When Shoulds are no Good
June 30, 2018 12:11 PM   Subscribe

MeFites who feel reasonably skillful at gentle/compassionate self-talk: What words do you use in your head when you want to evaluate hypothetical future actions that could be healthy/beneficial/morally favorable, but are counter to your existing habits and preferences? In other words, the stuff you feel like you "should" be doing, but for whatever reason, don't want to.

I feel like there are two kinds of "shoulds" -- things that are currently not part of your life at all, but you faintly feel you may experience some future negative consequences or miss out on positives if you don't eventually make room for them ("I should volunteer," "I should start doing cardio," and things that you already committed yourself to, but are having trouble or experiencing excessive angst when "making" yourself do on a consistent basis "I should go practice that hobby I supposedly care about," "I should cook dinner rather than picking up takeout."

I'm interested in advice concerning both, but my intuition says you probably can't apply the same technique to both -- that for committed shoulds, you're trying to gently talk yourself into doing them because you once wanted to even if you don't currently Feel Like It, but uncommitted shoulds, you maybe want to give yourself the space to fairly decide whether to commit to them at all, rather than automatically forcing yourself to take on each one as a new part of your identity forever as soon as they drift into your head.

I have seen/received a ton of advice saying that "should" is a Toxic Bad Word that is a quick route to self sabotage, excessive pressure, and judgement/self punishment, and my relationship with the Shoulds in my life definitely has a lot of these features. But I've yet to find a lot of guidance about what to replace them with or how to reframe the sometimes necessary act of corralling oneself away from what's Easy and toward what's Important. Often Anti-Should advice is just magical thinking that you either don't REALLY need to ever force yourself to do ANYTHING (I like paying my rent but don't like going to work, so that's not an intuitive fit for me) or that if you stop forcing yourself, you'll immediately become motivated to do all the things without having to "try" (haven't we all tested this and just ended up on the internet or in front of the TV?)

So is there a healthy, non-self-flaggelating way to talk to yourself about Stuff You Are Not Doing Right Now But Maybe Ought to Think About Squeezing Into Your Life or Day Somehow? How does that sort of 'script' play out for you when you handle it effectively? How do you talk to yourself after a slip-up, skip, or failure? How do you talk to yourself when a "skip" is just looming temptingly on the horizon?

My goal is not necessarily to always do the thing successfully all the time, but to drain some of the toxicity out of navigating potential future actions or inactions when there's an internal conflict about whether to take them.

Disclaimer: This is obviously a great question for a therapist, but I recently stopped seeing a not-very-great therapist, and my brain and finances are still recovering from the mixed positive and negatives of the experience. I'll be back to looking for one eventually but for now apparently I am crowdsourcing some of my mental quandaries to see if anyone has good ideas.
posted by space snail to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: From reading this very site, years ago: ___ will make things easier for Future Me.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:14 PM on June 30, 2018 [29 favorites]

For exercise, food, stretching, etc . . . "I'm going to try an experiment for n days/weeks. I wonder how I will feel at the end. If I feel better, then maybe I'll repeat"
posted by ferdydurke at 12:17 PM on June 30, 2018 [7 favorites]

Best answer: One thing a therapist of mine told me is to own the decision not to do things when I've made it. Instead of looking for a word to replace "should," have the conversation with yourself once and decide whether you're going to do it or not, then own the decision. Don't spend your afternoon trying to talk yourself into working out. Decide to do it and then do it, or decide not to and acknowledge that as a decision.

I have a lot of luck making myself start things by promising that I only have to do it for 60 seconds. This gets me over the hump of getting things out and setting them up/getting shoes on and leaving the house.

Not sure if this is helpful, but this is what I do with things I've "decided" to do but not done.
posted by gideonfrog at 12:27 PM on June 30, 2018 [16 favorites]

Replace can with should instead. It feels less like a demand and you're more likely to do something if you don't feel forced into it.
posted by sheepishchiffon at 12:33 PM on June 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I can relate! Check out this question I asked awhile back. I’ll be following this one with interest as well.
posted by delight at 12:47 PM on June 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

"I really want to ____." "I'll feel so good if I ___ / after I ___." It applies equally well to going to the gym and building up a savings account.

