Shoulds

Shoulds, shoulds definition, shoulds meaning, should statements, cognitive distortions should, shoulds cognitive distortions, shoulds cognitive distortion, should cognitive distortion, fallacy of shoulds, shoulds and musts

Do you often feel guilty, inadequate, or a failure because you impose rigid expectations on yourself? Do you believe you “should” be able to balance your career, parenting, and household chores without help? Do you think you “should” work late every night to prove your commitment to the company and earn a promotion? Are you overly concerned with your fitness level, believing you “should” push yourself through a workout even when you feel exhausted or unwell?

We often burden ourselves with expectations of what we “should” do, forgetting that the language we use can have a powerful impact on us. And few words bring as much grief as “should.”

The “should” statements are a form of cognitive distortion that creates unrealistic expectations and unnecessary pressure.

Understanding the Should cognitive distortion

shoulds

shoulds defitnition

Shoulds meaning

The “should” is one of the cognitive distortions, or ways our minds trick us into believing things that might not be true and feeling more pessimistic. Cognitive distortions can mess with how we interpret situations and relationships.

The “should” cognitive distortion means that we tend to put unreasonable and unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others. Phrases like “I should…” or “You should…” can make us feel pressured to meet unrealistic standards, so each mistake we make can trigger dissatisfaction, self-esteem issues, anxiety, or depression.

For example, your loud inner critic might constantly be telling you what you should or shouldn’t be doing, e.g., “I should always be getting straight A’s,” “I should work harder to earn a raise,” “I should not make mistakes,” “I should not be so sensitive,” etc. Over time, this mindset can diminish your confidence and self-esteem, hindering your professional success, personal growth, and relationship fulfillment.

The "should" is one of the cognitive distortions, or ways our minds trick us into believing things that might not be true and feeling more pessimistic. Cognitive distortions can mess with how we interpret situations and relationships. Shoulds, shoulds definition, shoulds meaning, should statements, cognitive distortions should, shoulds cognitive distortions, shoulds cognitive distortion, should cognitive distortion, fallacy of shoulds, shoulds and musts

Here are some common "should" statements:

Should statements

  • I should be more productive and get more done each day.
  • I should exercise every day and have a fit physique.
  • I should never make mistakes at school/work if I want to be seen as competent.
  • I should be able to juggle all my responsibilities well – career, parenting, health, social life, etc.
  • I should always have a put-together life.
  • I should be selfless and put everyone else’s needs before my own.
  • I should know what I’m doing with my life and have a clear plan by now.
  • I should be happy and never show stress or vulnerability.
  • I should agree with whatever my friends, family or colleagues think I should do.
  • I should have an active social life and be comfortable in groups rather than introverted.

The “shoulds” we impose on ourselves are often unrealistic, yet stem from common themes like wanting to prove our worth, seeking approval, pursuing perfect standards, and comparing ourselves to others. The more we can notice and evaluate our personal shoulds with self-compassion, the less power they wield over us.

How to recognize the Shoulds in your thinking

We all have certain beliefs or expectations about how things “should” be. Sometimes these come from society, family upbringing, or even ourselves. Shoulds and oughts aren’t inherently bad, but unattainable or rigid shoulds can lead to unnecessary stress. Noticing our automatic “should” thoughts is the first step in managing them.

Start by listening for common should/ought language we use like “should,” “must,” “ought to,” and “have to.” Pay attention to feelings of guilt, shame, or regret, as these often indicate an underlying should belief causing emotional turmoil. For example, “I should visit my grandmother more often” can lead to guilt. Also notice when you compare yourself to peers—thoughts like “I should be farther along in my career by now” signal expectations you feel you haven’t met.

Additionally, listen for black-and-white statements like “I never do anything right” or extremes like “always” and “nothing.” These absolutes reveal inflexible standards we often unrealistically hold ourselves or others to. Furthermore, check in on feelings of resentment or anger towards other people. Thoughts like “My partner should help me more around the house” point back to shoulds causing frustration.

