Shoulds Cognitive Distortion 10

We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.

For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration, and resentment.


Here’s a story to illustrate Shoulds.

Beth was a long-time stay at home mom, who loved how much she could do for others. She volunteered at her kid’s school and four other community organizations including a soup kitchen. Everyday Beth had obligations to keep her busier than a full-time job. Plus, she still had kids in school from grade school to high school.

One day Beth reached a wall. She just couldn’t anymore. Something or a million somethings had to give. She couldn’t be everything to everyone. She had too many shoulds.

Beth sat down with her calendar and a big fat pen. She made a list of all her obligations and cut them by half. Then she cut that list in half again. She realized that her job as a mom and wife took up so much of her time that to add all these volunteer obligations meant she wasn’t giving her best at anything.

Finally, after about 6 months of scaling back, Beth felt like she could catch her breath. She cut down her outside obligations and focused on fewer things. Interestingly, Beth realized she was accomplishing more. She only had a few things she had to get done each day. She focused on getting her critical tasks done first, then catching up on anything else she wanted or needed to do. Her energy was higher because she wasn’t spread so thin. Surprisingly, she was making a bigger difference in her community by focusing on fewer things.


My resolution for 2017 was to remove shoulds from my vocabulary.

I should do some laundry now. Maybe I should clean something. Constantly focusing on my shoulds for the day, I lost a lot of free time spinning my wheels and not getting much done. Even when I was supposed to be relaxing, I kept thinking of all my shoulds and what I should be doing right now.

I do something or I don’t.

No guilting myself into something I should be doing but am not. If something I wanted to happen didn’t, I learned to let that regret go.

I won’t pretend I was successful at removing all my shoulds. What I am better at is chunking my time and reducing my obligations. I set big priorities for the day and try to accomplish them first. I keep the priorities to a minimum – 3 at the most, sometimes as few as 1.

We spend 80% percent of our time on maintenance activities.  (Here’s an overview of the Pareto Principle.) At home, that means food and cleaning. At work, that means preparing and finishing up. Good cooks know to get their mise en place (get all your ingredients gathered first) to make cooking faster.

If we focus our remaining 20% on one or two pursuits, we can get more done than most. The saying is that billionaires do one or two things, at the most. When I first heard about this minimalist approach to getting more done, I didn’t believe it. After practicing it for a few months, I was sold. I ask myself what I would regret not having done today, and do that.

Either you got something done or you didn’t. Either you get up and do something or you don’t.

I encourage you to take a look at the shoulds in your life and ask yourself if they’re serving you?


Trail in the Woods watercolor painting
Trail in the Woods

Old me would have been thinking, I should go for a walk… New me is thinking, I’ll schedule that soon and enjoy it because I want to!


Find more art here!


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