The Dangers of Shoulding Yourself (3 Insights To Change Any Habit)

Shoulding Yourself Is A Straight Shot To Misery

“In our language there is a word with enormous power to create shame and guilt. This violent word, which we commonly use to evaluate ourselves, is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that many of us would have trouble imagining how to live without it. It is the word should, as in “I should have known better” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” Most of the time when we use this word with ourselves, we resist learning, because should implies that there is no choice. Human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy—our strong need for choice. We have this reaction to tyranny even when it’s internal tyranny in the form of a should.”

Marshall Rosenberg
Pastel Colorful Simple Tips for Grocery Saving Instagram Post shoulding yourself
The Three Musts of Irrational Thinking

If you should, should, should, you’ll should all over yourself!

Clayton Barbeau coined the term “shoulding yourself” as a helpful mnemonic device to avoid this cognitive distortion.

The late Albert Ellis called it “musterbation.”

The latter is likely my favorite. Just has an air of appeal to it!

Rosenberg describes shoulding as fundamentally moralistic.

Things are binary, either good or bad with little variation.

Thus, when what is good fails to be carried out with sufficiency, guilt and shame swiftly follow.

Yet, if our nature resist these demands by virtue of their threat to our human need for autonomy, then quite naturally shame is our modus operandi.

Yellow Minimalist Reminder Facebook Post shoulding yourself
A reminder to stop shoulding all over yourself!

An Illustration of Demands

For example, if I have an internal demand that everything must, has to, should, needs to go smoothly and according to plan, this demand will arouse feelings that won’t serve me.

For starters, I’ll persistently experience restlessness, irritability, and discontent.

This isn’t the most resourceful emotional state for creativity to blossom and solutions to be formed.

It’s panicky, reactive, and looking for a quick fix.

Secondly, the underlying assumption intrinsic to these demands is my worth as a person is contingent upon my performance.

I call this “performance-based justification (PBJ).”

PBJ fuels an unending desire to prove my worth.

  • Will I live up to the expectation?
  • Will my existence ever feel justified?
  • Will I ever have anything but brief moments of relief?
  • Will anyone actually accept me with my litany of limitations
  • Will I ever be good enough? Will I find approval?

The list can go on and on, plug in some of your own.

In the end, I’ll hate myself because absolutist type thinking always comes packaged with moralistic judgements.

Which as already noted means I’m either good or bad, right or wrong, and there is no in-between.

Since the demands go contrary to my nature to curiously explore the world to satisfy my basic needs, I’m judged as “bad” right out of the gate.

The question is will I be encouraged and motivated to do something I feel I’m obligated to do?

Of course not!

“Nothing done involuntarily is done with life-giving joy”

Nonviolent Communication

Therefore, as I tell myself I should do something or that something must go a specific way, whether it comes to fruition or not I still end up hating myself.

The primary flaw is that demands never pay out; there is never a return on the energy invested.

Energy fueled by guilt is unfulfilling and exhausted quickly.

Not only will my so-called plan never unfold as desired, but my relationships will be significantly strained as well.

Life will be an ever flowing stream of guilt and shame for setting a high expectation on others yet hypocritically finding the same expectations unrealized in my own life.

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Performance-Based Justification (PB&J)

I’ll likely point the finger, to explain away the discomfort.

This is standard issue PBJ camouflage, targeting external entities to make sense of my low mood, as this will protect the PBJ from being exposed as the genuine source of my dilemma.

I can’t evaluate what I don’t have any awareness of!

The PBJ is doomed to fail on every conceivable level because the underlying assumption reduces myself and others to conditional worth.

It’s a recipe for anxiety, unhappiness, and interpersonal disconnection.

A Helpful Thought Experiment

Thought experiments can be a helpful antidote.

thought ex·per·i·ment
/THôt ikˈsperəmənt,ekˈsperəmənt/
an experiment carried out only in the imagination.
“the far-sighted politician must do a thought experiment and apply the test of war”

Let’s apply the thoughts universally and see what happens….

If everyone involved in my plan operates with the same demands – that it must go smoothly and according to plan – then everyone will believe the plan should go a very specific way, their own way, yet with variations.

These variations will be at odds with others variations.

This means that even if the sum total of all actions results in a job extraordinarily well done, the guilt and shame will remain.

The experience of a collective rest would be impossible and the only guaranteed outcome would be a failure to measure up (conditional value!).

Why? Because a job well done could never justify one’s total existence.

