On the Topic of "Should's"

by Monica Ross

Sometimes when listening to my clients tell their story, their reason for coming into therapy, I hear a lot of “should's.” I hear I should be behaving differently, or I shouldn’t feel the way that I feel, or that others shouldn’t be doing the things that others are doing. We all say "should's" just in regular everyday speech.  So it doesn't surprise me that people would come into therapy using the same language. But, why do we do it to ourselves and to others?  I think we say these things on the one hand because of the idea that there could be an alternative or more healthy way of handling things in life that pushes us towards the direction of change. We acknowledge that we want to strive to do better or we want for others to strive to do better.  So we allude to there being some form of correctness.

And that is a good thing.  But, what sometimes happens is that we get into a kind of repetitive mental self-talk.  We reflect on causes and consequences and ignore problem-solving steps.  I should have done this and I didn't and this is what happened.  And in doing this type of self-criticism we believe that we are motivating ourselves to do better next time. Dr. Kristin Neff talks about self-criticism as a form of self-motivation here in her TED Talk and how it doesn't work.

While it is true that there could be a healthier way of handling things at any given point in time, self-criticism probably isn’t the way to get us there. What self-criticism often does is puts us in a position of placing unreasonable demands and expectations on ourselves and others. We know that expectation often leads to disappointment.  Maybe it's best to develop a kind of "it is what is it is" philosophy until we can get ourselves the point where we are ready to embrace and accept the change that we seek.

So, how do we navigate things in the meantime? We have this desire to do better for ourselves and for other people to do better as well and at the same time we trip over our efforts time and again because we are fallible human beings.  This is where compassion steps in—both compassion for others and compassion for ourselves. In the short-term, telling yourself you’re fat and need to put the donut down might get you to produce the behavior you desire in the moment, but it doesn’t seem to be a sustainable way of achieving your goals long-term.

We tend to go back to the behavior only this time we really come down ourselves. Instead it’s helpful to take the approach that we all, none of us, are perfect. And none of us suffers in isolation with our various issues. We are all suffering together. We have a common humanity to reference back to Dr. Neff's TED talk.  What do we mean by common humanity? It's the ability to hold in our awareness our suffering instead of ignoring it, but not be so caught up in the thoughts and feelings of suffering that we become reactive.  Our suffering as a human species is mutual and draws us closer to each other.

What do I mean by reactive or reactivity? Well you’ll know it when you see it and feel it. Reactive behavior tends to come about because of automatic thinking. So it often plays out like this...we have a negative belief about ourselves. For example, “I am bad.” We go out into the world and encounter a situation that triggers this belief about ourselves. For example, we get pulled over for speeding.

A person who becomes reactive in that instance might get angry at the officer thinking here is yet another example of someone calling them out on being bad. So the person may get defensive, shout, tear up the ticket.  Another way of handling the situation might be to take a deep breath and respond instead of react.

We don’t have control over other people or oftentimes of the situation we find ourselves in, but we always at the end of the day have the ability to choose how we will respond. In the speeding ticket example, if that person could let go of the core belief that they are bad, then there is nothing to be triggered. They can take responsibility for speeding without perceiving the officer to be someone who is there to point out a weakness that doesn’t exist.

So to sum things up, let's not force ourselves or others into "should's."  Maybe the approach might be to deal with what is and in the meantime problem solve to get things to the place where we would like for them to be.  We are all this world suffering together to a certain extent.  When we bump up against something in our environment that triggers our suffering it is helpful to respond instead of react.  This tends to get easier once we truly know our value or worth and can let go of negative core beliefs which really are based on falsities.