Finally, tune into physical tension or heaviness, as somatic cues can reflect the stress of unattainable shoulds. By mindfully observing our should thoughts without judgment, we can start identify the shoulds in our thoughts that are weighing us down.

The different types of Shoulds

Cognitive distortions shoulds

shoulds cognitive distortions

should cognitive distortion

Various types of “shoulds” may govern our behavior and make us feel discontent or misplaced in life:

Internal shoulds

Internal “shoulds” have roots in our self-imposed standards, values, and beliefs. It’s when we put pressure on ourselves with ideas of what we should achieve or how we should behave, frequently leading to self-criticism and guilt when we fail to achieve them.

For example, personal preference thoughts like “I should exercise daily to stay healthy” or “I should keep striving until I reach my career goals.” The key here is noticing when our own ambitions tip into burnout, diminish joy in the present, or ignore needs for rest and renewal. Self-imposed high expectations still require balance

Internal "shoulds" have roots in our self-imposed standards, values, and beliefs. It’s when we put pressure on ourselves with ideas of what we should achieve or how we should behave, frequently leading to self-criticism and guilt when we fail to achieve them. Shoulds, shoulds definition, shoulds meaning, should statements, cognitive distortions should, shoulds cognitive distortions, shoulds cognitive distortion, should cognitive distortion, fallacy of shoulds, shoulds and musts

External shoulds

External “shoulds” are expectations put on us by others, such as family, peers, or social media. External “shoulds” dictate how we should behave, look, or make decisions. They can cause us to feel dissatisfied and frustrated because we feel like we’re living up to someone else’s standards instead of our own.

Sentences like “I should always keep my promises” and “You should call your mother more often” fall under duty-based shoulds. We may use charged language like “ought to,” “must,” or “have to” to signal responsibility. However, beware when obligations become excessive, demand perfectionism, or drain energy needed for self-care.

External "shoulds" are expectations put on us by others, such as family, peers, or social media. External "shoulds" dictate how we should behave, look, or make decisions. Shoulds, shoulds definition, shoulds meaning, should statements, cognitive distortions should, shoulds cognitive distortions, shoulds cognitive distortion, should cognitive distortion, fallacy of shoulds, shoulds and musts

Societal shoulds

Societal “shoulds” are general rules that come from cultural norms and societal values. They affect how we should look, act, and live our lives, making us feel like we have to fit in to be successful or accepted.

For instance, thoughts like “I should be married by 30 to be successful” or “I should look as skinny as celebrities and influencers” reference social comparison. The problem is attributes like relationship or body type represent only averages or mainstream narratives that define individual worth in a harmful way.

If you're struggling with the burden of "shoulds"...

Schedule a consultation with our vetted therapists.

Impact on mental health: how Should statements contribute to stress, anxiety, and self-criticism

“Should” statements can cause stress and burnout because they create unrealistic and inflexible expectations that we put on ourselves. You might always have this critical voice in your head that constantly points out all the things you’re not good at instead of recognizing all the hard work you have put in and the things you’ve achieved. This can make you anxious, constantly worrying about whether you’re measuring up or not.

For example, if you are an ambitious employee burdened by your own “shoulds,” you may overwork yourself in order to gain recognition from your company. Your belief that you must continually outperform others may cause you to overlook your personal life, relationships, and health, resulting in stress and burnout.

External "shoulds" are expectations put on us by others, such as family, peers, or social media. External "shoulds" dictate how we should behave, look, or make decisions. Shoulds, shoulds definition, shoulds meaning, should statements, cognitive distortions should, shoulds cognitive distortions, shoulds cognitive distortion, should cognitive distortion, fallacy of shoulds, shoulds and musts. How shoulds impact mental health

Where do the Should statements come from?

