Should Statements, Guilt and Depression

In the last post we learned how the cognitive distortions Personalization and Blame can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. “Should” statements, also knowns as “shoulding,” can also leave us feeling guilty.

Shoulding, Guilt and Depression

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

Do you ever feel guilty? Maybe you did something you shouldn’t have done and so you feel guilty about it. Or there’s something you should be doing but you’re not so you feel guilty about that. One of the biggest reasons we tend to feel guilt is because we’re not living up to our shoulds. And not living up to our shoulds also hurts our self-esteem and self-confidence and can leave us feeling depressed. And should statements can also be a big source of stress and anxiety, and they play a big role in perfectionism. And should statements are simply statements we make to ourselves about what we should and shouldn’t do.

Should statements directed towards ourselves are often referred to as shoulding ourselves. And they’re a type of cognitive distortion, which are exaggerated ways of thinking about the world that distort reality. So in this video we’re going to look at the different types of should statements we tend to tell ourselves, why they leave us feeling stressed anxious and guilty, and how we can reduce our shoulding in order to help reduce stress anxiety and guilt and make it less likely we become depressed.

And we’re going to start by looking at what Karen Horney had to say about should statements. She’s a Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst, and there’s a chapter from her book neurosis and human growth called “the tyranny of the should.”

So describing the tyranny of the should she says:

We hold before ourselves our image of perfection and unconsciously tell ourselves, forget about the disgraceful creature you actually are, this is how you should be.

I should be able to endure everything, to understand everything, to like everybody and to be always productive.

I should be the utmost of honesty, generosity, considerateness, justice, dignity, courage and unselfishness.

I should be the perfect spouse lover parent child.

I should never feel hurt, sad, scared, anxious, angry. I should always be calm and serene.

I should be able to solve every problem of my own and other people’s immediately.

I should be able to overcome every difficulty as soon as I see it.

I should never be tired or sick.

I should always be able to do things in one hour which can only be done in two or three.

And these demands we place on ourselves aren’t feasible they’re things nobody could fulfill. Now Horney is talking about unconscious should, but often our shoulds are explicit in our conscious thoughts. I should find a better job. I should save more money. I should buy a house.

I shouldn’t drink so much. I shouldn’t eat so much. I should get more exercise. I should get more sleep.

I should spend more time with my friends. I should spend more time with my family. I should spend more time working. And so a lot of our shoulds can be incompatible with each other, because, for example there just isn’t that much time for us to do all of that.

So we have this idealized version of ourselves, of what and how we should and shouldn’t be, and there’s no way we can live up to this version of ourselves.

And trying to do everything that we feel we should do can be very stressful and can cause us a lot of anxiety.

And then whenever we don’t live up to one of our shoulds we end up feeling guilty, because should statements come with a moral judgment: if I do the things that I should, and avoid doing the things that I shouldn’t, then I’m a good person. But when I fail to do the things that I tell myself I should, or do some things I tell myself I shouldn’t, i’ve committed some sort of moral offense, and so I’m a bad person, and I feel guilty. And the more this happens the more likely we are to start feeling depressed.

So what can we do about our should statements? Well anytime we find ourselves telling ourselves we should or shouldn’t be doing something, instead of just letting that should statement go unchallenged, we can start by asking ourselves why? Why should I or shouldn’t I do that?

We often take our should statements for granted without questioning why we believe we should or shouldn’t do these things. But once we start looking at these beliefs they often don’t hold up. Maybe they were things we learned growing up from our parents that reflect their values but not really our own anymore. Or they reflect some cultural or societal values that we’ve adopted without ever really thinking about them and maybe they’re not really that important to us.

And so once we start questioning our shoulds we often find we don’t have an answer to the question of why. And so we can start letting some of our shoulds go and not feel bad if we don’t live up to them, because we realize that we don’t really believe that we should or shouldn’t do these things. And so we don’t need to feel bad or guilty if we don’t follow them because they’re not really that important to us.

But what if we have an answer to why we think we should and shouldn’t do them that makes sense to us and so we don’t want to just dismiss them?

Sometimes our shoulds are pretty vague and it can be helpful to break down exactly what we mean by them, because even if we’re dedicated to being a better parent or working harder or not being so lazy, it’s hard to act on that without having a clearer idea of what we mean.

Maybe being a better parent means being more patient with our kids or spending more time with them. Or being more interested in things that are important to them.

And what about work harder? Maybe we don’t even know what we mean by work harder. It just sounds like something we should do. But we’re already working more than we want to and we’re coming home tired at the end of the day, and so even though there’s a voice in our heads telling us we should work harder, we’re already working as hard as we can. And so there really isn’t an “I should be working harder” to feel guilty about.

And what about I shouldn’t be so lazy? Well maybe we mean, we’d like to procrastinate less and when there’s something we need to do we’d like to just do it. Or maybe we spend more time than we’d like on our phones just killing time, and we’d like to do something more productive with that time. Or maybe after dinner we just plop down on the couch and watch tv all night, but I’d like to change that and start making plans to do things that I enjoy in the evenings. And so now instead of just not being lazy, we have specific plans about what we’d like to be doing. And these are much more actionable than just some vague notion like I shouldn’t be so lazy.

And one of the most effective things we can do about should statements is to express them as a desire or intention to do or not do something, because desires and intentions don’t carry the same moral weight as should, so they cause us less stress and anxiety and are less likely to leave us feeling guilty or like we’re bad people if we don’t follow through.

So instead of I should spend more time with my family we can phrase it as a desire I’d like to spend more time with my family or as an intention I’m going to do my best to spend more time with my family

Instead of I shouldn’t order in so much, it would be nice if I didn’t order in so much, or I’d like to start cooking more and eating healthier.

Instead of I should exercise more, I’m going to do my best to start exercising more.

Instead of I shouldn’t procrastinate so much, I’d prefer to not procrastinate so much and I’m going to do my best to stop putting things off and I’m going to try to do them right away.

So it can be really helpful to rephrase shoulds with less judgmental terms like I’d like to I’ll do my best to it would be nice if I’d prefer it if I plan to I’m going to try to

Now we can often think of should and shouldn’t statements as motivating. I should exercise more. I should stop procrastinating. I shouldn’t eat so much junk food. I shouldn’t watch so much tv. But the problem with using should statements to try to motivate ourselves is that they’re not actually motivating, and instead they often have the opposite effect, because when we fail to do something that we’ve told ourselves we should we can feel so bad about it and get so discouraged that we give up even trying anymore.

And should statements can make us rebel against them. If someone tells you you should or shouldn’t do something, does that make you want to listen to them and obey what they say? Or do you feel resentful and sometimes want to do the opposite just to spite them? Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do? And the same can be true when we try to tell ourselves what we should and shouldn’t do. And the more we tell ourselves we should do something the less we want to do it.

So reducing our should statements finding other ways to express our desires and intentions that aren’t as judgmental as shoulds reduces the pressure we place on ourselves to do certain things or to be a certain way, which leads to less stress and anxiety over these things, and makes it less likely we end up feeling guilty or depressed.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.