Stop “Shoulding” All Over Yourself



“Should” is an important part of our moral compass. It guides rules and obligations, indicates what we care about, and ultimately holds us accountable for our actions and how our behaviour affects others. You’ve probably found yourself in an increase of “shoulds” dealing with COVID-19. I should get outside today, I should help home-school my child, I should put on pants in the morning…

Should by itself is not harmful when used appropriately and not in excess. “I should say please when requesting something” means I adhere to social obligations to be appreciative and I respect the time and energy of others. “I should turn up to work today” means I value my work ethic, and probably also fear the ramifications of my fleeting lazy impulses and its impact on others.  “I should look both ways before I cross the street” means I care about my safety, road rules, and would very much like not to get hit by a car.

While including “shoulds” in our life is not a bad thing, if the majority of our behaviour is driven by should, we live a life guided by obligation rather than free choice. “I should eat healthy” denotes I am morally bad if for whatever circumstances it is either difficult to arrange a healthy meal, or my intuitive hunger would be much better satiated by something a little more indulgent. With the addition of should, my drive to take care of my body and mind is driven by a fear of guilt and “badness”, rather than a choice to self-care. Ick!

In addition, “should”, largely based on rules and rituals, falls under the most black and white of thinking. So, what happens when the behaviour in question is not so clear cut? We would all like to be driven to be better, kinder, “self-actualised-kind-of-people”, but life is not so simple. Conflicts occur when what you feel you should do contradict with want you want to do. “I should spend time with my *insert special person here*, but I want an afternoon of quiet and self-care”. Should “should” always win in this dilemma?

There’s this general misconception that if we were to somewhat reduce our “shoulds” we would be selfish, lazy, horrible people. But I believe that is not so. If we were to reduce our “should”, a lot of us still want to be kind, productive, fair people. The only difference is want isn’t so set in stone; it is more about actively reflecting on our values and needs, and being motivated to flexibly act on choices, rather than relying on socialised rules and rituals that oblige us to behave in certain ways.

So if you would like to feel less guilt, and you would like to more directly meet your intuitive needs, perhaps try adopting the following practices:

Should vs. Want

Ask yourself throughout the day “If I dropped the “should” in my mind, and the fear of negative emotional consequences (judgement, self-criticism, guilt), would I still want to do this? Also, is this behaviour most in line with my own values and morals?”; if the answer is two no’s, play around with not always obliging yourself.

Increase self-care

Make sure to always do at least one thing a day (even if it’s small or for a short amount of time) that you want to do (again, provided it is in line with your morals and values). Naturally, like all healthy adults, you still need to play around with the balance between adequate self-care versus “too much of a good thing”. So walk the middle path. Enjoy whatever you want for a bit, balance it out with your other adult responsibilities and be glad you engaged in a bit of self-care!

Be compassionate

Practise some self-compassion when you “fail” some of your own “shoulds”. Remember they are there to guide behaviour, but that you will inevitably encounter times when you are unable to meet either your own or other’s expectations. You’re human, which means you’re imperfect, and that’s ok! Embrace the “fail”, figure out what you can learn from it, and try again.

Don’t should your emotions

Whatever you do, don’t apply rules and obligations to your emotions. Leave these for behaviours (e.g. instead of “I shouldn’t be angry” try “I shouldn’t throw a chair across the room”). Be aware of the impact of guilt and shame when we “should” our emotions. When has “I should be happy” ever made someone feel happier? While you might feel emotions are partly guided by rules and the social expectation to “be positive”, they are far more likely informed by evolutionary impulses, your brain, and internal experiences like thoughts and beliefs. Try to figure out and normalise what you might be experiencing before trying to “should” your way out of it!

Jessica is a Clinical Psychology Registrar with experience working in outpatient, inpatient and day program settings. She works with a range of presentations, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and trauma. Jessica has a special interest in working with children, adolescents and adults experiencing eating disorders and recently published an article on Family Based Therapy (FBT) for Adolescent Anorexia Nervosa in the Journal of Eating Disorders, which you can read here.


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