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All About “Should” Statements

The word “should”, is a verb that has many uses in the English language. It is most often used when critiquing our own, or someone else’s actions or behaviours: “I should have left earlier”, “You should have been more careful”. We also use the word “should” in self-talk to motivate ourselves, and we use it to urge others to act: “I should spend more time learning a language”, “You should leave now to catch your train”.

Used sparingly, these statements can act as a motivator, “I should start the journey now so that I arrive before dark”, and can spur you on to get started. However, these “should” statements can spiral out of control and make you feel as if you can’t do anything right, and make others feel that you are always dictating to them or criticising them.

What is a “should” statement?

“Should” statements are thoughts that define what a person thinks they or others ought to do. It is a set of expectations that might not take particular circumstances into consideration. “Should” statements are also frequently made by people in the belief that things ought to be a certain way. Sometimes the word “should” is used in statements to express often unreasonable or unfulfilled standards that we have imposed on ourselves or others: “You should be more organised”, “I should be more successful”. “Should” statements also often contain words such as “must”, “had better”, “ought to” or “have to” rather than the word “should”, but the sentiment is the same.

“Should” statements can become automatic and something that we are not even conscious of. The consistent and habitual use of “should” statements is a form of cognitive distortion, a faulty pattern of thinking where consistent unhelpful, unrealistic or irrational thoughts, or errors in our thinking, don’t match up with the reality of what is happening.

Cognitive distortions is a term used in psychology to refer to the thoughts that occur when a person’s mind convinces them of something that is untrue. When these inaccurate beliefs influence a person’s thoughts, emotions and actions, they can feel anxious, stressed, angry or depressed about themselves, or about the world around them.

Anyone can experience cognitive distortions. For some of us, distorted thinking is a fleeting glitch; for others, cognitive distortions are a pattern of thinking that interferes with their lives. For many of these people, cognitive distortions occur as automatic thoughts, they are so habitual that the thinker often doesn’t realise that they have the ability to change them, and they grow to believe that’s just the way things are.

“Should” statements don’t necessarily seem like distorted thinking patterns to us when we form them. We often express goals in terms of “should” statements; however, by doing this we set an expectation without clearly defining it, or setting manageable steps to achieving it, which sets us up to fail.

“Should” statements are closely connected to another form of cognitive distortion, “all or nothing” thinking. This form of thinking, also known as black and white thinking or polarised thinking, categorises the world into absolutes, leaving out the possibility of any grey areas or middle ground. This thought process leads people to place everything into boxes of “good” and “bad”, and they do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. The use of “should” statements sets ridged outcomes of either pass or fail, for example, “I should be more successful”. If I become more successful, I have passed or I am good, but if I don’t become more successful, then I have failed, I am bad. There is no measurement of what success looks like, there is no middle ground, and no accounting for any of the complexities of life.

Another cognitive distortion that “should” statements are connected to is personalisation and blame. With “should” statements a person can lay the blame on themselves or others when something does or doesn’t happen.

“Should” statements may have good intentions behind them; however, they tend to generate a lot of unnecessary turmoil in daily life, when the reality of a person’s own behaviour or the behaviour of others falls short of their expectations. Over time they can have a negative impact on a person’s emotional well-being causing them to feel frustrated, pressured and resentful. Rather than acting as a motivating factor, “should” statements generally cause people to feel apathetic and unmotivated, which can lead to feelings of shame, stress, panic and inadequacy in ourselves, and feelings of hurt, disappointment, resentment and frustration when others have not lived up to our “should” statements.

Managing Should Statements

Examples of “should” statements

When a person uses “should” statements against themselves, they are subtly telling themselves that they are doing something wrong, for example:

  • “I should go to the gym four times a week”
  • “I should eat healthy all the time”
  • “I should eat more vegetables”
  • “I should lose weight”
  • “I should be able to deal with this”
  • “I should wake up earlier”
  • “I should be more organised”
  • “I should be happy”
  • “I should be rich”
  • “I should be a good parent”

These “should” statements are really nothing more than whimsical wish lists, stating what the person thinks the situation ought to be. The implicit message of “should” statements is the opposite of what is said on the surface of the statement. For example, “I should lose weight”, the unsaid implicit message is “I’m not going to”.