Internalized ideas and standards

While we grow up, our parents, caregivers, teachers, and other authority figures instill in us their ideas and beliefs about right and wrong, moral and immoral, appropriate and inappropriate. This is known as the process of socialization, whereby our own norms, values, standards, and behaviors change to conform to what our agents of socialization (parents, institutions, media, etc.) regard as appropriate or desirable.

These internalized beliefs often lead to frustration, shame, and resentment when obligations conflict with our desires and genuine needs, generating additional adverse outcomes, including stress, burnout, and a decreased sense of self-worth.

External "shoulds" are expectations put on us by others, such as family, peers, or social media. External "shoulds" dictate how we should behave, look, or make decisions. Shoulds, shoulds definition, shoulds meaning, should statements, cognitive distortions should, shoulds cognitive distortions, shoulds cognitive distortion, should cognitive distortion, fallacy of shoulds, shoulds and musts. where should statements come from

Strict Upbringing

Children raised by strict caregivers who mainly criticized and enforced rules, frequently shaming and punishing the child instead of using positive reinforcement, may develop into perfectionists.

Cultural expectations and social conditioning

We frequently carry the weight of societal expectations that dictate how we should act, live, and accomplish our goals in accordance with cultural norms and standards. The constant pressure is exerted on us from childhood, molding us into expected patterns and roles. This “should” trap, or internalization of societal norms and expectations can cause you to make choices based on what you believe you should do rather than on your own desires, needs, and values.

Conforming to such pressure often leads to feelings of inadequacy, dissatisfaction, and guilt as you strive to achieve unattainable goals at the cost of your happiness and losing your authentic self.

For example, the “should” trap may push you to pursue a career that does not align with your actual passions and interests but with external norms, such as becoming a lawyer because your parents desired it, despite your affinity and passion for art. This can create a profound disconnection between your behavior and lifestyle and your true self, potentially creating unhappiness, frustration, anxiety, a sense of inadequacy, and a feeling that something important is missing in your life.

Get support to break free from self-limiting “shoulds”

Schedule a consultation with our vetted therapists.

Using Should as a coping mechanism

We sometimes use “should” statements to protect ourselves from stress, believing that setting rules and goals for ourselves will help us gain control over our lives. When work and family life feel chaotic, we instinctively want guardrails. So we tell ourselves “I should get up early every day to exercise before the kids wake up” or “I should stop procrastinating and work for one hour each night after dinner to finish this project.” Deep down, we hope that imposing expectations will motivate us to power through stressful periods and maintain some sense of order.

However, “shoulds” become harmful when our self-imposed “shoulds” become too rigid or extreme. Saying “I should never make a mistake with my client deliverables” while burning the candle at both ends breeds anxiety. Similarly, expecting ourselves to function like a zen wellness guru when holding down multiple demanding responsibilities ignores the reality of seasons like having a colicky newborn that severely disrupt sleep.

In essence, “should” thoughts often backfire, ratcheting up self-judgment and anxiety when we inevitably fall short of perfectionistic standards. Unrealistic, exaggerated expectations of self-control exhaust rather than calm us. We compound difficult situations by layering on self-criticism for not meeting impossibly high bars.

One way to combat unhealthy “shoulds” is to notice when self-imposed “shoulds” start fueling negative thought cycles rather than reducing overwhelm. If you observe yourselves berating shortcomings around time management, organization, health habits, productivity or more, it likely signals that the rigid rules aimed at coping have gone too far. With self-compassion, loosen the reins of perfectionism. Progress happens gradually, amidst ups and downs. Recalibrate standards to what reasonably works for you.

External "shoulds" are expectations put on us by others, such as family, peers, or social media. External "shoulds" dictate how we should behave, look, or make decisions. Shoulds, shoulds definition, shoulds meaning, should statements, cognitive distortions should, shoulds cognitive distortions, shoulds cognitive distortion, should cognitive distortion, fallacy of shoulds, shoulds and musts. using shoulds as a coping mechanism

Impact of unmet Shoulds on self-esteem

Many of us are familiar with the nagging inner voice telling us we “should” be working harder, keeping a tidier home, calling our relatives more often, or any number of unrealistic expectations. When we fail to meet these standards over time, either imposed internally or by someone else, it often catalyzes feelings of inadequacy or failure.

