Skip to content
Home » Mental Health Blog Posts » Cognitive Distortions » Should Statements — Dangerous Cognitive Distortions

Should Statements — Dangerous Cognitive Distortions

One of the cognitive distortions I struggle with the most is should statements. So what are cognitive distortions? Cognitive distortions are faulty ways of thinking that negatively affect your perception of reality.

Have you ever heard the saying “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill”? Cognitive distortions usually involve perceiving situations, feelings, or events as much worse than they actually are. 

I would guess that most people (especially creative people and artists) struggle with should statements even though they may not be aware of them. Should statements can increase your anxiety and even lead to extreme panic attacks.

This cognitive distortion harms our self-esteem and can keep us from living a purposeful life full of joy.

Should statements are working against you, and they need to go! In this article, you’ll read about what should statements are and what you can do about them.

If you’re feeling unmotivated or complacent then keep reading. Should statements could be keeping you down.    

What Are Should Statements?

Explaining what should statements are is pretty simple. A should statement expresses the idea that you should be doing, thinking, or saying something different than what you are currently doing.

This implies that whatever you’re doing is wrong. Thinking you’re wrong the majority of the time takes a toll on your psyche. You’ll be feeding toxic shame and progressively get more anxious and depressed.

Should statements affect your thinking, and it’s only in your mind where it exists. Often we tell ourselves something and believe it to be factually true. Thoughts can change, so how can thoughts define reality?

They can’t define reality — they can only define perception. Should is never in the here and now. It lives in the past and the future. So if it doesn’t exist in the here and now, does it exist at all? 

The short answer is no.

Comparing what you’re doing to what you should be doing is a game you’re always going to lose. In your mind, you never reach your goal. You’re always coming up short.

If you constantly engage in should statements, then it’s likely you are going to feel discontent most of the time. That doesn’t sound fun at all!

Examples of Should Statements

It’s pretty easy to identify should statements as they contain the word should or a synonym of it. 

Here are some examples:

  • “I’m terrible at golf. Golf is so easy. I shouldn’t have any difficulty playing it.”
  • “I get so scared when I get on an airplane. What’s wrong with me? I should be able to deal with this better.”
  • “I’ve been trying to put this table together for hours. I should have been done by now.”
  • “I told him I didn’t want to go on a date with him. I’m not any fun. I should say yes more when someone asks me out.”

There is also a should mentality where should is implied.

  • “Pete called me yesterday. Why haven’t I called him back?” (This implies that you should have called him back now.)
  • “I’ve been working out for 6 months. When will I ever lose this weight?” (This implies that you should have lost a significant amount of weight already.)
  • “What’s my deal? I seem to be sad all the time even though I have nothing to be sad about.” (This implies that you should be feeling differently than you currently are.)

Now I know I’ve been dwelling on negative should statements, but there actually are some good ones such as:

  • “It’s late and I’m running low on gas. I should fill the tank up now so I don’t have to deal with it in the morning.”
  • “I have a test tomorrow and haven’t studied at all. I should stop watching television and study.”
  • There are so many dishes in the sink. I should probably wash them so the kitchen doesn’t start to stink.”

Only these last examples of should statements can actually be helpful.

Why Should Statements Are (Mostly) Harmful

I have tons of experience when it comes to should statements. I’m going to tell you some reasons why I think they’re harmful.

Bad plus bad equals worse

Should statements are reactions to things we believe are bad, like a missed opportunity, a mistake, or character traits. So if I miss an opportunity that will help me move up in my profession, I’m already feeling bad.

If I play the should game in my head, chances are that I’m going to feel worse. That’s not to say that I shouldn’t learn from my mistakes. However, I can get obsessive in my head about what I should have done and spiral into depression or have a panic attack.

Here’s an example:

“I missed the deadline to turn in this college application. I totally forgot about it. I should never miss any deadline I have. I’m a total failure.”

What good does the above example do? These types of thoughts don’t help in the moment. They just bring me down. I can’t change the fact that I missed the college application deadline. I can take action by making a list of tasks and when they need to be done. Then, it’s time to move on.    

They add to feelings of guilt and shame

We all make mistakes. They’re a part of life, and we can learn from them, so we don’t make them again (however, we may make mistakes more than once, and that’s OK too if we’re trying).

The should statements can make us focus on mistakes in a negative way. That’s because should statements tell us that we shouldn’t have made the mistake to begin with, thus sending us on a guilt trip. 

Should statements can also contribute to shame. Guilt is “I’ve done bad” and shame is “I am bad.” When we use should statements, we are comparing our imperfect selves to the “perfect” image we have of ourselves in our heads.

So when we don’t live up to this perfect standard, then we conclude that there must be something inherently wrong with us.

This can be particularly harmful to people, like me, who struggle with mental illness. I may feel depressed or anxious and say to myself, “I need to toughen up. I shouldn’t feel this way”. In this way, I am discounting my feelings and deem them as unimportant and “wrong”.

They make demands that are unreasonable

I hold myself to a very high standard, and I’m also a perfectionist. Should statements are constantly telling me that I’m not perfect and that not being perfect is a bad thing. Perfection doesn’t exist, so it’s unreasonable to think that I’ll ever achieve it.