People also use “should” statements to “beat themselves up” for situations that are now in the past that they wish had turned out differently. These can include things that a person wishes did or didn’t happen, for example:

  • “I should have passed that exam”
  • “I should have gone to the dentist”
  • “I should have known better”
  • “I should have seen that coming”
  • “I should have warned you about that”
  • “I should have been more caring”
  • “I should have read the instructions”
  • “I should have brought my umbrella”
  • “I should not have taken you for granted”
  • “I should not have eaten that cake”
  • “I should not have listened to rumours”
  • “I should not have overslept this morning”
  • “I should not have put a red sock into a white wash”
  • “I should not have done that”
  • “I should not have spent all my money”

The events have passed in these “should have” and “should not have” statements, and there is little point in “crying over spilt milk”. The implicit message of these “should have” statements is “I didn’t”, or of the “should not have” statements it is “I did”.

Using “should” statements against other people is also damaging. A person might use them to provide advice that is not framed as a suggestion, but rather as an instruction, for example

  • “You should get up earlier”
  • “You should be more assertive”
  • “You should tell them what you think”
  • “You should go on a diet”
  • “You should save more”
  • “You should know better”
  • “You should take the train not the bus”
  • “You should keep your children in check”

Also, someone using “should not” and “should have” statements against another person is often using them in an accusatory way to criticise the person when they haven’t met expectations, for example:

  • “You should have proofread that before sending it”
  • “You should have known that would happen”
  • “You should have asked their opinion first”
  • “You should have booked earlier”
  • “You should have applied for that job”
  • “You should have finished that by now”
  • “You should not have been upset”
  • “You should not have done that”
  • “You should not have taken me for granted”
  • “You should not have taken a short cut”
  • “You should not have said that”
  • “You should not have left your job”

Using a “should” or “should not” statement against others can put unnecessary pressure on a person’s life.

Factors that affect “should” statements

“Should” statements are characterised by imposing fixed rules on how we ourselves, others, and the world are supposed to operate. David Burns, whose work involved treating depression by focusing on identifying, correcting and replacing distorted systems and thinking patterns, identified four types of “should” statements:

  • Self-directed “should” statements: self-imposed standards which lead to anxiety, guilt and shame.
  • Other-directed “should” statements: expectations of others which lead to anger and conflict.
  • World-directed “should” statements: expectations around how the world should work, which can lead to frustration and entitlement.
  • Hidden “should” statements: implicit standards revealed in our reactions, for example getting frustrated with oneself after making a mistake.

The type of thinking that is involved in “should” statements often leads to rigid opinions and judgements; something is either right or wrong, good or bad, without considering any other alternatives or perspectives. The use of “should” statements is often associated with:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Anger
  • Emotional disorders
  • Depressive thinking
  • Perfectionism
  • Polarisation

Thoughts have a direct influence on our feelings and behaviour. The negative thought patterns involved in “should” statements cause us to focus on mistakes and flaws and they will often discount strengths, accomplishments and effort. It can have the effect of:

  • Reducing a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Providing a person with a lack of self-worth
  • Instilling feelings of guilt, unforgiveness, bitterness, grievance, sadness, regret, unease, worry or stress when a person doesn’t follow through on what they set out to do or when someone else doesn’t meet expectations

All of which may affect a person’s physical and mental well-being.

Should Statements

Challenging negative thinking

Our thoughts are usually a mixture of positive, negative, fearful, guilty, happy, angry, kind etc. emotions and sentiments. According to the research of Dr Fred Luskin of Stanford University, a human being has approximately 60,000 thoughts per day, and 90% of these thoughts are repetitive. It is obviously unhealthy when the negative thoughts are repetitive in our minds; these are known as ruminations. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines rumination as “obsessional thinking involving excessive, repetitive thoughts or themes that interfere with other forms of mental activity”.

Automatic negative thoughts are the thoughts that often pop up automatically in the brain and cause unpleasant feelings. It can help to become more aware of negative thoughts that can feed into a vicious cycle and increase anxiety. Recognising automatic negative thoughts associated with “should” statements is the first step to challenging them and replacing “should” statements with more realistic and positive language. Let’s look at some of the “should”, “should have” and “should not” statement examples given earlier in this article and re-word them in a more positive and helpful way.