The problem is that when we don’t attain perfectionistic shoulds, we tend to engage in harsh self-criticism and blame. Thoughts like “What’s wrong with me that I can’t get my act together?” or “If I was more competent/organized/dedicated I could have achieved this” whittle away self-confidence. Over time, the unmet shoulds warp our self-perception – leading us to conclude we simply are not good enough as we are.

Additionally, chronically striving after unrealistic expectations or rigid obligations leaves little room for actually enjoying life day-to-day. We become so focused on chasing misguided finish lines like the next promotion, milestone birthday celebration, or renovation checkmark that we miss out on the small precious moments along the way with loved ones.

When we base self-worth on achievement of unreasonable standards that are bound to consistently elude us, we end up depleted and dissatisfied. This perpetual discontent fuels beliefs that we don’t measure up and erodes any sense of intrinsic value separate from accomplishments.

7 ways to escape the trap of toxic "Shoulds"

1. Navigate Shoulds with Flexibility

Framing desires as fixed expectations ignores our basic humanity—we all have limits and changing needs. More flexible should thoughts offer mindful suggestions rather than uncompromising commands. For example, “I should make self-care a priority when possible” has inbuilt wiggle room. The phrase “when possible” honors that taking bubble baths daily might not be feasible as a busy, working mom of three young kids. However, understanding the value of rest reminds us to carve out small moments of renewal amidst life’s demands.

Healthy shoulds also remain adaptable to life’s curveballs. Consider the past few years navigating a pandemic. Rigid standards simply don’t allow for massive disruptions to normalcy. Parents scrambling to work remotely while handling school shutdowns surely had to reframe restrictive shoulds around home schooling or productivity just to cope.

In essence, flexible should thoughts give us direction without judgment. They provide a compass to point toward our priorities rather than serving as a rigid benchmark of failure. The key rests in using should statements with self-awareness, adaptability and self-compassion as our guides. Mistakes or limitations don’t equate to inadequacy—they simply show we are human beings deserving of understanding. With practice, we can discern when shoulds serve rather than undermine us.

External "shoulds" are expectations put on us by others, such as family, peers, or social media. External "shoulds" dictate how we should behave, look, or make decisions. Shoulds, shoulds definition, shoulds meaning, should statements, cognitive distortions should, shoulds cognitive distortions, shoulds cognitive distortion, should cognitive distortion, fallacy of shoulds, shoulds and musts. navigate shoulds with flexibility

2. Reframe Should statements

how to reframe should statements

Changing how you think and react to your internal demands can help deconstruct the “shoulds” and reframe those unhelpful thoughts. So, pay attention to when you are using “should” statements. Journaling can be a valuable tool for detecting “shoulds” in your inner dialogue so that you can reframe them and separate what you think you should do from what you actually want to do.

Also, writing your thoughts down can help challenge these irrational beliefs by critically evaluating your “should” statements and asking yourself, “Is this really true? Why do I think this?” What proof do I have?” This should help examine the evidence – question the validity of your thoughts, and help you determine whether they are based on your true values or external pressures.

Finally, aim to replace every “should” with preference as this shifts the focus, transforming the activity from an obligation into a choice. Instead of stating, “I should stay late to do all the work,” say, “I’d rather stay a little later today so I can spend the weekend stress-free with my family.” This way, the decision to work extra hours is motivated by your desire to spend quality time with your family, making the task feel more rewarding.

Reframe Should statements

3. Do some inner child work

Many of our self-limiting beliefs and destructive “should” statements were shaped in childhood by emotional wounds or the demands of others. As adults we subconsciously carry inner “children” filled with unmet needs that drive feelings of inadequacy or fear of falling short. By learning to nurture these hurt inner parts, we can start to transform our relationship with ourselves and escape the tyranny of rigid expectations.

