Are you “shoulding” all over yourself?

Something I often talk about with my clients is the S word.  Not the S word you’re probably thinking of, although there are a lot of good S words out there if you think about it. I spend the most time talking about the word “should”. 

Why does this seem to come up so much in our therapy, you ask. 

Well for one, it’s because this word manages to subtly slip its way into conversation much more often than people realize.  For example, when discussing a recent interaction with your partner/love interest/co-worker etc, you might say “I should have said ______, when he/she _____”.  Or when talking about a recent problem that came up in your life you might hear yourself saying “I should know how to deal with this” (whatever “this” is always seems to change, since you unknowingly assume you “should be able to handle everything”). And the always classic mental loop of “I should be doing ______ right now”.   

My guess is you probably don’t realize how much you use this one little word in so many of your conversations.  And more importantly I’ll bet you don’t realize how damaging it can be to your sense of well-being and how it contributes to feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy.  

I like to tell my clients that using the S word means that they’re “shoulding all over themselves”. The visual really helps nail it home.

The problem with the word ‘should’ is that it turns any statement into a judgement and inherently sets an expectation that you’re not living up to something.  This is one of the core components of perfectionism (something I talked about in my last post). On a subconscious level, saying “I should be doing such and such” results in you feeling inadequate and self-critical. And by not living up to this unspoken expectation you’ve placed on yourself, you end up feeling like that other S word… shit. 

When you start to take a look at how much you are “shoulding” throughout your day, I’d ask you to also pay attention to what your mood is when you hear yourself say it.  And see if you can notice any correlation between the frequency of “shoulds” and how negatively you may end up feeling about yourself. 

In my previous post I talked about what perfectionism is and how it looks, because most of the time people don’t tend to identify themselves as perfectionists. Yet it’s something I see the characteristics of over and over again in my clients lives.  Together we’re often uncovering for the first time all the ways it shows up and impacts how they feel.  

It can seem like such a small thing, using the word should. But I want you to think about how every time you do, you’re unnecessarily judging yourself.  I also think it’s important to pay attention to how that judgement (or ‘should’) feels in your body.  

Do you feel contracted, weighed down, or notice your body subtly turning inwards?  

Or do you feel expansive, light, and open?  

When it comes to judgement, it’s safe to say we all do it.  Hell even the Dalai Lama has said that he judges on occasion.  We can’t help it, we are only human after all. And being human means we’re imperfect.  But judgment inherently leaves only two options: right or wrong, good or bad, black or white, either-or.  When we judge, especially when we’re on the receiving end of a negative judgment, it doesn’t feel good. And yet we consciously and unconsciously do this to ourselves over and over again, 100s of times a day or week in the language we use and our self talk.  

Imagine how much your mood could potentially shift if you just took that one little word out of your vocabulary. I wonder how much your life could change if you stopped shoulding all over yourself.  So I’m going to challenge you to consider replacing the word ‘should’ with something that allows for a little more openness and possibility. 

By shifting outside of the world of black-and-white, or right and wrong that judgment lives in, you can move towards the world of middle ground, the gray; which is far more open, fluid and expansive and usually results in us feeling better.   You also start to feel more in control and empowered by recognizing that each of your decisions is a choice that you are making. No judgement, just a fact. Because the truth is everything you do is a choice you get to make. You get to decide what to do with your time, you get to decide what activity to do next, you get to decide what to wear today, etc. 

I understand it may feel like you don’t always have a choice in the matter, but I’ll save that conversation for a different post.  For now, I want you to try replacing the word ‘should’ with some iteration of the phrase “I choose to _____”.  For example, rather than saying “I should be doing the dishes instead of wasting time online” try saying “I am choosing to read this article right now and I can get to the dishes later”.  This simple little word swap puts you back in the driver seat of your life, puts you back in control of your time, and puts you in a place that feels much more grounded and empowered. I’ll come back to tending to those negative or unpleasant emotions next time.

So just for today or how about the rest of the week, start paying attention to your language and the words you use and how often the word ‘should’ pops up in your mind or your speech.  

Once you’ve done that for awhile and perhaps sufficiently feel like crap from constantly “shoulding all over yourself”, and you’re ready to do something about it start replacing the word ‘should’ with ‘I am choosing to’ and see how that feels instead. 

