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  • Writer's pictureAli McNab

Are "Shoulds" and "Musts" wearing you down?

How often do you think “I SHOULD be able to do this….” or “I MUST do this because…” ?

These are some of the typical shoulds and musts I’ve heard from my clients recently:

“I should be in a more senior position at work by now”

“I must be more like my male peers if I am going to succeed in my job”

“I should stop work at 3 so I can be there for my kids, but I also must finish my work”

“I must do more exercise”

“I should make more time to speak to family and friends”

“I must have affirmation from my colleagues to know I’m doing a good job”

I’ve also had my own fair share of should and must moments this last year. My big ones being: “I should be able to continue to grow my business while homeschooling my kids” and “I must post on social media at least once a day”.

I didn’t do either of these!

With my coaching hat on I recognised that, despite frequently challenging clients on their negative thoughts, I was spiralling into a pit of “shoulds” and “musts” myself.

As I held a metaphorical mirror up to myself I could see that this negative thinking was making me anxious. It was bashing at my self-belief, disempowering me into a way of thinking that was not about what I wanted but about what I thought others expected of me. I felt that choices were no longer in my control, they were driven by what I should and must do to ensure me and my family got through this tricky time.

This “should” mindset led me to feel like I’d let myself down. I felt guilty and frustrated when yet another week had passed and I hadn’t achieved what I’d told myself I must achieve. By holding these negative thoughts I was setting myself up for failure and disappointment.

For many of us the intensity of the last 12 months has amplified our negative thoughts. Our inner saboteurs have gone wild and our inner coaches have slunked into the shadows.

Should and Must thinking is an example of a “Cognitive Distortion”: A pattern of thinking that is inaccurate or false and leads us to make assumptions about ourselves and the world around us that simply aren’t true.

"I should be able to do this thing, therefore by not doing it I must have something wrong with me”.

When our negative thought patterns turn to Shoulds and Musts we pay less attention to what is truly important to us and strive to be something we are not. We stop thinking about what we want and what we are good at that can help us right now. This creates anxiety, worry and dissatisfaction. It belittles our internal value system and our inherent strengths - the very things that drive who we are and who we want to be.

Challenging our Shoulds and Wants

By noticing when we are slipping into these negative thoughts and what is triggering them we can challenge them and begin to switch to a more positive mindset.

We can start to turn our externally validated Shoulds and Musts into internally chosen Wants and Wishes, and draw on our strengths and personal values to respond to these.

“I should stop work at 3 so I can be there for my kids, but I also must finish my work” might become “I want to stop work at 3 as it is healthy for me and my kids to spend time together. However I also want to finish my work so that I feel less anxious about it”

This mindset shift puts us back in control. It is now something we want to do and we therefore have within our power to work out how we are going to make that happen to the best of our ability and in a way that sits well with us. We can decide our boundaries and what we might choose to stop doing or to do differently.

As I’m sitting here now writing this I’m thinking “I should make myself some lunch as I feel hungry, but I must finish writing this before I lose my flow”. Immediately I feel a bit stressed....

Switching to a more positive pattern of thought: “I want to have lunch now as I’m hungry and I know it will help me concentrate better later, but I also want to capture my thoughts while I am in flow as I know I'll find it hard to come back to later”. Now this is in my control!

No shoulds or musts; just two things I want to do and it’s for me to decide how I spend this time. So, instead of feeling anxious that I haven't got time to do these two things, I am going to get some initial thoughts down in note form, then have lunch, then come back to this later.

See you after lunch! Ahh, that feels so much better!

Ali McNab is a Transformational Coach helping people who feel frustrated, stuck or lost to reach a more fulfilled and balanced life. She will help you clarify where you want to be, explore your strengths and obstacles and define what needs to change to get you there. Ali works directly with individuals and with charities and social purpose organisations supporting their approaches to staff well-being and growth.

This article first appeared on the Life Coach Directory 23 March 2021.


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