July 7, 2024
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The Danger of the ‘Should’ Mindset

Countless times per day, we use the mindset of “should-ing”: I shouldn’t have said that, I should be more motivated, I should act differently. Typically, this type of mindset gets us nowhere and also promotes feelings of guilt, shame or poor self-esteem. “Should-ing” is not actually helpful and we ultimately berate ourselves, proverbially knocking our heads against the wall or giving ourselves reasons to be even more judgmental.

When we think in the mindset of “shoulds,” we do not actually consider the current situation. Take, as an example, the idea that I should be more patient as a mother. There are absolutely times — whether inside or outside the moment I can reflect and recognize — that my patience is thin. And while I do my best to remain calm, I can take deep breaths sooner and not let my own internal struggles overwhelm me. But simply telling myself that I “should” actually gets me nowhere. Sure, it can act as a reminder, but it doesn’t actually get me closer to the goal of improving. Instead, I likely just feel negatively about myself, knowing that I should be doing something that I’m not.

So what can we do?

The first step is to replace the language of “should” with “can.”: “I can be more patient.” Then, following up with the question of, “is this in fact true?” or “what is getting in my way?”

Investigating the barriers to our goals or necessary actions actually allows us to not only experience our emotions but to also conceptualize what’s happening in the process. Telling myself, “I can be more patient. So what’s getting in my way?” allows for curiosity about what’s happening in the moment. From there I might be able to identify the barriers and then come up with a game plan of sorts to bring me closer to my goal. This mindset also allows me to consider, as a first step, if I’m being realistic.

Furthermore, it also provides space between what I’m expecting of myself and shame or guilt. By asking myself this question I’m not assuming that it should be happening and then berating myself for not performing according to my intention. Rather, I’m recognizing that something is getting in the way and thereby allowing for compassion.

Another alternative that allows for even more exploration and gentle curiosity is the language of “I want to.” Instead of “I shouldn’t have said that” we can reframe it to “I want to avoid saying something like that again” or “I want to be more patient” and then follow up by asking, “What can I do to get there?”

I know that my barriers to patience, at times, can be fatigue or trying to juggle many things at once. Having this information can allow me to assess what I need in the moment when I can feel my patience running out. I remind myself that I can be more patient and I want to be, and then ask for help from those around me since I need not do this alone, though the process feels very much internal.

Too often I hear people putting themselves down, deepening the black pit of poor self-esteem because of high or unrealistic expectations. We set grand goals and live in a time when it seems like the world is at our fingertips, including what we strive for for ourselves. We rarely stop to ask what we actually want and how other factors get in our own way. Or even how we might get in our own way. Instead of repeating, “I should do that, I know, what’s wrong with me?” what if instead we slowed down? We can still think critically — constructively — of ourselves; we do not need to sugarcoat or avoid this time of thinking. But critical thinking without judgment or berating is somewhat of an art form.

I invite you, dear reader, to notice when you “should” yourself. And, instead ask the questions above and notice how you actually might come closer to the actions or mindset you wish to experience. You can listen to that small voice in your mind that might be fearful of change or that is used to speaking to yourself harshly. And you can give that part of yourself a hug and try to use this one skill — over and over again. You can see not only how it brings you closer to your goal, but how it makes you feel about yourself in the process.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness, and a Metro-New York consultant at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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