Thursday, November 08, 2007

Shoulds and Anxiety

This year I'm working with a guy who is way-CBT (he trained under Ellis) and I have been learning a lot of really useful stuff about anxiety and anxiety treatment. One of the big things that I am learning to emphasize to clients with anxiety (and myself, of course) is this whole business of "shoulds".

What it really boils down to is that when we believe that there is some kind of universal law about how we (and others) "should" be, any time there is a deviation from that "should", we feel anxiety. A lot of times we are so used to "shoulding" ourselves that the thought has become very automatic and quick, such that we may not even recognize it as a thought. But it is.

The reason that a deviation from "should" provokes anxiety is that at some level we are telling ourselves that, basically, "I will die if things are not the way they 'should' be." This may sound like an overstatement, but time after time when I ask a client to dig down through their fearful beliefs--without censoring themselves, no matter how unrealistic the fear--the bottom thought they are always shocked to discover is "I will die".

For example, "If I don't ace this exam, I will do poorly in this class. If I don't do great in this class, my academic career will be completely ruined. If my academic career is completely ruined, then my parents will stop supporting me. If my parents stop supporting me, I will not be able to support myself adequately. If I am unable to support myself adequately, then I will end up homeless. If I end up homeless, I will freeze to death in an alley, alone." This is a lot more common than you think. I bet you have some thoughts like this that you haven't examined, either--I know I did.

If you will notice, the example person has unconsciously gone from "I should ace this exam" to "...or else I will freeze to death in an alley, alone." I would feel anxious about the exam, too, if I thought my life depended on it! If you lay out the path of the thoughts like that, the person can see what a ridiculous message they are giving themselves. But that's the problem with automatic thoughts--they go immediately from A to C with little recognition of that whole chain in between. Just recognize that we almost exclusively use "should" to beat ourselves up pointlessly.

A way to subvert this is to take the "should" and frame it as a desire or preference, rather than an imperative. In the example above, the person could reframe the "I should ace this exam" into "I want to ace this exam, because I want the consequence of doing well in this class." Reframing a "should" as a preference or want helps to reduce the fear for two reasons: 1) it subverts the whole "...or I will die" message and turns it into "...but I will still be okay if it doesn't happen", and 2) framing anything as a want leads directly to a goal-oriented train of thought such as "I will get the text and study the material" instead of to paralyzed agonizing or procrastination.

So, with apologies to a whole lot of people (we compiled this list from a lot of sources that I don't even know any more), here is a big honkin' list of common "shoulds" for you to look over to see if you recognize some of your own. (Actually, it's easier to start by noticing the "shoulding" that others are doing to themselves.) Oh, we "should" others, too, which leads to anxiety for us as well, but that's another day's work.


I should be the epitome of generosity, consideration, dignity, courage, unselfishness
I should be the perfect lover, friend, parent, teacher, student, spouse
I should be able to endure any hardship with equanimity
I should be able to find a quick solution to every problem
I should never feel hurt; I should always be happy and serene
I should know, understand, and foresee everything
I should always be spontaneous and at the same time I should always control my feelings
I should never feel certain emotions, such as anger or jealousy
I should never make mistakes
My emotions should be constant -- once I feel love I should always feel love
I should be totally self-reliant
I should assert myself and at the same time I should never hurt anybody else
I should never be tired or get sick
I should always be at peak efficiency
I should be liked and approved of by everyone
I should always be successful in the things that I do
I should be further ahead than I am in life
I should always do things perfectly
I should be thin/muscular/sexy
I should have a boyfriend/girlfriend
I should be the same as everyone else (I shouldn't be different)
I should feel confident in every situation
I should be clear about my future and know where I am heading
I should always say the right things at the right time
I should always be able to meet other people's expectations
I should always do what people want
I should always feel calm and in control
I should always be happy
I should never make mistakes
I should put other people's needs before my own
I should never say anything that might make other people feel uncomfortable
I should always make the right decisions
I should be attractive
I should be popular
I should always make the right decisions
I should always look calm and in control
I should be a good student
I should have lots of friends
I should try to please my teacher
I should drive a particular car
I should wear certain brand labels
I should be in with the popular crowd
I should have a cool Ipod and mobile phone
I should be seen at cool venues
I should have lots of friends
I should be competent in everything that I do
I should never make mistakes
I should have lots of money
I should be successful
I should have a cool guy / chick to go out with
I should always be able to say something funny or clever
I should be able to impress the people that I like
I should always try to please my friend
I should feel confident in every situation
I should never need anything
I should always be patient and empathetic
I should never be scared
I should always put my children's needs ahead of my own
I should never be upset about anything anyone says
I should never experience time or energy limitations, or tiredness
With my great intelligence I should have no relationship difficulties
I have forgiven my parents so I should not have any unpleasant feelings towards them


Doris Jeanette, Psy.D. said...

Yelp, those shoulds get you in trouble just like the should nots. False beliefs are everywhere. Develop a body exercise to do away with their energy when you notice them.

Take 2 years to remove all shoulds and should nots out of your speech, which helps remove them from your thoughts.

For more tips and tools on anxiety help visit

Karen the Californian said...


liz said...

Well, likely the whole list won't apply to you or any one person.


You know, although I thought that was a nice enough site, it still seems pretty spammy to comment on someone else's blog with a specific link to one's own site. Where someone is selling their own services or products.