Here’s one thing that can make depression worse: should-ing on yourself.
A should statement is a cognitive distortion. It’s based on an overly rigid rule inside your head that you aren’t able to live up to. Shoulds generate a lot of shame, and they just aren’t that helpful in actually creating change — they mostly just make us miserable and discouraged.
Is this what’s making you depressed?
The other day I asked a client how she was doing, and right off the bat she started shoulding on herself.
“Well, I’m not feeling very well,” she said. “I’m feeling kind of depressed. But I should be happy because things are going fine. I mean, I shouldn’t feel so down,” she said. “And I’ve got so much to do with the new baby and with my job. I should be spending more time with him, and I should be working harder, and I should be more grateful that I have a job at all.”
And she went on and on until I stopped her. She wasn’t sure why she was feeling depressed that week and neither was I, but I can absolutely tell you something that was making it worse: shoulding on herself.
What Is Shoulding?
Psychiatrist Karen Horney was among the first to notice a common pattern among people who felt guilty, depressed, and anxious: they constantly said “I should.” And so she called it “the tyranny of the should.”
So here are some examples of what shoulding sounds like: “I should be able to solve every problem quickly and easily.” “I shouldn’t feel this way.” “I should never need a rest.” “I should never make mistakes.” “I should be totally self-reliant.” “The world should be fair.” “My life shouldn’t be like this.” “He should be more responsible.” “Strawberries should be cheaper than French fries.” “I should be exercising more.” “I should spend more time with my kids.”
Now, a should statement is a cognitive distortion. It’s based on an overly rigid rule inside your head that you aren’t able to live up to. Shoulds generate a lot of shame. This way of talking to ourselves is like having a little shoulder angel constantly finding fault and criticizing you.
But shoulds just aren’t that helpful in actually creating change. They mostly just make us miserable and discouraged. Now, if we’re striving to live good lives, we will always desire to be a little better than we are. We will always wish for more time or energy or ability to do a little more or be a little better. We’ll often make mistakes.
This is normal. This is healthy. It sometimes hurts, but that’s also a good thing. The only way to not feel bad when we mess up is to try to stop caring about our life purpose and to give up on our dreams.
Unfortunately, this desire to be better, when paired with our human nature, our fallible nature, can turn into a dangerous pattern of shoulding all over ourselves. A desire to be kind gets warped into “I shouldn’t ever say no.” A desire to help turns into “I should be able to fix everyone’s problems.”
When we leave piles of should everywhere in our lives, it’s easy to become discouraged, overwhelmed, and feel like a shouldy person. Shoulding is a bad habit that sends a message to your brain that you’ll never be good enough. It creates hopelessness, which leads to depression. So how do we stop shoulding on ourselves?
How Do We Stop Shoulding on Ourselves?
In order to resolve these shouldy feelings, we’re going to use the emotion processing model: notice, pause, explore, clarify, and act. So the two shoulds we’re going to look at for our example are: number one, I should always be happy; and number two, I should spend more time with my kids.
Notice your "Shoulds"
So first, notice. Start by catching yourself doing it. You could decide that “I should” is a swear word and make a swear jar. You could ask a friend or family member to call you out when you say “I should.”
Or you could write down some of your shoulds. You can make a big list of them. Don’t filter them. You might need another page, or if you’re like me, a couple of pages. So depending on your list, you might have to just work through one or two of them at a time.
Okay. Second, pause. Practice acceptance and compassion, even for yourself. Let’s just start where we’re at. So even if you don’t want to be feeling this way, you are feeling this way. Acceptance just means acknowledging reality in the present moment. It doesn’t mean you have to feel this way forever. Sometimes when we stop resisting how we feel, we give ourselves a chance to actually resolve how we feel.
Or, for example, if you think, “Oh, my kids shouldn’t be acting this way. My boss shouldn’t act this way,” it just makes you feel angry and resentful. So instead say, “Oh, my child is acting this way. What will I do about it?” Or “My boss isn’t perfect. What actions will I take?” Stop putting so much energy into resisting reality, and instead shift your focus to what you can change instead.