The first step is to notice when your inner critic is berating you with a harsh “should” statement like “you should be working harder” or “you shouldn’t make so many mistakes.” Then close your eyes and visualize speaking to your inner child – perhaps picture yourself at 5-6 years old. Using imagination, have a conversation with compassion. Ask “why do you feel you have to push yourself so hard all the time? What are you afraid will happen if you don’t criticize yourself?” Listen for any feelings of wanting safety, approval, or fear of vulnerability.

Address the needs and emotions that arise, offering reassurance that you are enough. For example, “You are so worthy of love exactly as you are,” “It’s okay now to rest when you’re tired or sad,” “You don’t have to earn my affection by being perfect.” Keep dialoguing until you cultivate self-trust and release demands rooted in past emotional wounds.

Additionally, enact nurturing experiences your inner child missed out on but craved, whether physical affection, positive encouragement and mirroring or spontaneous play. Breathe calm and love into places that were deprived. Offer the kind words or thoughtful actions the critic inside still thirsts for.

By learning to compassionately parent ourselves, we transform our relationship to limiting beliefs and unreasonable should statements over time. The inner critic’s grip loosens as we recognize the suffering child within each of us just longing for validation and rest.

 

4. Create healthy motivation

Rigid shoulds and expectations feed shame and burnout rather than sustainable motivation. How can we break free while still pursuing meaningful personal growth? The key is cultivating healthy motivation aligned with our core values.

Start by identifying your core values – what matters to you most deeply? Integrity, creativity, connection, growth, meaning? Get clear on the guiding principles you want your choices to reflect. Then set flexible goals oriented around giving expression to these values, rather than chasing validation or “shoulds” imposed externally. Motivation centered on living out what we care about intrinsically is most rewarding long-term.

For instance, if generosity matters deeply, set donating or volunteering goals that excite you as embodiments of that value. If it’s connection, plant social activities among nature hikes or dinners that energize you. Let your values direct how you spend your precious free time and energy.

Focus on progress over perfection when working towards goals. We all have off days where guilt sets in over missed workouts or productivity lulls. But berating yourself for not meeting unrealistic standards every single day is demoralizing. It’s healthier to celebrate small wins while still believing in your ability to persist even amid setbacks. The journey of growth happens gradually.

Should thoughts lose their grip once we align actions with cherished values and work towards our best selves rather than an illusion of perfection. Define success on your own terms.

Shoulds, shoulds definition, shoulds meaning, should statements, cognitive distortions should, shoulds cognitive distortions, shoulds cognitive distortion, should cognitive distortion, fallacy of shoulds, shoulds and musts. navigate shoulds with flexibility

5. Tune Into Your Wants to Release Unhealthy Shoulds

Many of us constantly judge ourselves for not meeting internal “shoulds” and expectations about who we need to be. “I should be more social instead of a homebody” or “I should hustle harder in my career rather than being complacent.” However, incessantly chasing these perceived obligations often leads to chronic stress. The solution rests in tuning into our authentic wants versus the shoulds we carry.

Start by setting aside quiet time for self-reflection. Check in with how you truly want to spend your time and energy. Does a promotion align with desires for more money and status, or feel like an exhausting should driven by workplace pressures? Do you visit friends out of enjoyment or obligation?

Get clear on values guiding your decisions. filter choices through what provides meaning rather than ambition, duty or others’ standards. Connect with passions that energize you rather than deplete you.

Additionally, examine areas where should thoughts breed resentment or steal contentment in the present moment. Are rigid expectations around keeping a tidy house preventing enjoyment of quality family time? Do you berate yourself for not writing enough instead of delighting in special moments with your kids?

Furthermore, notice when self-care shoulds like healthy eating or physical activity start feeling compulsive rather than nourishing. We sometimes lose touch with moderation when prohibited foods or skipped workouts activate overwhelming guilt.

