify their goals for treatment as the following: 1. Improve their overall moods. 2.  Develop better coping skills. Eventually, many of my clients articulate that they are still struggling with their depression, anxiety, or overall stress management despite trying to utilize these coping strategies.  This is where we start to explore their thought patterns to determine if unhelpful thought patterns (frequently referred to as cognitive distortions) are contributing to their depression or anxiety related symptoms.

Aaron Beck developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the 1960’s and the basic concept is that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all related and impact each other. If you have more frequent negative or unhelpful thought patterns, you might struggle with regulating your moods and have unfavorable responses to stressful situations. By increasing awareness of these unhelpful thought patterns, an individual is more likely to be able to alleviate their mood and adjust their response to stressful situations.

One of the most common distortions contributing to depression, anxiety, and overall stress is “the shoulds and shouldn’ts.” This rigid thought pattern creates the irrational belief that things “should be” a certain way.  It contributes to insecurity, self doubt, and self judgement within a person. The fact is we all have a “case of the shoulds” at one time or another. But without awareness of this unhelpful thought pattern, we can spiral into negative thought patterns and increase our own depression, anxiety, or stress. So let’s explore how this looks.

Examples of should or shouldn’t distortions:

  • “I should always be making others feel comfortable.”
  • “I shouldn’t have been upset when my partner yelled at me.”
  • “I should be further along in my career.”
  • “I should go to the family party despite feeling uncomfortable, because they are my family.”
  • “I should be the perfect parent.”

So what do we do when we recognize these unhelpful thoughts? Awareness is half the battle. Try some these basic strategies to address the shoulds:

  • Check your facts. What is my evidence?
  • Reframe. Is there a different way to look at this stressor or situation? Do I have a realistic expectation for myself or others?
  • Explore the source. What factors in my life are impacting this belief that I should or shouldn’t be doing something or feeling this way? Are their underlying issues such as comments from others, social media, or job/school performance ratings contributing to these shoulds?

So how can we reframe the above examples of the shoulds/shouldn’ts?

  • “I could try to make others feel comfortable, but it might not always be possible.”
  • “It’s okay to be upset when my partner yelled at me. I could let them know how I’m feeling.”
  • “I would like to be further along in my career.” (Explore the barriers to this i.e. pandemic, family obligations, lack of opportunities within current employer, unhealthy work environment.)
  • “If I go the family party, will they be negative and critical of me? Can I limit my time at the party or see certain family members with whom I get along with in another setting or individually? If I go to the party will I be anxious the entire time and unable to relax?
  • “Perfect parents do not exist and it is okay to make mistakes I do a lot to take care of my children the best that I can.”

So go ahead and challenge those shoulds (or shouldn’ts) if you recognize them in your thought patterns. You might realize how often this thought pattern contributes to your stress levels. This will give you a new tool to help alleviate stress and help you to be kinder to yourself. Hopefully, by noticing these thoughts, you can find a new perspective with less judgement to alleviate some stress.