I’m a musician and very artistic. The type of thinking I’ve been talking about can easily lead to me feeling depressed or “burnt out.” I may have writer’s block one day and say to myself, “I should be able to write an amazing song right now. What’s my problem?”

Should statements and black and white thinking go hand in hand. If I don’t have a great idea for a song, then all other ideas are bad.

This actually keeps me from improving as I won’t take the time to turn a developed idea into a great idea. It keeps me from trying. 

When we engage in should statements, we are actually “shoulding” all over ourselves. That sounds disgusting but is a friendly reminder to cut ourselves a break.

Should Statements and Mental Health

Statements that include should, “ought to,” and “must,” can have a very negative impact on people struggling with things like depression and panic disorder.

In fact, people struggling with mental illness (like the ones just mentioned) use should statements when talking about themselves and their lives.

We all have an inner dialogue going on in our heads. This dialogue tells us a story that oftentimes we believe to be factually true. When our inner dialogue is filled with statements that tell us we are constantly doing things wrong, chances are we are going to feel anxious and depressed.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is all about addressing cognitive distortions such as should statements. CBT can help you change your thought patterns to get you out of a pessimistic viewpoint caused by should statements. 

My Experience with Should Statements

I’m a professional jazz pianist. I grew up very fast and worked with people 3 times my age. I got many accolades from my teachers and peers and was deemed by some as a prodigy.

Now, I don’t like the word prodigy because I feel like it implies that somehow you got good at something just by accident. I didn’t get good at anything by accident — I just loved music, and I still do.

By the time I was 16, I found myself in a very competitive environment. I was definitely no prodigy as my skills were raw and underdeveloped. 

I felt like I had to live up to some idea in my head about what people thought I was. At this time, my technique was poor, my time feel needed (and still needs) a lot of work, and I wasn’t a very good sight-reader.

Most of my life, I’ve told myself things like:

  • I should have played better last night.
  • I’ve been playing for years — I ought to have a better time feel.
  • I get so nervous when I play. Nobody else gets nervous. I should be able to handle all this pressure.
  • I haven’t advanced in my profession the way those around me have. I ought to be famous already.
  • I should have practiced more when I was young. I should have worked on different things when I was young than the things I did. I’ll never get those years back. I’ve failed myself.

I suffer from bipolar depression and anxiety, and these things I told myself became a tape that played every day in my mind. I believe that the feelings that came from my own personal should statements were one of the factors that led me to serious drug addiction.

The drugs made the inner critic shut up. I was able to enjoy time without criticism, and of course, I got addicted. Drugs were my coping mechanism for the belief that I was a failure. 

Should statements have literally almost killed me. Today, I do things such as practice affirmations and meditation to help myself have a better mindset.

What Can We Do About Should Statements?

I’m glad you asked! The first step is awareness. You must become aware that you are using should statements. Once you realize you do this, then watch yourself. When a should statement comes into your mind, take notice and say it out loud.

By saying it out loud, you can hear how hard you’re being on yourself. You can visualize another person saying this statement to you or you saying this statement to someone else.

Would you feel good about being hard on someone else? Would you want to be talked to in this manner by another person?

You can stop and say, “Hey, I see that I’m using a should statement. This statement doesn’t serve me in any way, shape, or form. I allow myself to not engage in this type of thinking and let it go.”

Change should statements into could statements:

  • I haven’t talked to my friend in a while. I could start calling him more often starting today.
  • I didn’t study for my test and got a bad grade. It’s OK. Next time I could set aside a time to study every day for 2 weeks prior to the next one.
  • I didn’t react well to that criticism. I could have seen it as an opportunity to grow. I’ll work on this now that I’m aware of it.

Discovering something you’re passionate about (if you don’t know already) will be very helpful. When you have a goal in mind (such as getting in shape at the gym or becoming a great musician) you start to work at it consistently, sometimes every day.

When should statements come into your mind, it will be easier to dismiss them because you have a real sense of purpose. Don’t let anything get in your way!

Also, be careful who you surround yourself with. Are you around people who are trying to make you believe that you can’t achieve the things you want to? Are you around unmotivated people that are filled with self-pity?

Find your tribe, those people who see your potential and want you to grow and achieve your dream. You should be supportive of them too. Always remember, good attracts good!

Should Statements Keeping You Down?

Are you or someone you know struggling with cognitive distortions such as should statements? 

If so, I hope that reading has informed you and helped you in some way, and as always, we would love to hear from you! Leave us a message about your struggles with should statements in the comments!

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Michael Palma

Michael Palma is a drug addict in recovery who is passionate about recovery and recently has taken to writing about his own experience, strength, and hope and hopes to share this with as many people in recovery as he can. He has been a professional jazz pianist for over 20 years. He has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Cobb (drummer for Miles Davis), Daniel Platzman (drummer for Imagine Dragons), Robert “Sput” Seawright (drummer for Snoop Dogg and Snarky Puppy), Greg Osby, and Terri Lynn Carrington to name a few.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x