Explore your "Shoulds"
Okay. Number three, explore your shoulds. So, what do you notice about them? What rules or values do these shoulds come from? So for example, there’s some ideas out there like, oh, men should never cry, women should never get angry, you should always be positive.
So to explore these underlying rules, one way to explore this is by filling in the blank: a good blank should . . . And then fill that blank in with your roles. Being a son, a good son should. A parent, a good parent should. A good worker should. A good Christian should. Etc. Etc.
So put your roles into that space and see if you can figure out what those shoulds are and where they came from. And then explore them some more.
Are these rules truthful? Are they helpful? Are they realistic? Are they distorted? Are they demanding? Are they crippling? Would you say them to a friend? How do these rules make you feel? Do they motivate you?
Ask yourself the question, “Why should I?” Explore the reason behind the shoulds. Where are these rules coming from? In her course on improving self-esteem, Dr. Carly LeBaron walks you through a process of exploring the rule behind your shoulds.
So for example, behind the “I should always be happy” is the rule that you’re not allowed to have feelings or you’re not allowed to make others uncomfortable. Now, when I believe these rules, they make me feel worse when I’m down. Do they help you?
How about the other example? Behind the “I should spend more time with my kids” is the idea, “Oh, I need to be a perfect parent. I must entertain my kids 100% of the time.” Or “I really value my kids, and I want them to feel loved.” Now, the first two rules make me feel never good enough. And the third rule is a little bit more motivating.
So just ask yourself, “Do these shoulds help me live my values? Do they help me live a rich and meaningful life?”
Clarify- I could vs. I will
Okay. Number four is clarify. So we’re going to split these shoulds into two categories, the “I could” category and the “I will” category.
So first we’re going to talk about the “I could” category. So we’re taking this “I should spend more time with my kids,” and we’re going to say, “I could spend more time with my kids.
I could take a break so that I’m a more engaged parent. I could try to be happy all the time. But that would be exhausting. I could accept my feelings as they come and go. Even if I am feeling down, I could still treat myself kindly. I could practice gratitude.”
So basically with coulds, we just toss out a bunch of options so we can choose which one will be most helpful or useful for you.
Now, this is really different from an “I should” statement. “I should” is really rigid. It’s the only right thing. And it creates an emotional reaction of just not being good enough. But when we have options, we have the freedom to choose to act on our values, not on whatever our brain is telling us we should be doing.
So as we clarify all these options, what do you really value? Which of these options seems to line up with your best self? Which option might be the most helpful to you in the long run?
And number five is act. Focus your energy and your attention on the action you choose. The action you choose is the “I will.” So choose which of these thoughts is going to be most helpful for you, and let go of the rules that aren’t helpful. Write down a few small actions you’ll take.
So for example, for my client, she might say, “Hmm, I’ll be gentle with myself and with my emotions.” Or instead of saying, “I should spend more time with my kids,” she could say, “I will take a break, and then I’ll come back and wrestle with my kids.”
So when my client started to recognize how the shouldy thinking pattern was making her feel worse, how it wasn’t helping her to get motivated, she started to say, “I don’t really like feeling down right now, but that is how I feel. And that’s okay because emotions come and go.”
And then she’d ask, “Oh, well, what action can I take?” And usually it was either choose to take a little rest and be gentle with herself or just take one small action towards mental health, like just going for a walk around the block or calling a friend to talk.
So instead of being stuck in the “Oh, I shouldn’t feel this way” purgatory, she freed herself to take a little more action and to be a little bit more compassionate with herself. Over time, she developed a better relationship with herself and with her emotions, and her depression gradually lifted.
For all of you out there,I hope you can start noticing your shoulds and replacing them with something that’s more helpful for you. How would your life be if you weren’t dragging a bag of should everywhere you go?
I hope this post is helpful. I hope you can learn to stop shoulding on yourself. Thank you for reading, and take care.