How many of us have uttered the words “I should…” as the Holiday Season comes at us full swing?
- “I should have all the baked goods ready for Christmas, I am so disorganized this year”
- “I should get my kids/family/friends the BEST Christmas gifts, or they’ll be disappointed”
- “I should have more holiday traditions than I do”
- “I should be surrounded by lots of family for Christmas… and I am not”
- “I should have achieved more by Christmas, and I didn’t”
- “I should love the holidays, everyone else seems too, but I don’t”
Here we have it: the power of the “should” statement. A six letter word that we all utter so much, that can turn our moods completely upside down the moment after we utter it to ourselves. If you catch yourself stating that you “should” have done XYZ, we encourage you to pause, get curious, and seek to understand where that is coming from.
SHOULD STATEMENTS ARE A TYPE OF THINKING TRAP
On August 29th, 2023, we posted a blog titled “Therapy Talk: Thinking Traps” which is full of fabulous information about thinking traps in general. We won’t repeat ourselves (and encourage you to go back and refresh yourself on what exactly thinking traps are!), BUT we will give a quick reminder. Thinking traps (also known as ‘cognitive distortions’ or ‘thought errors’) can be broadly described as “unhelpful” or “inaccurate” ways of thinking. Thinking traps are broken down into types, and one type of thinking trap is (you guessed it) “Should” statements! These are subjective statements that may be placed on yourself, others or the world more broadly, that may reflect unrealistic or unhelpful expectations. Unrelated to the holidays, they may look like: I should be better at doing XYZ skill, other’s should be less ignorant, the world should be more fair than it is.
THE GOOD ‘SHOULD’ VS. THE UNHELPFUL ‘SHOULD’
So, before we go slamming all the “shoulds” of the world, we want to stop and acknowledge that there are some valuable should statements in your vocabulary that are worth paying attention to.
One important thing worth noting:
Some should statements directly reflect or relate to your values and morals.
- For example, I may have a value around respect and could have a should statement such as “people should respect most other humans”, or a value of honesty, which may yield a should statement like “people should generally tell the truth”
Should statements can become unhelpful when:
(1) They are too rigid.
- These statements appear more “black and white” (“I should do everything perfectly” or “I should be good at this”), and leave little breathing room for the person having the expectation placed on them. You’ll notice that our should statements listed as examples above in the values section are more general and fluid – including words like “generally” and “sometimes” or “most times”, indicating that there is always a gray area that ought to be taken into account from time to time.
(2) They promote unhealthy or unrealistic expectations.
- “Should” statements are directly related to our expectations of ourselves, others and the world. They indicate how we think we ought to act/behave/preform, and sometimes set us up for unrealistic expectations. When thinking back to our holiday examples – they paint us into a corner of what we THINK the holidays should be like, which often isn’t realistic or attainable in the first place.
(3) They elicit negative emotions.
- These statements are unhelpful if they leave us feeling all the negative feels. Often times if I think things like “I should love the holiday’s, everybody else does?” it leaves me feeling sad, disappointed, maybe even ashamed. Or if I have the “should” statement of “I should have done more for the kids this holiday”, I may now experience feelings of guilt, embarrassment, anxiety.
THE HOLIDAY “SHOULD” STATEMENTS
So, let’s talk about the Holiday “Should” statement. They relate to our expectations of ourselves (mostly), or others and the world, specifically when thinking of the holiday season. These statements have the power to rob us of the things we enjoy most about the holiday season, and put us in an impossible pinch of trying to uphold expectations that we could never really meet in the first place.
What can you do when you experience the holiday “should”?
- Notice the Should. We can’t change or address something, when we aren’t even aware it exists in the first place.
- Get curious. Explore the should statement, identify if it is rigid, leading to negative emotions, and setting you up for unrealistic expectations. Ask yourself: Where did this should statement come from? Why do I feel this is so important? If I don’t meet this “should”, what am I realistically worried could happen?
- Notice the (hidden) value (if there is one). Even if the should statement is unhelpful, it could be hinting at a hidden value of yours. For instance, if I find myself saying the should statement of “I should have more Christmas traditions” – perhaps I have a value of culture, community connectedness, or family. Identifying this will help me hone in on and create more helpful should statements that actually move me towards fulfilling my value.
- Show the “should” some compassion. We don’t want to start beating ourselves up for something that was already making us feel bad in the first place. Instead, compassion will be your best weapon. Compassion may look like: “It is really special to me to have traditions, and I wish I had more”. This type of thinking often leads to more productive behavior and thoughts – a compassionate statement like the example here may lead to more problem solving of potential ways to resolve what the person feels they are lacking in traditions, or perhaps they will be encouraged to acknowledge the traditions they DO already have. Compassion pushes us forward in our thinking and behavior.
- Reshape the statement to be more helpful. If you can, interrupt the unhelpful should, and create a statement that incorporates all of what we’ve discussed here (create something more flexible, compassionate, and helpful, that leads to more productive behavior and action). This can take some serious practice, we know.