The goal becomes living intentionally while releasing self-judgment. Say no to chasing shoulds dictated by ego, status, or perceived obligations. Instead, say yes to wants that align with your spirit, character strengths, and things that make you feel alive. Quiet the voice churning out duties, oughts and musts, and let your own heart lead the way.

6. Realign responsibilities and goals

What current responsibilities or duties in your life feel genuinely aligned with your values and priorities? Which seem to drag based on expectations, the need for approval, fear or obligation? Consider renegotiating or even relinquishing draining duties where possible so you reclaim energy for what matters most, whether career contributions, creative projects or precious family time.

7. Establish boundaries to combat unhealthy Shoulds

Firmly establish boundaries around the shoulds imposed by others, Healthy boundaries establish what behaviors, demands, comments, or criticisms you will no longer tolerate from others or yourself. They serve to protect your time for rest, relationships that nourish you, and activities that align with your authentic desires. For example, you might set limits on checking work email after 6 pm to create space for recharging. Or say no to volunteering for certain projects at work if they don’t fit with your priorities.

Boundaries also help preserve emotional space for your own wants and needs. For instance, you might set a boundary that you will walk away or change the subject when friends or family make critical comments about your appearance. Or choose to limit interactions with people who constantly compare your life choices negatively to theirs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Priscilla is a therapist, psychoanalyst, and the practice owner of Imagine Emotional Wellness, a culturally responsive online therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. 

Prioritize your mental health and self-care from the comfort of your home.

Schedule a phone consult here. We’ll chat about any questions you might have, and it’ll be an opportunity for me to learn more about you and what you’re going through.
John Doe

John Doe

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit dolor

journaling prompts, journaling with prompts, journaling prompt, prompt for journaling, journaling prompts for mental health, mental health journal prompt, journaling prompts for anxiety, journaling prompts for teens, journaling prompts for self discovery, journaling prompts for self love, journal prompts self reflection, journaling prompts for self reflection, daily journaling prompt

Journaling Prompts

Discover over 100 thought-provoking journaling prompts to enrich your self-reflection. This expansive list of prompts covers topics like self-discovery, mental health, therapy, anxiety, and self-love.

Read More »
wheel feelings, feelings wheel emotions, feelings wheel, feelings wheels, emotions wheel, wheel emotion, emotions wheels, feelings wheel for adults, emotion wheel, emotional wheels, emotional wheel, wheel emotions

Emotions Wheel

Decode your inner world. This blog dives deep, step-by-step, into using the Emotions Wheel as a tool for self-discovery, communication, and emotional well-being.

Read More »
adhd paralysis, choice paralysis, adhd management without medication, what is adhd paralysis, decision paralysis adhd, task paralysis adhd, adhd paralysis symptoms, how to overcome adhd paralysis, add paralysis

ADHD Paralysis

Overcoming ADHD Paralysis: Learn effective strategies to navigate decision-making and task management amidst ADHD challenges. Break the cycle of choice paralysis and indecision.

Read More »
feel feelings, feel the emotions, how to process emotions, process emotion, emotional literacy, process emotions, how to feel feelings

Feel Feelings

Step-by-step guide on how to feel feelings & how to process emotions. Increase your emotional literacy by learning how to feel the emotions that are innate to being human.

Read More »
Enmeshment, family enmeshment, enmeshment define, enmeshment definition define enmeshment, enmeshment trauma, enmeshment relationship, what is enmeshment what does enmeshment mean, boundary enmeshment

Enmeshment

Suffocated by loved ones? Family enmeshment may be at play. Discover how to spot it, understand impacts on identity and relationships, and establish healthy autonomy.

Read More »
gaslighting example, gaslighting examples, gaslight phrases

Gaslighting Examples

Let’s look at common gaslighting examples including blaming, deceit, trivializing concerns that erode self-trust so you can spot and resist emotional manipulation.

Read More »