  • “I should go to the gym four times a week” – accept that you haven’t joined as yet and try saying to yourself, “I will join the gym next week and aim to go more than twice a week”.
  • “I should eat healthy all the time” – accept that you may have been over-indulging on ready meals and takeaways and say to yourself, “When I go to the supermarket this week, I will buy fresh produce rather than processed”.
  • “I should eat more vegetables” – accept that your diet has been lacking vegetables and say to yourself, “I am going to cook two types of vegetables with each meal”.
  • “I should lose weight” – accept that your weight is bothering you and set yourself a target to work towards, “I will cut down on snacking from now until Christmas, with a view to losing 7lbs”.
  • “I should wake up earlier” – accept the fact that you have been late for work, you can’t change the past but you can alter the future, “I have set my alarm to wake me at 7am so I won’t be late for work”.
  • “I should be more organised” – acknowledge that you may have let things slip and that you want to be more productive,  “I have made a to-do list and will prioritise in order of importance”.
  • “I should be happy” – examine what is making you unhappy, identify things that you enjoy and put in place strategies to deal with things that impact your happiness and to do more of what you enjoy.

By changing the “should” statements into statements of intent, it helps you to accept reality, even if you are not happy with it, and work towards a plan of resolution.

When you catch yourself using “should” statements towards others, consider why you are putting pressure on that person with the statement. Is there some reason why you would use this “should” or “should not” rule for some people but not for others? If you were to say for example, “What do you think you could have done better?” rather than “You should not have done that”, it opens up a dialogue with potential for future growth, free from feelings of blame and guilt.

Ways to manage and overcome “should” statements

Like all cognitive distortions, thinking and making “should” statements is a habit, and like any other habit, you need to notice it to be able to break it. Once noticed, fortunately, there are things that you can do about it.

Try to notice what triggers your “should” statements, whether they are about yourself or aimed at others. Try to note down the triggers and the associated feelings; for example, if you constantly feel that you “should” do things to be more organised, where did that feeling of pressure come from? Do you feel as if you are spending your time on the wrong things? Do you feel as if you are not living up to a standard? How true are these feelings? Often the judgements we make about ourselves originate from someone who made us feel not good enough at some point.

Pay attention to the things that you say and the way that you think. Rephrase your use of “should” statements. Try to replace words like “should”, “must”, “had better”, “ought to” or “have to” with statements that use words such as “will”, “am going to”, “might like to”.

Embrace any mistakes that you make, and remember that we all make mistakes from time to time, and learn from them. You “should” have left earlier to catch the train, you missed it, what will you do now, and what will you do in future to avoid the same situation?

Question any rules that you have set for yourself – who says that you “should have”, for example, cleaned the car? Also question any rules that you have set for others – why are you expecting that they “should have”, for example, known that that would happen? Do you think that being strict and demanding will motivate yourself or others? If so, why do you think this?

Mindfulness helps you to deal with unhelpful and negative thinking. You observe your thoughts without judgement and be more present in the moment. Try breathing deeply, remaining present in the moment, and noticing small details of your surroundings, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Mindfulness means being present and grounded in the current moment rather than fixating on the past or future. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can help.

If you are struggling with unhelpful and negative thoughts that frequently accompany “should” statements, particularly if it is affecting your mental well-being, you may want to get professional help. Therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help, which aims to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with situations. The NHS talking therapies services finder can help you find out which services are available in your local area. You can also find accredited CBT therapists through the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)

Final thoughts

As you explore “should” statements you will probably start to notice them everywhere. We all say and think them, but they only become problematic over time when they transform into a consistent negative thinking pattern that we believe is absolute truth. “Should” statements impact your and others’ mental health by making you or them feel as if you or they have accomplished nothing when things don’t go according to plan. It is healthier to start limiting, reframing and ultimately getting rid of the “should” statements by embracing the reality that life is not perfect.

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About the author

Liz Wright

Liz has worked with CPD Online College since August 2020, she manages content production, as well as planning and delegating tasks. Liz works closely with Freelance Writers - Voice Artists - Companies and individuals to create the most appropriate and relevant content as well as also using and managing SEO. Outside of work Liz loves art, painting and spending time with family and friends.

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