rachelBy: Rachel Folkman, CSW

Shoulda’ woulda’ … Or maybe just coulda.’

“I should never have let her go out with that boy.”
“I should have set more clear boundaries.”
“I should have told my son I loved him more often.” …

“Stop should-ing on yourself.”

This phrase coined by psychologist Clayton Barbeau and is frequently utilized by Albert Ellis, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT,) is common in the mental health field.

How often do we either look back on our past through the lens of “should have,” while conversely seeing our future through a similar lens of “I should…” My assumption would be most of us have thoughts containing “shoulds” and “musts” multiple times per day.

Each time we employ this thinking process, we are placing an expectation on what ‘needs’ to occur, before the incident even takes place. Language is one of our most powerful communication tools.

We evolve as adolescents into adulthood listening to the language of caretakers, teachers, friends, the news. A vast array of factors plays into how we view our reality. We form and shape our belief systems based on what we (and others) hear, observe, feel, think, experience. In our Euro-American culture, we have the habit of operating under a sequence of self-defeating thought patterns. Life places many expectations and demands on us, yet we have become accustomed to putting additional requirements and impossible standards of perceived perfection on ourselves as well. I want you to picture a close relationship you have with someone in your life.

This could be a partner, parent, child, etc. Reflect on a time when something did not work out as you had planned. Perhaps your child was expelled from school or began to use illegal substances.

What was your thought process surrounding this event? Did you have thoughts such as “I should have kept a closer eye on him, if I had, this would not have happened.” The fact is, it may or may not have happened, regardless of your actions or part in the situation. Using words such as “should,” creates what our brains perceive as a “truth” that did not occur, and our initial reaction is often the experience of shame and guilt.

Shame and guilt is a universal human emotion that many of us are all-too familiar with.

While certain forms of guilt can help us learn from our mistakes and propel us toward positive change, the vast majority of guilt will bring its friend shame along, tearing us down instead of bringing us up. When we “should on” ourselves, we are marketing a universal concept that there was one “right” way for things to have happened, and we may have failed in some way, by acting differently. Research has indicated that how we feel about ourselves, is often how we treat others. Our internal emotional energy and relationship with ourselves seeps out into our external relationships. Typically, if we are frequently “should-ing on” ourselves, we are “should-ing on” others as well.

When others actions do not align with what we believe they “should” be, there is likely to be a disconnect, where our idea of what is universally true comes to a sudden crash. This creates a higher likelihood of guilt, shame, and unhappiness on both sides.

Albert Ellis describes this as a “cognitive distortion,” or “irrational thinking.”

Irrational thoughts typically prevent us from reaching our goals, leading to self-defeating behaviors. Some examples of irrational thinking include: the mindset that there is a precise, true, and perfect solution to human struggle that must be found; the idea that unhappiness is caused by external factors, not something we can transform within ourselves; the concept that all suffering “must” be immediately assuaged, and it is within our power or responsibility to do so for others.

According to this theory, irrational thinking patterns distort reality, generating unhealthy emotions and requirements that often cannot be met. It is asserted that one method to living in a more rational state, creating stronger healthy emotional bonds with self and others, and experiencing peace, is operating from a viewpoint of acceptance.

This includes unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance, and life-acceptance. So, how do we operate from this space of acceptance?

This article is not meant to be a full introduction or explanation of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT,) the form of CBT developed by Albert Ellis, which informs much of this commentary.

Instead, let’s discuss one approach to decrease the frequency of “should-ing” on ourselves.

The opposite of “must,” is choice. As mentioned earlier, language is exceptionally powerful.

This includes our thoughts regarding self and others. The simple concept of replacing one word with another word is a studied method to shifting the meaning of a phrase, a thought, a conversation. Read the following examples out loud, listening intuitively for the difference you sense or hear between the two:

“I should have set this boundary long ago, now it is too late”
“I could have set this boundary long ago, but I did not. It could be too late for what I was hoping, or it could not be, and my child could understand.”

What did you find yourself experiencing, as you read both sentences out loud? What emotions arose after one, and then the other? For me, the first stanza carries with it a strong emotional charge of having not done something in the “correct” way, failing at some set point of achievement, and a sense of hopelessness hovers in my sequential thought processes. Though the situation did not change in the second stanza, a few specific words did. “Should” was replaced with “could,” and the ensuing inference generated a space of much more acceptance. Let’s try out another example:

“My 22-year-old should not be spending his money so recklessly,
he will never save enough for retirement!”
“My 22-year old could be spending his money differently, leaving more funds to save for his future. He could choose differently, however, he is not.”

The hope that your child adheres to your value of saving and planning ahead does not change. The fact that your child’s actions do not align with this value does not change. What changes is viewing the situation through a rational lens of reality and acceptance. By simply replacing “should” with “could,” your internal requirement that something take place, which is not, is assuaged, guilt is lessened, and a sense of peace may ensue. Imagine how different a conversation with your child could go, when these few words are replaced and a lens of acceptance of personal autonomy is employed. In the last stanza, I added another word we could replace should with: choose.

We all have the choice.

“I should get up and run the errands I won’t have time for later this week.”
“I choose to get up and run the errands I won’t have time for later this week,”
“I could get up and run errands, or I could not. I won’t have much time later this week. They will get done eventually if not today.”

“Stop should-ing on yourself!”

For me, the first phrase carries with it an external responsibility to complete something that I do not want to do. I follow by running the errands because I feel I should, and if they are not completed, a sense of guilt and frustration arises. The second phrase takes the universal belief that there are specific timelines to accomplishing something out of the equation. I recognize and accept that I have full choice in every decision, and every decision has consequences. The consequences do not have to include guilt and frustration (notice me removing the “must” sentiment from that story.) When I accept the onus of choice, (which we act on continually regardless of our acknowledgment of it,) I create space for life to go one way, or another, simply based on my decision in that moment. The construct of a universal right way to do something dissipates.

Perfection does not exist, and the idea that we must do or be one thing or the other is a set up for feeling failure.

Maybe you will resonate with the concept of shifting language into a space of acceptance; maybe you will not; you could, or you could not.

In any case, I choose to not “should on” you, my reader, nor on myself. This is a continual process, every day, a direct confrontation to everything we have been taught. Take what you will into your life’s practice, and leave the rest. If it resonates with you, remember you can always:

“Stop should-ing on yourself (and others).”