should statements

Should Statements: A Negative Thinking Pattern

“Should statements” are a type of negative thinking pattern in which a person puts too much pressure on themselves, which then leads to stress, discouragement, and feeling guilty when they fail to meet that expectation.

When it comes to making progress in areas of your life, it’s easy to believe that using should statements will motivate you. But, in reality, they’re counterproductive.

Here’s more about this cognitive distortion and how you can reframe it to help you cope with any situation and improve your self-esteem.

What’s a “Should Statement”?

A should statement is the kind of statement where you think that things should be done or achieved in a certain way[*]. For instance, telling yourself, “I should exercise 1 hour each day to lose weight.” The words ought, must, and have to are also often used in should statements.

People who are mentally well may use this negative language in their everyday lives when they feel pressured to reach a goal that matters to them. Others around you — parents, for example, can also set unrealistically high expectations, causing feelings of doubt when kids don’t meet their desired results. “You must be an honor roll student” and “You ought to be grateful for what we’ve given you” are common should statements in this case.

Like other cognitive distortions, should statements can be brought about by cultural beliefs and practices, the way you perceive yourself, and social media[*].

How Should Statements Can Be Harmful

In normal situations, should statements can push you to get things done quickly, especially when it comes to quick deadlines — like a school project or an office report. The problem is when it’s being used repeatedly. Should statements increase one’s perception of pressure, contributing to more stress and creating a breeding ground for anxiety and depression[*].

Should statements can also make the lives of those with existing mental health conditions even more difficult by lowering their sense of self-worth. It slows their recovery. Supporting a friend or family member with a mental health problem requires changing the way you communicate. This means talking to them respectfully and keeping conversations easy and relaxed[*].

Examples of Should Statements

Here are some types of statements that trigger feelings of anxiety, shame, inadequacy, and burnout when you fail to meet an expectation.

  • “I should be able to handle this problem.”
  • “I ought to know better!”
  • “I must get everything done by tonight.”
  • “You ought to be more in control of your feelings.”
  • “You should cut sugar from your diet.”

If you find yourself feeling like a failure (or you’ve caused someone to feel this way) because of such statements, it’s a sign that they don’t serve you at all.

How to Reframe Should Statements

The good news is this negative thinking pattern is easy to recognize and you can break free from it with the strategies below.

Notice yourself using should statements.

Awareness is the first step to overcoming should statements. Once you recognize them in your everyday language, you’ll be able to replace them with more realistic statements.

Whenever you catch yourself using a should statement, be sure to write it down, along with the event or situation that may have caused you to use this statement. Should statements can be triggered by expectations at home or in school or your perspective towards something.

It’s important to explore how these should statements are affecting your emotions. When you don’t follow through, do you feel embarrassed? Angry? Nervous? Scared? If not a victim of their own unrealistic expectations, kids and teens can be a victim of others’ expectations.

Parents can use this worksheet as a starting point to explore their child’s emotions and what’s causing them to feel a certain way.

Challenge this negative thinking.

Realistic thinking entails adjusting your thoughts and actions based on the aspects of a situation[*]. It keeps you from feeling upset when things don’t go as planned and even using should statements to begin with.

For example, a self-imposed “I should exercise daily” rule can cause you to beat yourself up if you missed a workout. Instead of feeling like a failure, you can apply realistic thinking by considering external factors that may have led to that missed workout. Using our example, these could include bad weather, having a cold, or a jam-packed work day.

This alternative way of thinking allows you to become more tuned in to what’s actually happening instead of getting wrapped up in making everything perfect. It helps you to live more in the present moment.

Practicing self-forgiveness is an important strategy for stopping the cycle of self-loathing that may have resulted from the excessive use of should statements in your life. Plus, it helps maintain and heal relationships[*].

Reframe the statements you tell yourself.

Now that you’ve identified and challenged should statements, it’s time to swap them for more helpful and balanced statements. This growth mindset poster for kids and teens shows examples of positive thoughts to replace negative thoughts.

You can use this as an inspiration while you’re working on creating better statements that will truly empower and motivate you. For instance, instead of, “I should excel in school” you can say, “I would like to excel in school and mistakes are part of learning.”

Are should statements hurting your self-esteem? Here’s a resource that will show you 101 ways to improve it and a worksheet for kids to focus on their positive qualities and strengths.

Summary

If you have established this negative thinking pattern, start working on it using the strategies above. Don’t let should statements put more stress and pressure in your life. Remember that we can reach our goals (or at least get things done) without being so hard on ourselves.

Need more support to overcome should statements? Find a CBT therapist or explore our printable mental health worksheets and handouts for kids and teens.

References:

  1. Rnic K, Dozois D, Martin R. Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression. 2016 August 19
  2. Bathina K, Thij M, Lorenzo-Luaces L et al. Individuals with depression express more distorted thinking on social media. 2021 February 11
  3. Thomas J, Larkin T. Cognitive Distortions in Relation to Plasma Cortisol and Oxytocin Levels in Major Depressive Disorder. 2020 January 22
  4. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Tips For How to Help a Person with Mental Illness
  5. American Psychological Association. realistic thinking
  6. Clay R. Don’t cry over spilled milk—The research on why it’s important to give yourself a break. 2016 September

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