There's even a cheerful "I should totally do that! :) :) " that is more like "I would be happy if I did that" or "I think I'll put that in the queue to get around to someday" that doesn't come with the "I suck now because I'm not doing it yet" overtones that the toxic "should"s do.
posted by salvia at 2:02 PM on June 30, 2018

I heard this today actually, a variation of the advice above. Replacing the word should with could. I could do yoga today if I chose to, for example. I know it helps me when I make it about an active choice that I am making from a place of generosity and compassion toward my future self rather than an obligatory activity that feels like a punishment somehow imposed outside of myself or like guilt talking.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:14 PM on June 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Also, if I’ve decided to do something or I’m considering whether not to do something that I think would be beneficial but that I don’t really want to do, I try to remember to remind myself that I can just try it for 10 minutes. And I can stop after that If I want to. But if I get 10 minutes in, it’s usually not a problem to keep going. But I have to remind myself first that it’s OK to start with just 10 minutes.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:17 PM on June 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

No way through but through.

May I complete the perfection of effort.

With effort all things are accomplished.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:57 PM on June 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Think about the benefits. I try to be nice to Future Praemunire. "It will be so nice to come home from the trip all tired and not have to clean XYZ."

Don't be casual about picking up "shoulds." I feel like a lot of people don't try to live intentionally at all, and so they sort of float around, picking up "shoulds" as they come across them without actually working out whether they really should be doing them, or it's something that a lot of people around them are doing, or the media is selling, or that sounds nice but doesn't actually rise to the level of a "should." When you take on a "should," you should (ha!) mean it.

If you have really thought through a "should" but find yourself consistently not doing it, then there is probably something in your mind standing in your way. I don't mean, like, laziness; I mean some sort of specific emotional baggage attached to that task or category of tasks. It's worth thinking about and trying to work through however you prefer to work through your maladaptive habits.
posted by praemunire at 5:33 PM on June 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

There was a great description of how Mr Rogers changed the wording to something motivating in this article, right around the discussion of dialogue
posted by typecloud at 7:18 PM on June 30, 2018

Personally I know that if I think of something I should do, and I think about it and realize it might be good to try, and I have the energy & the time & the money to pursue it, then I will. I know myself enough to know that I can be trusted to do the thing if I can.

If I think of something I should do, and I think about it and realize it might be good to try, but I don't have the energy, the time, or the money to pursue it, it's water under the bridge. I don't have to run a credit check on my own self to audit whether or not I'm being honest about not having the energy or the time or whatever. I have self-TSA-pre-check.
posted by bleep at 7:40 PM on June 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is not exactly what you’re asking, but I’m pretty good with making myself change habits, and this is how I do it:

I say aloud:
I [verb] at [time] (Keep the action small and specific.)

I floss at least one tooth after I brush my teeth. (Do I usually do them all? Yes! But if I’m running late, not having time is not an excuse, because I can do one tooth in like 5 seconds.)

I volunteer at least 2 hours on Saturdays.

I take my pills before bed. (But I need to adjust this because I need to take them with food and when I get to bed I’ve already brushed and flossed. Sigh.)

I swim 25 mins every day I go in to the office. (This sounds difficult, but I love it, so it’s not usually. I only have to talk myself into it when I have other fun plans.)

I learned to do this from this article, and I’ve been very successful. No “shoulds.” If I mess up, I just start over again next time. There’s no reason to beat myself up. No one is perfect. But the trick of saying what I do, not what I should do, or want to do, aloud, often, really sets it in reality for me. I have a much higher success ratio when I keep my goals very small so I have little excuse not to do them, bind them in time in a routine, and state them aloud.

For “uncommitted shoulds” I generally choose a short test time. I do this thing at this time for one week. Or one month. Or whatever time I need to evaluate. If it doesn’t work for me, I modify or drop it. I don’t really change the language I use. I try not to use should for either.

Good luck!
posted by greermahoney at 11:03 PM on June 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I often frame this kind of thing as getting a present for future me.

Tuesday Morning At 9AM Me doesn't especially want to exercise. But Next Month Me would love to have the present of being in better shape. And twenty minutes of exercise is a pretty small down payment to make on such a great present.

