Day 5: What I SHOULD (and SHOULDN’T) be doing

Here’s something else I like to rail about:


Another psychological epidemic that does not help, I passionately believe.

Examples of some recent Should thoughts for me: “I should write that second blog entry about Feeling Too Good, already.” “I shouldn’t have promised I’d write something the next day and then not followed through.”

Those are pretty mild Should’s, actually, causing manageable discomfort. I can shrug those off pretty easily.  But here are examples of More Painful Should’s I Have Known (personally and witnessing in others):

I should have known better.  

I should be at a different place in life.

I shouldn’t feel this way.


Do you notice how Should’s are often about something we can’t change in the past? And do you notice how Should’s can be sticks we use to beat ourselves up, as a way to motivate ourselves to do something? If you use Should’s in that way, let me ask you this: do they work?  And if they do “work” at times, what toll do they take?  What effect do they have on you? Are there ways you might motivate yourself more gently, less overwhelmingly, less exhaustingly, more effectively?

A friend said the other day that he has just started noticing the Should’s in his thoughts, and, with some shock, he’s realizing how constantly they come up. He’s noticing an endless stream of these suckers running through his head: I should know this already, I should have gotten more done, I shouldn’t be doing that this way, should this, shouldn’t that, should should should ALL THE FRIGGIN’ TIME.

Like I said, a Psychological Epidemic.

Okay, so far in This Year of Living Non-Judgmentally, I think I’ve identified three Psychological Epidemics.  (I’m now going to re-read my own posts  and double-check this) (and increase the views but not the visitors, I’m newbie-ly guessing).

Yep!  Here are the three I’ve identified so far: (1) Caring What Other People Think, (2) The Fear of Feeling Too Good,  and (3) Should’s.

By the way, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)  has a term for  what I’m calling Psychological Epidemics. CBT calls them Cognitive Distortions.   Should’s are one of the 13 Cognitive Distortions identified by CBT. (Another cognitive distortion is Mindreading, which, as you can see, is related to Caring What People Think.) (The topic of Mindreading, I’m SURE, will reappear in future blog entries.) (And by predicting that, I’m not just Fortune Telling, another one of the 13 distortions.)

I think that term — “Cognitive Distortion” — can sound pretty judgmental. Somebody might feel like they’re being called “distorted” for thinking in Should’s. That’s  why I sometimes use the term “unhelpful thoughts” instead.

But whatever we wanna call ’em, we all have ’em.  Or let me be more precise. I’ve yet to meet anybody who doesn’t think in Should’s.

And here’s another Should I witness all the time: “I Shouldn’t Be Thinking in Shoulds.”

Arrrghh!  Look how endless and self-perpetuating the judgment can be!

So I believe that — no matter how we try — we’re not going to stop thinking in Should’s.  However,  noticing and naming Shoulds — and other unhelpful thoughts — can help. A LOT.

Let me put it this way: if you don’t notice an Unhelpful Thought/Cognitive Distortion,  it will feel like the TRUTH. An unchallenged and indisputable truth.

And it’s not, dear reader.

(Should I have ended that way?)  (Yes!)

Categories: personal growth | Tags: , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “Day 5: What I SHOULD (and SHOULDN’T) be doing

  1. Carol goodman

    So sweet!!!
    In the 12 step programs(which some people experience as shaming) they say “don’t should on yourself”.
    I agree w everything you say here and I love how you are saying it!
    Shoulds have other purposes, as well- because their underlying message and effect is paradoxical – like you said, they rarely result in achievement, rather, they contract a person, not nourish, because they are fear based. I would argue, they are structures, like tooth pick ladders, that keep us connected to people who tried to instruct us —in-struct– create structures and beliefs that would help us govern our own actions and inhibit subversive behavior that might leave us out of or limit our “success” in desirable social and economic networks.
    I think “should” is so ubiquitous because it keeps us connected, oddly, to those people we loved and tried to please. It’s a young part, maybe almost primitive – like the old transactual analysis concept of the fear based internalized parent: I think the terms used were “critical parent”and “witch-parent”.
    Sometimes, stopping the onslaught of “shoulda” is laced with grief, followed hopefully, by relief!

  2. Debbie Terman

    A therapist friend of mine once suggested to me to replace “should” with “could”, as in, “I *could* clean out the basement today, but instead I choose to …..” instead of “I *should” clean out the basement today” (flog, flog, flog)

  3. Barbara Lipps

    II have recently seen the power of noticing and labeling these cognitive distortions in the people I care about. (I’m thinking it may be easier to recognize these unhelpful thoughts in others, than in myself.) But when I was able to point out a cognitive distortion to a close friend who had become very stressed and anxious over something she should have done, she paused, and considered an alternative truth.

    I love learning about these cognitive distortions from you. It’s a ver accessible way to understand how our minds work and to choose a course correction.

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