by Emily Elmore, MA, LCSW, RYT
“I should have worked out.”
“I should be more focused at work.”
“I should just not care about this.”
Sound familiar? Let’s talk about should statements. As a therapist, should statements are the most regular offender I contend with in sessions with my clients. A should statement seems harmless and appears to be reflective and thoughtful in nature with the aim of improving future behavior.
Let’s look at a specific example: A person has a goal to lose weight and they developed an exercise and eating plan that will make healthful changes to support weight loss goals. It works! The person begins making changes in their physical (and emotional) self. Then, as all people do, a slip occurs. (Can we actually maintain perfection at all times?!) Instead of eating their healthy, planned meal, they order take-out. Perhaps something that is yummy, greasy, and not in line with weight loss. After that delicious meal, a person may experience regret and say: “I SHOULDN’T have ordered take out. I SHOULD have just cooked my planned meal.” Beneath those should statements are feelings of failure, frustration in one’s self, anger, or many other negative emotions that we then grapple with. Perhaps it elicits increased levels of anxiety and depression as this person sits with why they have once again “failed” at yet another weight loss attempt after just one unhealthy meal. Ultimately, this seemingly tame statement begins to fuel a negative self-talk cycle and unfortunately, it is this type of mentality that can lead us to give up on our goals.
Should statements are an extremely common cognitive distortion (also termed negative thought patterns, irrational thinking, unhelpful thoughts). Therapists will often utilize Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which is highly effective in helping clients identify irrational thoughts and the emotional responses that they elicit. A client is then supported to challenge these thought patterns to develop more rational thoughts that generate healthier emotions which result in significant decreases in symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Putting It Into Practice
I challenge my clients in session to simply notice their use of should statements as they move throughout their week. This mindfulness exercise has profound results. Clients will return to session with an increased level of awareness in how frequently they use should statements, how they compound, and how these seemingly benign statements increase symptoms of anxiety and depression. Then we get to work!
So if it serves you, notice your should statements and how that self-talk impacts your overall mood, because how we talk to ourselves and the words we use matter.