Mind Matters: 'Shoulds' and how to avoid them

Is your life filled with shoulds? As in: I should have gone to work out, you should have come when you said you would, life should be easier than it is.

Many people continually think with shoulds.

The problem is that this thought ignores reality and makes us feel bad.

Take the example of "I shouldn't have eaten those brownies." As soon as we think that, we feel bad.

A psychologist would ask: Why shouldn't you have eaten the brownies?

You might respond: Because they are loaded with sugar and fat, and eating them is bad for my health.

Psychologist: So you wish now that you had not eaten them?

Getting a yes, the psychologist goes on: The "should" comes from where?

It is hard to answer that question.

The "should" might come from parents, the culture, a religion, or what some specific other person thinks. It might come from thin air.

The "should" adds misery while covering up the reality that for specific good reasons you wish you had behaved differently.

But the past is done.

The future is open, so you could toss out the deflating "should" and think instead: "I won't eat a bunch of brownies again."

Another "should" problem occurs if we think others should have done something, like drive faster in front of us.

Where does that should come from?

If we change that should to a wish, we feel better immediately: I wish this car in front of me were going faster because I want to get to work on time, and I got a late start today.

Wishes lead us to have hope; shoulds lead us to fume and curse.

Did you ever think that you should get some exercise? I bet the thought stressed you.

Better to think: I would like to get exercise because ...

If we think of why we want to do something, we face reality and we can more calmly look at ways to achieve our goals.

I had a friend who became upset when she thought that she should not have made a particular mistake at work.

"Why not?" I asked. "Everyone makes mistakes. But you could plan how to avoid that same mistake in the future."

I hope that reading my words leads you to reduce the "shoulds" in your life.

But I will not tell you that you should get rid of them.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.