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Unhelpful Thinking Patterns 9/11 - Shoulds & Musts

Updated: May 9

An order woman passionately pointing and shouting at a younger woman, symbolizing the impact of interpersonal expectations and stress

This is the ninth part of a series looking at common unhelpful thinking habits. These are patterns of thinking that our minds can slip into as a way of coping with challenging situations.

You can read more about this in my earlier post here.

Demands of Life: Navigating Internal and External Pressures

We all find ourselves subject to demands all the time, it’s just part and parcel of daily life.

Some demands are external, and we have no control over those, but a great many are also internally generated; i.e. they are demands that we are putting upon ourselves (albeit subconsciously sometimes).

Sometimes the demands we place on ourselves are helpful to remind ourselves of certain rules or social conventions, for example “I should say thank you when someone gives me a gift” or “I must get up on time to go to work today”.

The Weight of 'Shoulds' and 'Musts': Unravelling Unrealistic Expectations

We can find that words such as “should”, “must”, “ought” and “have to” start to become part of our habitual language, and this is when it can become an unhelpful thinking pattern as it can lead us into putting huge pressure on ourselves to achieve unrealistic expectations.

Recognising the 'Should/Must' Thinking Pattern to Escape the Stress Cycle

If we get caught in this thinking pattern it can lead us to feeling that we have no control or choice, and that can be disempowering.

Imagine you had someone following you around all day pointing out everything you had to do, all the things that you shouldn’t be doing, and telling you that you have to do it better – that’d be pretty stressful and anxiety provoking.

So it’s no wonder that this thinking pattern can lead to feelings of anxiety, guilt, frustration and even shame.

In turn, this increases our stress levels and can result in us feeling totally overwhelmed.

And this is effectively what’s happening...except it’s YOU pointing all this out to yourself rather than another person.

How about trying out a little experiment, try to notice how often in a day you use the should/must type language with yourself - you may be surprised at just how much it's there once you start to listen out for it.

Challenging the Inner Critic: Dispelling Perfectionism and Guilt

When we're habitually taking such demanding stance towards ourselves it doesn't take long for our 'frenemy' the self-critic to show up and start telling us just what a failure we are.

This gives us a whole extra layer of feeling bad on top – it’s no wonder that at times we can feel like we are caught in a perpetual cycle of stress!

Balancing Act: Examining Reality and Expectations

As with the other unhelpful thinking patterns, this mindset can be automatic and habitual; so the first step is to start trying to notice when you are using the ‘should/must’ type language - which is why I suggested the little experiment above.

Just catching the thoughts may well be sufficient to allow you to be able to dispel the ones that are really just habit, but for those that are very convincing it can be helpful to write them down and examine the evidence for and against to come up with a more balanced statement to say to yourself.

You can do this in the same way as for the earlier thinking habits that I’ve introduced you to (for an example see here).

Some questions you can ask yourself are:

  • Am I putting myself under more pressure than I need to?

  • Am I being a perfectionist and setting up expectations of myself that are nigh on impossible to achieve?

  • Is what I am expecting of myself realistic given the circumstances that I am in?

  • What other factors aren’t I taking into account? How is life getting in the way at the moment?

  • Why is this thing so important to me? Is it in line with my values?

Self-Compassion Amidst Pressure: Making Time for Yourself

Another important thing to remember is to make time for yourself to do something that you want to do in and amongst all the things that you have to do with your daily responsibilities.

Show kindness to yourself – slip ups are inevitable, so be open to forgiving yourself on the occasions that you fall back into the old habit.

As I mentioned above, this post is part of a series about the unhelpful thinking habits that we can fall into. You can find the other posts here:

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