The Problem with Shoulds: How Should Statements Can Hurt You and What to Do About Them

should statements

I shouldn’t feel this way.

I should know better.

I should have learned my lesson.

I should be able to handle this by now.

I shouldn’t still be upset about this breakup/death/situation.

I would like to hereby eliminate the word “should” in statements like these. I’d like to remove the word “should” from the collective vocabulary of trauma survivors. I’d like to see most everyone else eliminate shoulds for that matter! These statements serve no positive purpose, they only attempt to criticize or hurt.

Why remove the word “should” from your vocabulary? Because if you’re saying that you “should” or “shouldn’t” think or feel some way, it means part of you is fighting what you really DO think and feel! The feelings you have about a particular experience are real. Even if part of you wants to push them away, your feelings matter. Your thoughts and emotions always matter.

The problem with should statements

If you have a feeling, it’s there for a reason. It’s real. It’s there to show you something. It’s there because you’re human. Our feelings are a normal and important part of human existence!

Your emotions are there to help you move toward healing from trauma. Even though many trauma survivors see feelings as the other f-word – awful things that bug the heck out of you and can dysregulate you or take you out of your window of tolerance – they are actually trying to help.

If you often meet feelings with resistance or criticism of yourself, I encourage you to consider these questions:

  • What if we let go of “should” and “shouldn’t” (and “supposed to”)?
  • What would life look like if we stopped judging what we feel?
  • What if you allowed yourself to feel however you feel—without regrets or expectations or projections of what it “should” be?
  • What if you were able to accept all your feelings, however and whenever they showed up?

7 ways should statements can be harmful

“Should” and “supposed to” don’t actually give back to us. They don’t serve us in any positive way. And they only make the negative emotions worse, and harder to process and resolve.

Should statements are unnecessary roadblocks to the path of healing from trauma.

If you find yourself saying or thinking you should or shouldn’t, know this:

  1. If you’re saying “I shouldn’t be upset about it,” you ARE upset. And you’re allowed to be. Should statements can be invalidating to what we are noticing inside ourselves. All feelings are valid. Always.
  2. There’s no expiration date on feelings! Your job is to feel them, notice them and be present with them, every time they show up. They are valid, even if they still show up months, years or decades after whatever caused them! You will learn how to tolerate the hurt, the grief or sadness. It may still hurt, but it will feel less scary or overwhelming over time as you learn you can live through it. (And as you allow yourself to hold more of your feelings, your window of tolerance will expand).
  3. Should is preventing you from living in the present. That means when you’re stuck in the shoulds, you are stuck in the pain or survival skills that you needed to develop. They are likely now cognitive distortions (thoughts which are not true currently). For example, if you had to depend on caregivers who felt unsafe while growing up, you may have thought: “I shouldn’t need or trust people.” This made sense back then – it’s how you survived – how you became self-reliant and safe. But now, such a belief can harm you or prevent you from having the intimacy or closeness of relationships you want. It can be difficult to trust even someone truthful, or trust your authentic feelings with someone close. That’s how clinging to old shoulds is not working for you in the present. The “should” now may make it hard to notice what you feel or experience in the present day, what actually is, versus this learned survival skill.
  4. Anxiously anticipating having a feeling can make it worse. Anticipating a bad feeling simply creates greater anxiety around it. When you’re worried you’ll feel something you “shouldn’t,” it’s hard to see the flip side that the bad feeling may not happen. Maybe even something good will come. And sometimes, if you just feel the feeling, you’ll realize it wasn’t that scary after all.
  5. If you fight against the feelings, you fight against what needs to happen. Pushing “negative” feelings away, or trying to minimize them, can make them bigger. Suppressing emotions can prevent you from staying in the present moment of experience. When you’re living regularly in an anxious, depressed state, it changes your nervous system, keeping you in hypervigilance, which creates an environment of stress and makes you more likely to have health issues.
  6. The feelings will keep coming back. People use drugs, alcohol, self-harm, food and sex to feel less badly or not feel at all. But eventually these coping mechanisms stop working because you can start to feel badly about the coping skill you are using. (Both Elton John and Freddie Mercury experienced issues with attempts to numb feelings to cope.)
  7. Forgive yourself. Accept it all. You feel how you feel because it’s how you feel, plain and simple. Self-compassion is one of the best gifts you can give to yourself and those who care about you.

Countering should statements to allow more feelings

So, how do we accept the feelings? Experiencing them — instead of pushing them away with should and shouldn’t – is learnable, valuable and healthy.

Think about your list of shoulds. Notice every time those words “should,” “shouldn’t” and “supposed to” come up in your mind or out of your mouth. What if you paused then to remind yourself your feelings are okay?

Try responding with some phrases like these:

  • It’s okay. I do feel this way. At least part of me feels this way.
  • It’s ok to feel this way.
  • All feelings matter, including these.
  • Feelings are normal and they’re healthy.
  • I can handle these feelings.

Think about how your body responds when you are pushing a feeling or thought away, because you “shouldn’t” be feeling it. Consider what it might be like to instead pause to acknowledge it and say: “Hello, feeling. You’re here. You’re real. What are you here to tell me?”

What if you were able to nurture the parts of you that feel scared and help them feel comfort? What if you could allow yourself compassion?

Here are more nurturing questions to ask yourself:

  • What about this is this upsetting me? What part of me is upset? Have I felt this way before?
  • Why do I think I shouldn’t be upset?
  • What tells me I shouldn’t feel this way? Where did I learn that?
  • What do I notice on the inside – in my body?
  • How can I reassure myself to provide comfort? How can I ground myself into my current adult self?
  • How can I be compassionate to myself, as I would my best friend?

If you realize no one helped you hold your emotions before, you may feel sad. Can you sit—without judgment—with the sadness, and hold it as maybe nobody has ever done for you? Can you practice expanding your window of tolerance?

Is it too uncomfortable to feel because it triggers a flashback? (See this flashback halting guide.)

The strength in our feelings

When you learn to accept your feelings, you can also do this for others. When you can hold and accept your feelings, you can hold the feelings for those around you and teach them to do the same. And that’s a beautiful thing as it helps universal healing!

What if you lived in a world that allowed you to feel how you feel?

You can create that world.

We can collaborate to create that world which allows you to feel.

You deserve that!

Need support?

A trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for care.

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