The feeling that you should be further along in your career, relationships, finances, or any other area of life is something most can relate to at some point, and it’s a difficult thing to shake. Many experiences can lead to this thinking pattern. Societal pressure is a big one, especially when you have social media showcasing highlight reels of other people’s accomplishments and seemingly successful, happy-go-lucky lives. But at what point does a fairly normal and common thinking pattern turn toxic, begging the question: When do you need to stop ‘shoulding’ yourself once and for all?
“We live in a society that glorifies hustling, working to the bone, and burnout,” says Divya Robin, psychotherapist and mental health educator. “We create high expectations and norms.” As a result, she says, it’s common to start thinking you should be working late, making more money, getting married, starting a family, or whatever else you feel pressured to do.
Another common origin of this ‘shoulding’ mindset is having that behavior modeled by adults when growing up. “It’s also possible to internalize the critical voice of a parent or caregiver,” says Terri Cole, a licensed psychotherapist. “This indicates that the critical voice you hear and the ‘should’ words that you direct at yourself might not even be your own.”
While in the moment, feeling bad about the things you feel you should be doing may not seem like a big deal; over time, you are likely to soak up those messages, and the effects can be damaging. “If you are bringing yourself down and saying that you ‘should’ be a different way, the message that you are implicitly sending is that you are not good enough how you are,” Robin says. This, she adds, can lower your self-esteem, confidence, and ability to feel good emotions.
Conversely, by putting a stop to the ‘shoulding’ mentality, you can start to consciously take responsibility for your life. “When you start taking action that is aligned with the life and the relationships you want to create, rather than endlessly talking about what you should be doing, your life will become exponentially more interesting and satisfying,” Cole says. Robin adds that other benefits of healing the “shoulding” cycle include more confidence in yourself and your decisions, deeper relationships, a brighter outlook on life, and better overall mental health.
Thankfully, Robin says, we can break the ‘shoulding’ pattern, learn how to give ourselves grace, and cultivate self-compassion, which will ultimately help us thrive. To do this, read on for Robin and Cole’s top tips.
Raise Your Awareness
According to Cole, one of the first steps in overcoming the ‘shoulding’ mindset is awareness that you’re doing it and realizing that it can become a cycle of shame, guilt, and despair. And, she adds, by continuing to think and feel bad and less than and judging yourself for not doing what you think you should, you are perpetuating that cycle. With this newfound awareness, you can then begin to shift this mindset. Furthermore, awareness is also helpful to help eradicate “should’ from your vocabulary. “Words matter,” Cole says. “Commit to stop saying ‘I should’ altogether.”
Understand Why You Always ‘Should’
Coupled with awareness, Cole says curiosity is also crucial to quitting this damaging habit of thinking. So, the next step is to be radically curious — with a big dose of compassion — about why you’ve fallen into a cycle of ‘shoulding’ yourself. To help get to the bottom of this, Cole recommends reflecting on whether your caretakers in childhood perpetually ‘should’ on themselves, too. “Modeled behavior can be very compelling to emulate, so have compassion for your younger self as you explore,” she says.
Take Inventory Of ‘Shoulds’ Vs. Wants
Things that you feel you should do are often different from what you actually want to do. For this reason, both Robin and Cole suggest taking inventory by asking yourself: Is this something I truly want to do? Or, do others want me to do this? “Your needs and wants matter,” Robin says, adding that the ‘shoulds’ only add extra pressure and unnecessary demands to your life.
Invest Your Energy In Your Wants
Once you get clear on what you genuinely want, Cole says, “you can put your time, energy, and bandwidth into taking actions that will achieve your desires rather than wasting your precious life force energy making yourself feel like sh*t for not living life like the curated feeds we all see on Instagram.” Plus, she adds, spending too much time scrolling can lead to more ‘shoulding’ yourself.
To ensure your goals are realistic and not aiming at trying to imitate other people’s social media highlight reels, Cole recommends spending time looking within and asking yourself what you love to do and what brings you joy. She adds that it’s also important to remember that despite how it appears on social media, achieving goals takes time and it’s crucial that you enjoy the journey without feeling rushed to get to the destination.
Reframe With Positive Affirmations
Whenever you’re stuck in a spiral of ‘shoulding’ thoughts, Robin recommends reframing those thoughts with thinking that is encouraging, supportive, compassionate, and kind. Think of what you would say to a close friend if they were in the same scenario. You can phrase these as positive affirmations, which Robin notes, when used consistently, encourage a more optimistic mindset.
Remember, Change Takes Time
Lastly, as with any type of change, changing a thinking or behavioral pattern is a life-long process. It doesn’t happen overnight. "It's important to remember that your ‘shoulding’ is likely a learned behavior and thought pattern,” Robin says. “Of course, anything we learn can be unlearned, but it takes time. Remember to practice self-compassion.”
In other words, don’t give up on challenging your thought patterns. The effort will be worth it. And if frequent negative thought patterns make it difficult for you to engage in day-to-day tasks or low self-esteem is impacting your relationships, Robin advises seeing a therapist or professional for additional support.