Till next time wishing you good health, wellness, and love.

Like this blog post? Share your thoughts below and tell me how ‘should’ shows up in your life. 

Am I a perfectionist?

In my work with clients I find that only a small percentage self-identify as perfectionists when they walk through my door.  Yet over and over again after we’ve spent some time working together (often only a few sessions) it becomes clear that perfectionism is something that has been insidiously plaguing their lives and greatly impacting how they feel.  

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning, there is such a thing as “healthy striving” and despite some similarities, it’s quite different from perfectionism.  If you google the phrase “healthy striving vs perfectionism” you’ll get tons of articles, blog posts and references. Most notably is the work of one of my mentors, Brene Brown, whose book The Gifts of Imperfection was my, like many others introduction to the idea that these two concepts are in fact separate.  It also very clearly highlights the ways perfectionism can disrupt and paralyze lives.

So why are so many people writing about this topic? Why has Brene Brown dedicated the majority of her career to researching components of perfectionism?  I think for the same reason so many people who come to see me don’t call themselves perfectionists (and coincidentally are often not yet familiar with Brene’s work. The short answer is lack of knowledge and shame.   

A lot of individuals who struggle with perfectionism often confuse it for the idea of healthy striving or being highly driven, because they don’t know there is a difference between the two.  Then there’s the more uncomfortable piece, the shame (which is pretty much exclusively what Brene studies). On one hand, we as a society tend to shy away from labeling ourselves with terms that could be considered ‘negative’ and therefore minimize what’s actually going on in our lives out of the fear of the stigma that labels hold.  And on the other hand, the crux of perfectionism is the shame that it is crafted to cover.

I want to be clear though, whether perfectionism shows up in your life or not (just as with any other mental health condition), it does not define who you are as a person, but rather is a lens through which you view yourself which impacts how you think, feel and act.  The beauty of that distinction is that we can change the lens through which we see things.  We can take off the unhealthy clouded filter and replace it with a new, clean, and clear one that better serves us.  

What does perfectionism really look like?

I’ll give you just a brief list of ways that it has shown up for the clients I’ve worked with (and even myself) for now.  As you read through the list below, I’d ask you to take a thorough look at your own life and see if any of these show up for you consistently.

  • Being overly harsh with yourself (inner critic voice) when you make a mistake or fail at something, often to the point where you become identified with the failure.

    • Shows up as thoughts like: “I’m such a failure/idiot”, “I can’t do anything right”, “I hate myself”.  These repeating thoughts tend to lead to depression or feelings of unworthiness.

  • Setting unrealistically high expectations of yourself and then feeling disappointed and beating yourself up for not meeting them.  

    • How this shows up? I like to call it “shoulding all over yourself”, i.e. “I should be able to ____” or “I should know better” or some other “should” statement that ultimately results in you feeling like that shitty failure again.  The degree of this varies person to person, but tends to show up repeatedly in conversations.

  • A constant worry or fear that other people are judging you, unhappy with your work/performance, or will disapprove of something you are doing and therefore disapprove of you as a person.

    • This shows up with thoughts like: “They all think I’m not doing enough” or “They’re all gonna think I have no idea what I’m talking about” or how about this common combo “I’m certainly not an expert in this, I need to learn/read/research/do a lot more first, then I’ll feel ready” (and yet you never do).

These are just a few of the most common things I hear from clients, but perfectionism can show up in many more ways and have a broad spectrum of impact on how you feel; which again can make it difficult to identify.  

So, how’d you do? If any of these resonate with you and you’re beginning to wonder if maybe perfectionism is playing a bigger role in your life than you previously realized I want to remind you that it is possible to change these thoughts and feelings. And that’s exactly what I help most of my clients do.  

What’s next?

If you’d like to know more about how I help people do this you can stick around for future posts where I’ll talk more about the strategies you can use to start changing your mindset, as well as learning about the roots and ways to heal from the shame that lies at the heart of perfectionism.  You can also follow me on Instagram and Facebook where I post tips, helpful reminders and insights on ways to manage perfectionism, anxiety, people pleasing and many more mental health related issues. And finally, you can reach out here to set up a consultation call to discuss if therapy is right for you right now.

Have something to add to this post or a question about perfectionism? Feel free to leave a comment below!

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