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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jon

Stop Shoulding On Yourself!

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Many people seek counseling for things they feel like they should or should not be doing.

Counselors joke amongst themselves when clients have irrational shoulds in their lives saying their clients are 'shoulding on themselves.'

Clients equate these shoulds to expectations. They oftentimes refer to these expectations as baggage. Here's how you can discern between fostering healthy beliefs and being hijacked by unhealthy beliefs:

There is little hope of solving a problem if you cannot first accurately identify the problem.

We get derailed when we begin to adopt black-and-white, this-or-that thinking. Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutes in life. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about taking specific virtues and exaggerating them to unnecessary shoulds in your mind. For example, the virtue of selflessness can easily shift into an unhealthy belief such as, “I should always consider the needs of others and never my own.” 

Many counselors combat this type of thinking by working with their clients to remove the word should from their vocabulary altogether.

This can be dangerous.

It can remove the only means of self-control available to the client. By doing this, many people are guided into shameless lives where shoulds simply don’t exist.

Like petulant 5-year olds their perpetual cry is, 'Don’t judge me!' (Interestingly, their proclamation is in itself a judgment.) It's shortsighted to deconstruct a person’s concept of right and wrong without replacing it with a healthier framework of understanding.

Shoulds are not always wrong. The way to untangle the right ones from wrong ones is to ask why. Why is a powerful question because it plunges us into the details of our own beliefs. Healthy shoulds can be supported with sound reasoning. For example, the statement “I should be faithful to my spouse,” can be supported with sound reasoning: you should be faithful to your spouse because of the sadness, anger, and destruction that occurs when a spouse is unfaithful.

Every healthy should can be supported with a why. 

Imagine a woman named Kate, who attended a church where shoulds were haphazardly preached from the pulpit every week. She left church every Sunday afternoon feeling guilty and anxious, convinced she couldn’t do anything right.

She carried many unwarranted shoulds:

I should help out at church with everything they ask about.

I should never be angry.

I should be able to meet all my kids’ needs.

The list goes on and on. In time, Kate learned to ask herself why:

Why should I help with everything I hear about?

Why should I never be angry or feel like I need to meet all my kids’ needs?

As she applied her newfound skill to her pastor’s sermons she was able to extract the good without taking on the inappropriate guilt and unnecessary anxiety. Eventually, Kate began to accept more realistic beliefs about herself.

Don’t eliminate shoulds from your thinking entirely.

Instead let shoulds trigger why questions.

Whenever we catch ourselves thinking of a should, we can learn to ask why. This challenges the belief we hold to be true.

When we ask why, unhealthy shoulds collapse under the weight of honest examination.

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