I suppose only a job well done but infinitely realized could acquire that type of existential justification.

But no finite being could pull off this task (don’t worry I’m not about to pitch you the gospel!).

Now I’m not saying that everyone operates with these demands, but offering a mere thought experiment to demonstrate the futility of absolutist and moralistic type thinking.

What if all people thought the same way? If everyone in the universe operated from the same assumptions, what world would it be?

That can be the most illuminating question.

How To Spot The Demand

A formula I created that demonstrates this absolutist insanity is as follows:

Pink and Blue Nerdy Math Formula Birthday Card shoulding yourself
A simple formula for emotional wellness

In the above scenario it looks like this:

Demand: everything must, has to, should, needs to go smoothly and according to plan

Feeling: afraid, aggravated, anxious, despairing, panicky, overwhelmed, resentful, suspicious, uneasy, uptight, and worried.

Unresourceful State: a low mood/unmet needs (see more details below).

You can always trace the feeling back to the demand.

Your social conditioning will compel you to blame people, places, and things around you for your feelings.

However if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll uncover the demand and you’ll be able to see the PBJ in action.

3 Activities To Dismantle The Demand

Let’s work our way backwards. What is an unresourceful state? It’s a low mood produced by a volume of unmet needs.

George Pransky defines moods as a navigational system.

“The specific feeling state we are in at a given moment tells us the quality of our thinking in that specific moment…our feelings, when properly understood for what they are, provide the self-correcting mechanism in the human psyche. Just as physical pain informs us about what’s happening in the body, emotional pain informs us about our thinking and understanding.”

George Pransky

He further defines a low mood with precision. He comments they follow a specific pattern:

  • Our mental activity—or thinking velocity—increases.
  • Our thinking gravitates to problems and dissatisfactions.
  • We experience a heightened but distorted sense of immediacy. For example, we think we must do something right away about our circumstances.
  • We feel self-conscious. It seems we are the center of everybody’s attention.
  • We have a pessimistic outlook. We notice limitations and are blind to possibilities.
  • We entertain many negative thoughts, emotions and concerns.

Pransky believes low moods always direct us to the quality of our thinking, be it conscious or unconscious.

I believe that a low mood is built upon thinking produced by performance-based justification (PBJ) and its comrades, the demands. The results are alienation from the very behaviors that satisfy our needs.

But what can we do about it?

(1) Ask The Right Questions
(2) Practice NVC Mourning
(3) Apply NVC Self-Forgiveness

Social Media Content Creation Pillars Instagram Post shoulding yourself

(1) Ask The Right Questions

I briefly demonstrated above how merely asking questions can disarm absolutist thinking and uncover the irrationality of it.

I want to provide a deeper analysis to this type of questioning.

Should Statements Are Automatic Thoughts

“What are automatic thoughts? As you may have guessed, automatic thoughts are the kind of negative self-talk that appears immediately, without us even being aware of forming a thought, in response to a certain stimulus.”

Obviously we do have obligations.

We don’t arbitrarily create reasons why some things should be done and not others.

We have our reasons, usually entailing specific consequences for not taking a course of action. The costs and benefits are weighed and a conclusion is produced.

These thoughts however are not automatic, they are rational conclusions.

The first course of attack against these automatic thoughts is asking why. Why should you do it?

It’s interesting, once you can provide a sufficient reason for the “should” the “should” becomes inconsequential.

To provide an example, if I have the automatic thought that “I should do my clinical notes directly after meeting with a client,” I can quickly counter that with a reason using the “if/then” technique.

“If I don’t do my clinical notes directly after meeting with my client, then the amount of notes at the end of the day will seem insurmountable.”

The automatic thought becomes a factual statement that reports the consequences of a given action. Moreover, it’s no longer a demand but a preference to avoid a high volume of notes.

Rather than feeling like it’s an obligation which will produce feelings of resistance and anxiety, it becomes a reasonable approach to avoid feelings of resistance and anxiety!

The primary problem we run into with automatic shoulding, is that the demand is an abstract and universal obligation.

Whereas the “if/then” technique narrows down the obligation to a specific context.

Abstract and universal obligations control behavior by making you feel wrong or guilty for failure to meet the demand (the PBJ).

But so much energy wasted wallowing in guilt is hardly resourceful. Furthermore, guilt is a response to a moral failure. If everything becomes a moral failure then we end up trivializing guilt and obscure morality.

To be motivated by a desire to avoid the unpleasant feeling of guilt is not moral and misses the entire point of morality, which is to enable satisfaction of the basic needs of all people.

