On Using "Should Statements"......

April 4, 2021
Updated: February 22, 2022
Est. Reading: 5 minutes

After years of working with many of the same clients, they have come to understand the word should in what I can only describe as akin to a swear word, often covering their mouth after they say it, looking at me with that deer-in-the-headlight look, followed by "sorry!" Or, they preface it with, "I know I'm not supposed to say this word, but.." I reply with, "What? It's a word in the English language, use it! But I love how you are noticing that you are using it."

You might be thinking, "What's the big deal? It is, after all, merely a word. And NOT a swear word!" Harmless, right? Wrong!

In Cognitive Therapy, "Should Statements" are one of several types of thinking errors. Thinking errors are, well, exactly that --errors our brain makes while thinking. Happens all the time, in all brains. It is our humanness, a demonstration of our innate imperfection, and typically goes unnoticed. Our brain thinks thoughts, and we believe our thoughts, and function from them. But, what if our thoughts mislead us? Come to the wrong conclusion? What if our thought is based on an assumption rather than a fact? Our brain makes errors all the time, but this is not about right or wrong. It is merely an error, like a corruption in a software program, and now the program is running slowly, or it freezes. It is not an error as in you are doing a math computation, and you miscalculate (i.e., error) and arrive at the wrong answer. Not THAT type of error. So, think of it as a corrupted software program, and now that program is running a little wonky.

Should statements are errors because they trap us, and inhibit behavior. When you look only at how something "should be", you neglect to see how things actually are. This is the "corruption" in our thinking, and misinforms effective problem solving. If you are trying to solve a problem based on how things "should be" rather than what they are, you are trying to control things that are not in your control. Who is to say that your version of should is the correct version?

We all have our own conceptualization (complex idea) of how things should be. Which one of us is right? There are about 7 billion of us on the planet. So, which "should" view of the world wins? That is 7 billion different perceptions about how things should be.

Should implies vying for some amount of control over our world, but since we share the world with 7 billion others, and we are all vying for that control, none of us wins. In other words, none of us gets things the way we believe they should be, because we are all vying for things to be the way we want them to be, and we all have different versions of that. We all want things our way, but things will never be the way we think they should be, because we are completing with those 7 billion other versions of how things should be. And basically, whatever way we think things should be is irrelevant, because things are the way they are, not the way we think they should be. If they should be that way, then they would be.

Are you starting to see the futility in fighting for how things should be, rather than working with how things are, and trying to get them to where you need them to be, or would prefer? This begins the journey of effective problem solving. When you try to force something into your version (perception) of should, you entrap yourself, basically putting yourself in your own corner and keeping yourself there. This type of thinking disempowers, leading to feelings of frustration, hopelessness, powerlessness, maybe eventually despair. These are not motivating emotions. Notice how it is our thinking that leads us here when we approach a situation or problem from the perspective of should.

Example: "He should know I didn't want him to go out with his friends." My response: How should he know? Did you tell him? Partner's response: No, he should just know. My response: How? How is someone supposed to know what you want if you don't tell them? People, even partners, cannot read minds. If you don't tell then they don't know. Look at what reality is. The reality is, he wants to go out with his friends, and he cannot read your mind. If you don't tell him you want him to be with you, how can he know this? Now, if you tell him and he goes out anyway, that is a different problem.

Let's look at a more healthy way to problem solve, re-framing the use of "should". Boyfriend wants to go out with friends, but partner wants boyfriend to come over. Partner feels boyfriend spends too much time with friends already and is starting to feel a little neglected. Partner's thoughts, "He should know how his behavior is affecting me, he should want to be with me. When he asked to go out with his friends, he should have known I didn't want him to." This thinking is problematic because it is not based on how things actually are. It is rather wishful thinking, and setting up an unrealistic expectation. Needs will not be met, and conflict will arise.

If we re-frame, we can notice some underlying feelings. Acknowledge this, and start there. What do I need? What do I want? Make it about you, not someone else. If should comes up, reframe using "My reality is...." rather than "He should..." So, if we put this back together... I'm noticing I feel a little neglected by my boyfriend. I need to feel like I matter to him, like I am important, too. He wants to go out with his friends tomorrow night. I don't want him to. He should know this. Oops, nope. My reality is that I don't know what he thinks, and I hate not knowing what goes on in that brain of his! I also know that I miss him and need some time with him. How do I get this? How do I go from how things are to what I need them to be? I need to tell him.

This starts the way for problem solving. In the end, Boyfriend may still go out with the guys, but now Partner has some data, and maybe it will help Parter in some other sort of problem solving process, like is this the right relationship for me? Re-framing should statements may not always get us what we want, but it certainly sets us up to be effective problem solvers which helps us feel empowered in the face of difficult situations, rather than at the mercy of them.

Should statements show up in all types of contexts, this is an example of 1 of 1000 possibilities. And some folks are should thinkers. They spend a lot of time in the Should World. You know them, they tend to be cranky a lot of the time, in constant state of frustration, and they may complain a lot. They are too focused in how things should be, rather than coping with how things are. Do you know any? Maybe you are one of them. For more effective help on managing should statements, check out some local CBT therapists and reach out for an appointment.

© Rita Haley, LMHC