Are You “Shoulding” On Yourself for 2018?

Jan 4, 2018 | Self Care | 0 comments

by Hillary Chaney, LMHP


New Years resolutions bring me a lot of hope and excitement.  I make resolutions as a launching pad, so to speak, to ensure a GREAT New Year! Start the year with the bar raised a bit. But why do resolutions also bring me anxiety and rarely get accomplished?

Albert Ellis, the psychologist most known for cognitive behavioral therapy, coined the terms, “shoulding” and “musterbating”, as funny ways to discourage saying, “I should have…” and “I must be more like…”, etc.  When we use this kind of language, we are in danger of creating a failure mindset and “awfulizing” situations that are, in fact, not awful. When my New Years resolutions cause me to “should” on myself and others, my good intentions have taken a turn for the worse.

I should have awakened earlier to workout.
I should have prepped healthy meals to keep me on track.
I must get that promotion this year.

Would those phrases pump you up to go be the best you?  Uh, no.  They just make me feel like I have failed and usually de-rail me from my original goals, because who likes to fail?

Better to not even try than to fail again and again.  

NOT TRUE!!! But in order to be motivated to succeed, I need to see the “failures” a little differently.

Notice this. If I remove the “should” and the “must” from those sentences there is a completely different feel.

I am going to wake up earlier tomorrow to workout.
I am going to hit the gym tonight since I didn’t work out this morning.
I am going to prepare meals today for the rest of the week.


Feel the optimism.  No guilt, no shame. Just goals, plans, and motivation.  I want to be the best me I can, and that comes from making goals, not getting stuck in a corner focusing on what I didn’t do, and should have done.  The truth of the matter is I didn’t do it (yesterday, last year), and now my options are to dwell on what I should have done, or make plan to do something different now.

Note: If your shoulds look more like: “I must (fill in the blank) to be worthy of love”, or “I should (fill in the blank) so I am not a failure”, then this is likely a deeper negative belief you have about yourself.  This would be something that a therapist could help you work through so you can begin to have more positive messages you tell yourself.  Positive messages create happier people.

Now, let’s talk about not letting others “should” on us either!  How dare they?  How could they possibly be the expert on what I should be doing?  I am the expert on my life. Heck, I’m the one who is living it everyday!  “You should parent this way.” “You should live how I live.” In the words of Cartman, “I DO WHAT I WANT!” (Yes, I am quoting a cartoon character. Only judge me a little.)

It doesn’t feel good to be told what I should do.  If someone is “shoulding” on me, there are a number of ways I can respond to it.  To quote Brene Brown, I can “puff up, shrink down, or stand my sacred ground.”  This is a mantra she claims to live by to handle stressful situations.  I can puff up and tell someone how they SHOULD be living their life.  I can shrink down and admit they are right…I should do what they say.  OR I can say, “Thanks for the suggestion, I AM/AM NOT going to do that.” Whoa. Empowering.  I can take control over the messages I allow myself to own or receive from others. Turns out we have more control than we may have realized!

And lastly, I will commit to not “should” on other people.  I don’t want to be the “shouldy” friend.   This happens when others don’t meet my expectations and I think (sometime say), “you should have…” or “you should be…” The truth is, that is likely to increase their shameful defenses, and not bring about the results I am looking for.  This is especially hard on our kids and spouses.  We put an awful lot of “should’s” on them.

If you would like to resolve to quit “shoulding” with me, try asking yourself these three questions when you encounter one of those old thoughts:

  • Why should I/they?
  • Says who?
  • Will it be ok if I/they don’t?

Chances are, things will be OK without that action a lot of the time. Most of the things we “should” about are not life and death matters, but rather minor annoyances that seem big in the moment. If the answers seem to point to the conclusion that what hasn’t happened needs to happen, then we can use vocabulary like “I need to…” “I would like you to…”, “I am going to…” This is more finite and forward focused, and less likely to bring shame to you or others.  Less likely to create anxiety if the expectation is not met in the future. More likely to encourage and empower.

This year I choose to make a New Years resolution to set goals and leave out the “should’s.”  Join me? One day at a time. We can do this.

Today I will not should on myself or anyone else.


Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Meet Hillary:

Hillary is a licensed mental health professional with experience working with foster kids at Boys Town. She also has many years of therapy with clients who have experienced significant trauma. Along with that, she and her husband have foster multiple children…all teens.


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