Shoulding Yourself, Shoulding Others

The psychologist Clayton Barbeau came up with the term "shoulding yourself" to describe this cognitive distortion. Another psychologist, Albert Ellis, calls it "musterbation." It consists of telling yourself that you have an obligation to do something different from what you are doing. Obviously, this cognitive distortion can work in your thoughts about other people too. But in either case, your automatic thought is that you or someone else should/must/ought to/has to do something.

Obviously we do have obligations. There are reasons why we should do some things and not others. But "should" statements with reasons, or that include what the consequences of doing the particular task would be, or that weigh the costs and benefits of doing something--these are not automatic thoughts; they are rational conclusions. Indeed, the first step to taming such automatic thoughts is to ask why you should do such-and-such. When you can provide a reason, the "should" becomes irrelevant. "I should be doing my homework" is an automatic thought. But "If I don't do my homework tonight, I'll have twice as much to do tomorrow" is merely a factual statement that reports the consequences of a given action.

We get into trouble shoulding ourselves when it takes the form of an automatic thought. In this form, the "should" comes to us as an abstract, universal obligation such that if we don't do what we "should" do we are wrong and feel guilty. Guilt is an important and real experience. But it is a response to moral failure. To feel guilty about our personal choices which have no long-term effects is to trivialize guilt. And that is dangerous. Guilt is an unpleasant feeling. We don't like it. We try to avoid it. And the vague, undefined sense of guilt that comes with automatic "should" thoughts is especially unpleasant. It is often accompanied by mind reading, which makes it even more painful: "I should be doing my homework and everyone will think I'm dumb if I don't."

The most frequent result of shoulding ourselves is procrastination. If I find that whenever I think about doing school work I find "should" thoughts rushing in, making me feel guilty and depressed, I will tend to mentally "change the subject" and redirect my attention to something that isn't so unpleasant. The more you "should" yourself about studying, the harder it becomes to actually spend any time studying. You never feel like it.

It's easy to see how we learned this particular cognitive distortion. Even those of us who had very kind and understanding parents found as children that the authority figures in our lives sometimes imposed obligations on us that we would not have chosen for ourselves (taking out the trash or mowing the lawn, for instance). When we went to school another authority figure, the teacher, came up with a whole new set of things that we should do not because we wanted to, but because somebody else said we should. That was necessary when we were children. But now that we are adults, there's no Mom there to nag us; so we do it to ourselves. The trouble is that it doesn't work any better for us than it did for her; nagging, even in the self-generated form of shoulding ourselves, makes us not want to do the task in question.

As adults, we are free to choose what to do and what not to do. College is not mandatory. You are perfectly free to leave it and go do something else. But whatever you choose to do, you will bear the consequences. One way to break the hold of "should" automatic thoughts is to bring the thought out in the open and substitute the word "choose" for the word "should." If you find yourself squirming with the automatic thought, "I should start my essay," change it to "I choose to start my essay." You're a free agent. It makes very little sense for you to say, "I should do this, but I choose not to." Such a statement reveals the "should" for the illogical and confusing term that it is. If you don't choose to do it, you don't really believe you should do it.

On the other hand, the idea of choice moves you closer to actually doing something. A "should" just leads to guilt; a choice leads to action. So you are wise to think about the consequences of an action, the costs versus the benefits, before committing yourself to a choice. What you choose to do, and then do, will (to some degree, at least) change the world. What you "should" do will just make you miserable.

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1996 John Tagg