Stop “Shoulding” Yourself

Any time you tell yourself you “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing something, you’re speeding down the highway of guilt, heading for Shameville.

Whatever task you think you “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing makes your current activity wrong, which leads to feelings of incompetence, failure, and lack of self control…aka shame. Think about it: how often telling yourself what you “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing? Mine usually comes with an eye-roll 😊

Some common examples:

I should lose weight.

I shouldn’t eat after 8pm.

I should exercise more.

I shouldn’t eat that cookie.

I should drink less wine.

I shouldn’t eat carbs.

I should go to bed earlier.

Psychologist Clayton Barbeau coined the term “shoulding yourself.” It basically means creating a ton of pressure in yourself to do or be something based on what you think you’re supposed to do or be.

Whatever the “should/shouldn’ts” are on your list, they always add up to the same thing: “You should be better, you should know better, you’re not doing it right.”

The “should” police are here to tell you that, as you are, you are not good enough.

We get into trouble shoulding ourselves when it takes the form of automatic thought. The “should” comes to us as some abstract obligation where if we don’t do what we “should” do, we are wrong and feel guilty…or if we do what we “shouldn’t” do, we are also wrong and feel guilty. Shoulding strengthens our belief that, left to our own devices, we cannot be trusted.

We use the word “should” so frequently that it takes the place of more accurate and powerful phrases like “I want,” “I can,” and “I will.”

Feeling guilty and overwhelmed breeds inaction and stagnancy…it keeps you stuck. So the more you feel like you “should” do something, the less likely you’ll actually do it.

Not taking action toward your goals makes you feel worse about yourself, adding to your feelings of shame and overwhelm…which naturally brings about more “shoulds.” Never-ending loop if stuck-ness!

Often we tie this in with food by giving it labels like “good” and “bad.” For example, “Pie is bad, I shouldn’t eat that pie” and if we eat it, the guilt creeps in and oftentimes can’t only eat a little without overdoing it.

Research has shown guilt due to food labeling and shoulding is a response to moral failure. We feel that WE are bad if we eat something we see as “bad” or that we “shouldn’t” eat it. Research has also shown when we feel like we’re bad or messed up by eating something, we’re more likely to have decreased self-esteem and self-control during and after eating, leading to over-indulging in the moment, or soon after. Remember, food is just food, it has no power over us unless we give it power.

Here are some ways to break-through the shoulding cycle that is keeping you stuck.

Become Aware.

Start tuning in a really paying attention to how often your shoulding yourself throughout your day, then start to dive into each instance. In the moment, ask yourself questions like: Why should I? Who says I should? Do I really want to do/not do this, or is it society’s norm that is telling me what to do? Once you discover the origin of the shoulds in your life, you can then decide which ones are yours to keep. Remember: you are here to live your life, not the one anyone else thinks you should.

Want to take it a step further? Add “who, why, and under what circumstances they should” to your thoughts. For example, “I should eat healthier” > “I should eat healthier if I want to feel more energized, which I do.”

Make it Specific – Get Detailed.

Often people keep their shoulding vague. This makes it even more difficult-to-take-action-on stuff like “get in shape,” or “eat healthier.” They perpetuate the shoulding cycle because they make it super easy to fail and super difficult to know what to do next in order to succeed.

By creating specific action statements, you make it a lot easier to take action, create change, and avoid the guilt. Ask yourself: what exactly do I want, and how will I know if I’ve succeeded? S.M.A.R.T. goals! Then determine what the next action step required would be to get closer to your desired effect, and use that to replace your should statement.

In the example above, instead of saying “I should eat healthier if I want to feel more energized,” you might say “I should eat a protein-rich breakfast if I want to avoid a mid-morning energy crash this week”.

Make the Shift.

Instead: replace “should” with “I want…can…will…am”

It’s a mindset shift that changes your inner dialogue and helps relieve the pressure and fallback. Shoulding does not imply change or action. It perpetuates the cycle of inertia. Instead, change those shoulds that you sincerely want to do into “I want…can…will…am”.

Ultimately there will always be evidence to support any belief we have. Whatever you think or are looking for, you will find. “I should run more” > “I am a runner” has a much higher likelihood of you getting your butt out there and running. “I should eat more veggies” > “I want to eat more veggies” and you will think twice about eating only pizza for dinner.

You now come to a place where you make and own your decisions, you’re in control of your experience, and you’ve living in the moment being present. This removes the stress and feelings of obligation around “should.”


Did this post resonate with you? Let me know in the comments section below! Give me an example of shoulding you commonly do, and what your plan is now that you’ve read this post!