August 4, 2009

Are you Shoulding on Yourself Again?

In the cognitive part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) we look for thinking patterns that get in the way of healthy feelings and behavior. Thoughts associated with unhappy feelings.

Sad, anxious, angry, shameful, hurtful feelings.

One of the easiest thoughts to identify and change are those that contain the word "should."

Should statements, as they are called.

You should go check on your neighbor. He hasn't been out much lately.

I should
exercise more.

She shouldn't talk to her in that tone of voice.

Should statements are one form of automatic negative thoughts, or ANTS. Should implies that someone has done something wrong. Or bad. That someone behind you is shaking a finger, going, "tsk, tsk, tsk, bad person."

The shoulds are often immediately followed by subtle feelings of shame and guilt. Sometimes not consciously detected. But it's there. The essence of it. Building up throughout the day, if you happen to be a daily should-er. Many of us use should statements dozens of times a day, if not hundreds. Out loud or silently, to ourselves.

I should be able to figure this out.

She should be more careful.

You should buy the red sweater.

Shoulding on oneself. Shoulding on others.

The examples above aren't all that toxic, granted. But the effect is insideous. Disapproval. Judging. You're doing wrong. I'm unworthy. These feelings can add up. At the end of the day, we feel more stressed out. More hostile. More _____ (fill in the blank with an unpleasant feeling). Its cumulative. It adds up. I know this personally. I know this professionally.

Even the innocuous, commonly heard response to receiving an unexpected gift, "You shouldn't have!" It delivers an entirely different message when, instead, we say, "You are so thoughtful. Thank you."

How to remedy this common thinking error? In some cases, change should to want. Or wish. Or like.

I want to figure this out.

I wish she would be more careful.

I like the red sweater. I hope you buy that one.

The idea is to change the negative, judgemental idea to something with a positive message. Or more positive. More upbeat. More hopeful.

Below are a few examples that are a little more toxic. Try to change them yourself.

You should watch what you eat.

He should take better care of his car. We're not made of money!

I shouldn't be having these thoughts. She just died, afterall.

And how about the image at the top of this post. Vanity Fair cover of teen television star, Miley Cyrus, aka Hannah Montana, of Disney Channel. Does this image of a 15-year-old bring up a should statement or two?

I don't know about you, but I feel slightly better when I say, "I wish young stars (and their agents) didn't feel pressure to pose in such a sexually suggestive manner." Instead of, "She should not be posing like that. What were her parents thinking?"

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