To piggyback off the example above, if my automatic thought is driven by avoiding guilt, the statement will be accompanied by a desire to find social approval.

“I should do my clinical notes right after a session or else people will think I’m a poor therapist.”

This is terrible reasoning, however, because I’m first evaluating others and then claiming to know what they are thinking!

A telltale sign a thought is being hijacked by guilt-evasion is this “I should/or else” pattern.

So keep a keen eye out for that!

Finally, ask yourself the question: is this something I must do or something I choose to do?

Rather than say “I should do my clinical notes directly after meeting with a client” I can declare that “I choose to do my clinical notes directly after meeting with a client.”

Instead of disempowering myself through obscure moral obligations and demands I can empower myself through choice and control.

Moreover, if I cannot convince myself that it’s something I would choose to do, then maybe I need to reevaluate my values and why that specific thing is supposedly important and necessary for my life.

Let’s highlight the main points:

  • Be weary of automatic thoughts
  • The should becomes irrelevant with a sufficient reason – use if/then technique..
  • Shoulding is always accompanied by an evasion of guilt – “I should/or else” patterns are a huge indicator
  • Change the “I should” statement to an “I choose statement.”
Pink and Black Duo Tone Seamless Carousel Instagram Post shoulding yourself
The if/then technique to stop shoulding

(2) Practicing NVC Mourning

Mourning in NVC is the process of fully connecting with the unmet needs and the feelings that are generated when we have been less than perfect. It is an experience of regret, but regret that helps us learn from what we have done without blaming or hating ourselves. We see how our behavior ran counter to our own needs and values, and we open ourselves to feelings that arise out of that awareness. When our consciousness is focused on what we need, we are naturally stimulated toward creative possibilities for how to get that need met. In contrast, the moralistic judgments we use when blaming ourselves tend to obscure such possibilities and to perpetuate a state of self-punishment.

Marshall Rosenberg

There is a saying in NLP when it comes to the feeling of having been less than perfect, “there is no failure, only feedback.”

This slogan alone provides relief from berating yourself with how sucky you’ve been!

It teaches you that failure doesn’t even exist.

It’s a mere social construct built upon moralistic judgements.

It enables you to apprehend that all life-alienating judgments are the products of the PBJ, likely crafted and injected into our culture to create feelings of inferiority so we’d be willing and loyal subjects, I digress.

The truth is failure is a measure of progress, providing feedback on how to arrive closer to your goal.

If I think “I can’t believe I let the clinical notes pile up again, this is going to take forever, I’m such a stupid person,” then I need to find the feedback in these feelings.

In NVC, the idea is to peek behind the curtain of these moralistic judgements.

What unmet need is being expressed in my statement?

Rosenberg’s words are most illuminating.

“When we do connect to the need—and there may be several layers of needs—we will notice a remarkable shift in our bodies. Instead of the shame, guilt, or depression we likely feel when criticizing ourselves for having “messed up again,” we will experience any number of other feelings. Whether it’s sadness, frustration, disappointment, fear, grief, or some other feeling, we have been endowed by nature with these feelings for a purpose: they mobilize us to pursue and fulfill what we need or value. The impact of these feelings on our spirit and bodies is substantially different from the disconnection that is brought on by guilt, shame, and depression.”

Just as Pransky refers to moods as a barometer of the quality of our thoughts, per Rosenberg, the quality of thought is largely indicative of the distance between ourselves and an unmet need.

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Guilt and shame – and all the negative feelings associated with them – demonstrate how far removed we are from meeting a specific need.

Rosenberg emphasizes, “I see all anger as a result of life-alienating, violence-provoking thinking. At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled. Thus anger can be valuable if we use it as an alarm clock to wake us up—to realize we have a need that isn’t being met and that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely to be met.”

Operating from this vantage point reduces the amount of tension and strain in our bodies and self-hatred in our thinking.

It allows us to elevate to a higher mood.

Pransky outlines this ascent using the analogy of an elevator.

If life is an elevator, moods are the floors we visit. Let’s explore five floors (among an infinite number):

The Elevator of Mood

First Floor (Gloom and Doom): my colleagues are way better counselors than I am. I significantly doubt I’m helping anyone. The system is broken. Why even bother, everyone judges me anyway.

Second Floor (All Is Not Right With The World): the world is full of evil people. My life is awful. I put in all this effort and work and clearly somebody else makes the profit. All my relationships and my job are riddled with defects.

