Cognition distortions are negative thought patterns that reinforce harmful beliefs and block the progress of recovery.
Should statements are a type of cognitive distortion that happen when someone is constantly dissatisfied with whatever’s occurring in the present moment. If they’re doing something, they should be doing something else. If nothing is happening, something should be happening. If something is happening, something else should be happening.
This negative judgment extends to other people, who should be saying, thinking or feeling whatever you think they should—anything else is just plain wrong.
When you get caught up in should statements, you feel guilty about what you’re doing, saying, or thinking because you’re violating these artificial rules you’ve constructed. That self-criticism can lead right to wanting to harm or soothe yourself with excess food or alcohol, by restricting food, purging, or over-exercising, or through body obsession.
When the should statements take over relationships, you may feel anger and resentment that other people aren’t doing what they should, according to your definition of what should be happening. This leads to disappointment and hurt feelings.
When you first start monitoring your thoughts and words for “should,” “must,” or “ought to,” you might be surprised at how often they come up, yet that awareness is key to healing this cognitive distortion and moving towards more compassionate thought patterns.
You may also find it helpful for a therapist to gently reflect back to you when they hear should statements—you may not even realize you’re making them.
Ideally, you want to reframe your wishes into choices, not shoulds.
Instead of, “I should go for a walk tonight,” say, “I will go for a walk tonight,” making a commitment, or, “I want to go for a walk because I want to clear my thinking or improve my mood.” Sometimes I encourage my clients to say, “I get to….”
If you notice your anger flaring up when someone isn’t doing what you think they should, practice letting go of being in charge of other people. You may think, “I wish she would get some help for that problem, but that’s her choice,” or, “I don’t like the way he left the dishes on the counter, but I can choose not to fight about it.”
Do you get caught up in what you and others should be doing? How does it feel to think of things in terms of a choice?