Cognitive distortions series: thinking in 'shoulds'

August 24, 2020

This is part of a series looking at the most common cognitive distortions, how they show up, and what you can do to start becoming more aware of them in a personal, career and team context that I originally posted on Instagram. You can read more about cognitive distortions and find links to other posts here.

What is thinking in 'shoulds'?

Thinking in 'shoulds' is judging reality by your own rules of what should or ought to be true. These rules can be applied to yourself and/or others, and often don't allow for much wiggle room. Rules are usually learned when you're young from your family of origin or gleaned from cultural expectations, they may be explicitly spoken or just implied through words and actions. This same rule learning process can be really handy - it's the thing that stops us from walking down the high street naked for instance - but not ALL learned rules are helpful.

How thinking in 'shoulds' shows up

Rules applied unhelpfully when thinking in 'shoulds' are pretty inflexible - words like MUST, SHOULD and OUGHT are common. When questioned a person applying their rules might not really be sure why they think something should be a certain way, it just should, ok?! This way of thinking can often lead to self-criticism and a feeling of not being good enough when applied to yourself. Or disappointment and resentment when your rules are broken by other people.

How it might show up for you:

In your life

You should be able to find time to go to the gym more.

In your career

You should be in a leadership role by now. You must work harder to get there.

In your team

Everyone should show their commitment to fixing this issue by staying late tonight.

Challenge your thinking by

Change your rules by:

  1. - Every time you catch yourself saying should, must or ought, change it to could.

Notice the difference it makes to how you feel, e.g: "I should go to the gym to get fit" versus "I could go to the gym to get fit"

Try thinking of all the other things that you could also do. Which one do you actually want to choose?

  1. - A team (or personal) 'shoulds' swear box can help raise awareness of the unspoken rules. Every time a team member uses the word should or a variation of it, write it down on a post-it or scrap of paper and put it in the box. Regularly review the box and discuss together whether this rule is shared and how helpful it is. If not, decide what you're going to do about it as a team.

Come and say hi! You can connect with me on Instagram (Rachel @ Rachel Lee Coaching) and LinkedIn. I work with individuals and teams to help surface and squash distorted thinking patterns that are not based in reality. Get in touch and book a FREE call to discuss how I could support you.