• Julie Datnow

6 Tips to Keep You From Shoulding all over your Self

A fundamental concept in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is that our thoughts are the drivers of what we feel which then dictates our behavior. Learning to recognize our automatic negative thoughts is the first step in creating changes in mood and behavior.



We all have powerful internal monologues. Our brains are a busy, noisy place. Buddhists coined the term “Monkey Mind” for the chaotic, distracting and frequently destructive mental chatter playing non-stop in our heads. Thankfully there are helpful tools and strategies to help calm, quiet and focus the mind so that the drunken monkeys are not running the show.



We all have habits in our thinking patterns. In CBT we call these patterns “Cognitive Distortions.” These thoughts are very powerful and often are the cause of anxiety, depression and relationship stressors. Cognitive distortions are often so powerful because we don’t recognize them when they pop up and we believe these thoughts to be true, when often they are anything but.


One of the common cognitive distortions is believing the frequent “Shoulds” and “Musts” we tell ourselves. Shoulds and Musts are judgements that somewhere along the way we have learned and deeply internalized.


One of the frustrating paradoxes of Shoulds and Musts is the more deeply they are internalized the harder it can be to achieve them.


Here are a few Should/ Must statements which may look familiar to you:

  • I should have children

  • I should be married

  • I must go to college

  • I shouldn’t have eaten that piece of cake

  • I should be thinner

  • I must exercise 30 minutes a day

  • I should have a nicer house

  • I should be able to retire by the time I am 65

  • I shouldn’t have yelled at my husband

  • I should give 10% of my income to my church

  • I must call my mother in law every Sunday


These should statements are all inward directed. They are messages of how “I should" be living. Should statements can also be outwardly directed such as:

  • My son must be a football player

  • My daughter should get into Harvard

  • My boyfriend shouldn’t wear that shirt

  • My wife should have dinner ready when I get home from work

  • My neighbor should rake his leaves more often

  • Everyone must vote Republican

  • Congress should’t have passed that law

  • My grocery store should sell vegan chocolate chip ice cream


The Neo-Freudian therapist Karen Horney wrote a book entitled “The Tyranny of the Shoulds.” She theorized that neuroticism stems from the struggle between the “real self” (or who we are) and the “ideal self” (who we should be).


According to Dr. David Burns, a psychiatrist and pioneer in CBT research, most human suffering stems from either internal shoulds (“I should have gotten a promotion at work”) or external shoulds (“Marriage should exclusively be between one man and one woman”). Internal shoulds bring about depression, guilt, shame, self harm, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts and actions. External shoulds bring about hostility and war. Burns argues that there are only 3 valid shoulds:


Moral Shoulds such as “Thou shall not kill”

Legal Shoulds such as “don’t drive 90 on the highway”

Universal Shoulds “if I drop this pen it will fall to the ground”


So now that you recognize your pattern of “Shoulding all over yourself” how can you go about changing it? The last thing any of us need is a list of more things they MUST do to be happier and healthier!


  1. Pay Attention- note how frequently you think or say what you or others should or must do/be/behave. Jot it down in a notebook or in your phone. Try to stay non judgmental about it. We are not trying to add to your should-list. Bringing awareness to how frequently in what context and about what themes your shoulds come up. If it usually self or other directed? Are they thoughts or do you say it out loud? How do you feel after saying or thinking the should? Are you mad, ashamed, guilty, disappointed? Just jot it down.

  2. Whose voice do you hear? Shoulds are usually learned early in life and often take on the voice of someone who , for better or worse, was an important teacher. Ironically, the messages inherent in the should often come from a place of love. The sender of the message wanted to encourage you to be your best self, live the happiest and most rewarding life. There is fear packed into the should as well. The what-ifs (which is a whole other cognitive distortion that I will address in a future post!) that might happen if you don’t follow this rule were clearly frightening to whomever implanted this powerful message in your subconscious. Whose voice is the should telling you you should be smarter, thinner, richer, a better athlete? Is it your mother or father? Your Priest or Rabbi? Gwyneth Paltrow? Often when we pay attention to the internalized message we can hear the voice of the person(s) who taught us the rules we learned to believe as absolutes.

  3. Is it true? Once we understand where we learned the powerful internalized message we can begin to explore if it is actually something we believe. Is it a message that we believe will make us happier, healthier, or more joyful? Is it something that you have actual control over? It doesn’t do a whole lot of good thinking “I should be 6’2” tall when you are actually 5”8”. Does it fall under one of the 3 valid Shoulds? Is it a law of natural law or law of physics? Because a statement like “nighttime should follow daytime” is true and doesn’t need to be debated. Telling oneself that they should not have stolen their neighbors new car is true. They shouldn’t have. They broke both legal and moral laws. If it doesn’t fall into one of the 3 valid shoulds and you still believe the message you can keep it. You might just need to change the delivery.

  4. Convert the Language- Often by merely changing the wording of the message we make it much more palatable. Rather than berating ourselves with “I should go running five days a week.” We can reframe the message as, “Ideally I would like to go running five days a week.” Shoulds or musts can become I want to, It would be great if, it would be healthy to or I hope to. Shouldn’ts can become I’d like to avoid, I’d rather not, it would be healthier if I didn’t. The language gives you the control and choice which is inherently absent in the should or must. Sometimes it is helpful to include specific why’s into the new less authoritarian message. “I am working towards running five days a week to improve my cardiovascular health. It is really hard to do. I am improving at it but some weeks I don’t make my goal, especially when it is raining.” Is kindler, gentler and probably more true than “If I don’t run 5 days a week like I should I am a lazy lout.”

  5. Be kind and generous- I am going to go out on a limb and guess that many of the shoulds or musts you tell yourself you would not say (at least out loud!) to your best friend. It is hard to imagine you sitting over coffee with a girlfriend and you telling her that she MUST do 50 sit ups after eating that muffin, but it is less hard to imagine someone saying that silently to ones’s self. Bring that same level of understanding and grace inward that you would project outward.

  6. Remember! these patterns in your thinking are just about as old as you are and as with most habits you will relapse. When and if that happens try to bring your awareness back and try again.


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