Should we stop saying should? By Laura Butler – Reg. MBACP (Accred.) Counsellor & Psychotherapist

“I should have done better”

“I shouldn’t feel this way”

“I should be able to cope”

“I shouldn’t be this way”

Have you ever noticed how often you or others say the word should?

Shoulds are often part of our everyday vocabulary and can be helpful in motivating ourselves. However, with should, and similarly should not, have to, ought to, or must, can come pressure, guilt and worry because it reinforces the idea that we’re not enough just being ourselves. Shoulds are often an inflexible and unhelpful burden that demand us to do something. They are mostly negative and come from unrealistic societal pressure, others’ judgments or when we judge ourselves in comparison to others leading us to feel inadequate. They can force us to focus on what we should’ve done differently in the past and what we should or shouldn’t do in the future, rather than living for the present.


Psychiatrist Dr. Karen Horne first identified the ‘tyranny of the should’s and this was later expanded upon by famous Psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis who emphasised how destructive “shoulding” can be. They concluded that if we can challenge this should from a demand to a preference or a request, it can have a positive impact upon our emotions and is a healthier and more accepting approach to have for ourselves.

So, how can we ‘loosen up’ or lose some of these shoulds?

  1. Identify the should. What are you telling yourself you should or shouldn’t do? Are you telling yourself you should or shouldn’t feel a particularly way?
  2. Consider where the should comes from. Who is it that is saying how you should feel or behave? Why should you? What does the should really mean for you?
  3. Challenge the should. Are you putting unfair and unrealistic expectations or demands upon yourself?  
  4. Change the language. If the should is something that you really want, rephrase what you are telling yourself replacing should with a preference by using more helpful and flexible language such as ‘It would be good if…’ or ‘I would prefer it if…’.

Identifying, challenging and modifying your shoulds as and when they come up, or simply taking 5 minutes out of your day to consider what they are, could make a real impact on your mood. 

For more information on shoulds and other negative thinking styles, some helpful websites are listed below:

Get Self Help:

Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI):


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