Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

What should I be doing right now? Probably a lot of things. For instance, I have a list full of to-dos that really should have been checked off two days ago, but for some reason no matter how long I stare at those items they aren’t actually being completed. Funny how that works.

Or maybe I should be packing for my trip to Penn State this weekend. Or maybe I should be doing the dishes from dinner so my parents don’t have to do them when they get home from church. Or maybe I should be responding to the numerous text messages that I’ve read today without bothering to reply.

The fact is, if I think about it enough, there’s ALWAYS something I should be doing that I’m not. That’s true for everyone; we’re hit with “should”s from all around us every day. There’s some new finding in the news that says we should stop eating red meat or disable certain services on our computer or exercise more or watch this new TV show…it’s exhausting. And in a world like this, it’s so easy to constantly “should” all over yourself.

“Should” statements are one of the cognitive distortions associated with CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Basically, some people get into a pattern of thinking in terms of what they “should” be doing or thinking rather than what is actually beneficial to them. Often these statements are based on external triggers – for example, the idea that a person should look a certain way in order to be attractive – but they can also stem from internal pressures that may not have any logical cause. I’m not an expert in CBT by any means, so the best example I can give is one I have personally struggled with, which is an eating disorder thought. Eating disorders love “should” statements because they have a unique way of making you feel guilty if you disobey. Once that sneaky little voice comes into your head and says, “You shouldn’t be eating that, it’ll make you fat,” every bite you take is riddled with shame. “You should skip lunch today” carries the same unpleasant emotions. Eventually, to avoid the constant feeling of guilt and inadequacy, it gets easier to let the “should”s make decisions for you.

While I was in treatment, one of the counselors noticed that when I spoke with her I used the word “should” as a part of almost every thought. She challenged me to carry my notebook around with me for 24 hours and write down every “should” statement as soon as it formulated in my brain. And let me tell you, I only did it for eight hours, because by that point the list was already 3.5 pages long and I was tired of writing. It was certainly sufficient for the counselor to make her point – I spend a whole lot of my time worrying about what I should and shouldn’t be doing, feeling, thinking, eating, saying, writing, literally anything. If I started to notice that I was feeling angry, for example, I might tell myself I shouldn’t be angry right now. Okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m angry, and now in addition to that anger I feel guilty, so I’ve pretty much just exacerbated the problem. Or maybe if I was feeling okay during a meal that was particularly challenging for others at the table, I might think, This should have been harder for me. I shouldn’t have been okay with that meal. I mean, seriously, what? Logically, these statements are totally irrational and unhelpful. Why the hell can’t I be okay with eating a meatball sub? Technically, isn’t it a GOOD thing that I got through it without crying?

So what’s the lesson I learned here? Well, when I showed my list to the counselor (who, I might add, laughed out loud at some of the more ridiculous items), she told me I had already done the hardest part – recognizing that the overwhelming number of times the word “should” floated through my brain was not ideal. We went through each item one by one, discussing how every statement could be reality-checked and/or whittled down into a much less extreme statement. For example, I shouldn’t be angry right now might become I’m feeling angry right now, and I’m not sure why. Amazingly, that simple edit manages to delete all the associated guilt and shame associated with the statement. I am no longer doing anything wrong. In fact, I am in tune with my emotions, which will allow me to properly experience and regulate them. Which is a good thing! Instead of feeling like I’m doing something wrong, now I’m doing something inarguably RIGHT!

Of course, it is ridiculous to think that all my problems were solved that day. Reframing a thought on paper is certainly not the same thing as reorganizing the way you think it, and beyond anything else that kind of thing takes a whole lot of practice. But it’s a start. And every day I have plenty of opportunities to teach myself how to think differently.

What about things like the fact that I SHOULD turn off the lights when I leave a room or the fact that I SHOULD do the dishes after I cook? Yes, there are certainly some “should”s that are not inherently evil, because not every “should” is distorted. Generally, though, it’s pretty easy to tell when you encounter a legitimate “should.” The questions I tend to ask myself are:

  1. Is this statement supported by concrete evidence? (ex. “You should drink three glasses of milk a day because it builds strong bones.”)
  2. Will doing this bring me closer to my goals and values? (ex. “You should graduate from college,” since I value education)
  3. Will it bring happiness to other people? (ex. “You should be kind to your supermarket cashier.”)
  4. Will I feel good (like really, heart-of-hearts good) during/after I do this? (ex. “You should go for a walk because it’ll clear your mind and you’ll be happier.”)
  5. When I look back on this, will I ever regret doing it? (ex. “You should punch him in the face” is probably not legitimate, because you might feel bad later.)

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be flabbergasted by the amount of doors that open when you stop “should”ing on yourself. All of a sudden, you’re free to ask yourself what you WANT to do (which was a concept quite foreign to me). What did I want to do with my life aside from what I thought I “should” be doing? Well, I “should” have a practical major and go right into a high-paying job, but honestly, writing makes me happier than anything in the world, so you know what? I’m keeping it on the table. A year ago, I never would have given it a passing thought.

Back to the question. What should I be doing?

I’m sorry, I don’t recognize that word.


One comment

  1. wow! I’m going to keep a ‘should’ journal. I should have done it years ago. When I had my baby EVERYTHING was “should” and I did everything to make sure the baby was happy and comfortable. I refused to sleep away from her (or to sleep at all) and I refused to let anyone else watch her because in my mind they were all stupid and my baby would choke or fall off the high chair or something if left with anyone but me. So yeah, needless to say that led to a severe breakdown after 2 years.
    I’ve always been a person who uses a lot of “should”s and placed a lot of guilt on myself. I felt guilty for everything. I even felt other people’s problems and actions were somehow my fault! My “should”s are all about making other people happy. But in the end I resent the people for the stress it causes me, because I’m an introvert and hate talking to people. I’ve always wanted to try behavioural therapy but I can’t afford it. I’m going to try the should journal! Great post! A lot of what you share reminds me of myself

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