Third Floor (I’m Okay. Life’s Okay): if I have the right attitude, not only am I effective as a counselor but I enjoy it. My relationships are better than I usually think. I’m quite content with my lot in life.

Fourth Floor (Gratitude): people are so well intended. Even those who appear to do wrong are misguided and are at least doing so with a positive intention. They’re so many opportunities out in the world. Counseling is so much more than 1:1 sessions, there are so many moving parts that I’ll find my niche for sure. Life is an adventure.

Fifth Floor (Inspiration): my work is my passion and it truly energizes me. I don’t think any direction I move at this point won’t be filled with positive interaction, innovative solutions, and creative engagement. My ideas seem endless!

Obviously it’s far more nuanced and robust than this, but it gives you a bird’s eye view.

(3) Applying NVC Self-Forgiveness

When we listen empathically to ourselves, we will be able to hear the underlying need. Self-forgiveness occurs the moment this empathic connection is made. Then we are able to recognize how our choice was an attempt to serve life, even as the mourning process teaches us how it fell short of fulfilling our needs.

Marshall Rosenberg

The mourning process is the point of contact with ourselves when we finally understand the need we’ve been leaving unmet.

We understand that shoulding is just a colossal misunderstanding! The PBJ is not real! Our value is not conditional, instead we have unconditional worth just by virtue of being human.

We can connect with our humanness, our core, and see our imperfect selves desperately trying to meet an unmet need with a faulty road map (the PBJ).

It’s easy to forgive ourselves at this point. We aren’t terminally bad, rather we are just operating from a misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding is often termed the outside-in perspective.

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The Outside-In Model

The outside-in model states that all our experience is constructed by external events.

This is a misunderstanding with massive implications – reread all the above!

The PBJ – and all shoulding – is unequivocally a product of this paradigm.


Experience is created from the inside out, not the outside in.

Human needs are the life force or the inner energy that “drives” us – from within!

This is the “inside-out” model.

The Inside-out Model

  • Our feelings are generated by met or unmet needs.
  • Unmet needs will manifest as irrational or unresourceful interpretation of events and low moods (self-defeating thinking that alienates us from meeting our needs).
  • If our thoughts are on strategizing to meet our needs and emphatically meeting the needs of others our feelings and moods will reach healthier heights and creativity and solutions will blossom.

When we fall prey to the belief that our feelings are generated by what’s happening external to us, we become perennial victims of events and our mood drops.

We obviously can’t control everything and even if we could we’d live in constant fear that it would all soon be swept away.

Rather than being dominated by guilt and shame due to a failure to meet our needs, we can see the misunderstanding.

Subsequently, we can begin moving emphatically to meet our needs and those around us.

Rosenberg provides greater clarity to this new paradigm for living, perceiving, and thinking in this world.

“When we express our needs indirectly through the use of evaluations, interpretations, and images, others are likely to hear criticism. And when people hear anything that sounds like criticism, they tend to invest their energy in self-defense or counterattack. If we wish for a compassionate response from others, it is self-defeating to express our needs by interpreting or diagnosing their behavior. Instead, the more directly we can connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond to us compassionately.”

Marshall Rosenberg

The NVC 4-Point Process

I now leave you with the NVC 4-part process for eliminating shoulding and liberating yourself emotionally and spiritually. Do with it what you will!

  1. Observe without judging. Notice and express information without evaluating in terms of right or wrong (steer clear of language that alienates you from your needs).
  2. Express feelings. Learn to express feelings authentically. Often when we say we are expressing our feelings we are usually expressing our thoughts. For example, “I feel like you misunderstand me.” This is telling the person what you are thinking they are thinking. It doesn’t express a feeling. A feeling rightly expressed could be “I feel irritable when I have to continuously explain myself because I really have this need to be heard and validated.”
  3. Express and clarify your needs. Stay away from vague words with numerous meanings. For instance, if I say “I feel good about that,” we have numerous roads we can go down. Good can refer to happy, excited, contented, relieved, and really any number of emotions. Additionally, “that” is in reference to what? See how this can easily become convoluted? If I tell you I need support I’m communicating a need, but not very effectively. The word “support” could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Do your best to create the minimal amount of interpretations. “I need support with cleaning up the house because organization and cleanliness are important to me.”
  4. Express specific requests based on your feelings and needs. After clarifying your emotions and needs, finish by making a clear request (what specifically does the other person have to do so that you can feel your needs have been met?) In the above example, its to assist in cleaning the house.