It's fun to think about getting presents. It's fun to think about giving presents to somebody I care about. Giving Future Me a present combines both these pleasures! Plus, presents by their nature are optional (especially presents for somebody who doesn't exist, like Next Month Me.) So it's not the end of the world if I don't make today's down payment.
posted by yankeefog at 9:08 AM on July 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've struggled with this myself. As far as I can tell, it's not enough to simply replace negative self-talk with warmer fuzzier phrasings of the same ideas -- you need to change your mindset from the ground up.
- Self-bullying mindset: "If I bully and scold myself enough about what I should be doing, I'll just do it. If I don't accomplish what I want to accomplish, that's a personal failure and I need to berate myself some more until I exert enough willpower to overcome my fundamental character flaws. Fundamentally, I'm a screw-up and a failure and I need to work extra hard to make up for that."
- Self-helping mindset: "I can help myself to reach my goals by setting priorities, not overloading myself, and breaking each task down into achievable segments. If I don't accomplish what I want to accomplish, it's because I've run into a barrier that I haven't yet recognized or figured out how to overcome, and I am capable of overcoming it with time, help, and/or new perspectives. Fundamentally, I am a good person, I am doing my best, and I get better with practice."

I highly recommend reading Laziness Does Not Exist -- it's an incredibly helpful summation of the difference between the two approaches.
For decades, psychological research has been able to explain procrastination as a functioning problem, not a consequence of laziness. When a person fails to begin a project that they care about, it’s typically due to either a) anxiety about their attempts not being “good enough” or b) confusion about what the first steps of the task are. Not laziness. In fact, procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.

Priority Matrix* (also known as the urgent-important matrix). If you have more "shoulds" than you can accomplish in the limited amount of time you have, they're going to weigh on you (even if you call them "happyfuntasks" rather than "shoulds"). Prioritization helps you pick the ones that matter. I think your insight about the different kinds of "shoulds" can be helpfully reframed through this matrix.

Even after you've prioritized, if you don't have a clear plan for how to accomplish your priorities, you're going to run into roadblocks. It may help to divide your list between projects (these have an end date) and habits (things you intend to repeat over time). Here are a couple of good resources for how to approach each:
- How to Get Projects Done, On Time, Without Your Life Falling Apart in the Process* - this one has a "Should I Do The Thing?" cheat sheet
- How to Create a New Habit* - and here's a habits cheat sheet

Even if your priorities are perfect and your plan is on point, things will change and things will go wrong. Here are some suggestions on how to build the resilience you'll need to persist:
- Developing Resilience
- How to Build Resilience: Quarters of Encouragement*.

*These videos come from a channel called How to ADHD. Even if you don't have ADHD, I still think they're incredibly helpful and positive. Give 'em a try, and if you like them, check out the channel for more good ideas.
posted by ourobouros at 9:36 AM on July 1, 2018 [18 favorites]

Best answer: For me, Feeling Good has been instrumental in dealing with 'shoulds.' In CBT, thinking that you or other people should act in some way is one of the major cognitive distortions. The reason we tell ourselves we "should" or "must" do something is to motivate ourselves to do it, but in practice it just makes us feel pressured or resentful. This leads to feeling all the more unmotivated because you're associating the desired actions with unpleasant feelings. If you feel like your behavior is falling short of your high standards, thinking about what you should and shouldn't do tends to makes you feel self-loathing, shame and guilt. So either you learn to lower your standards, or you'll always be frustrated by human nature.

It sounds like you're familiar with this idea, and the question is, how do you change your way of thinking?

One method is changing those "shoulds" to "wants." This is actually a CBT technique called "motivation without coercion," to be used when you're trying and failing to motivate yourself with "shoulds, oughts and musts." This way of thinking saps your sense of yourself as having choices and personal dignity. If you translate those "shoulds" into "wants," it makes you feel less obligated and pressured.

I should go to work => I want to go to work

And if you look at that formulation and think, well, I don't want to go to work, I want to play videogames all day? Then make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of that course of action. If you compare those two lists, you'll see how going to work is to your advantage, which will increase your motivation.

Another technique that really helped me was changing "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" to "it would be nice if."

I should volunteer more => It would be nice if I volunteered more
I shouldn't have binged on donuts => It would be nice if I hadn't binged on donuts
I should exercise every night => It would be nice if I exercised every night

This releases some of the pressure, turning it from an imperative or a moral failure to a possible option I didn't take. The common thread here is that I have standards for myself, and when I do or don't do some things, I feel doubly bad because I've violated my standards. When I used to binge eat, I usually felt remorse and regret because my body felt heavy and sick and because the emotional needs that pushed me to binge eat were still unfulfilled. Remorse and regret are useful emotions -- they spurred me to change my behavior, and now when I have that impulse I remember how binge eating doesn't actually make me feel good. But I also felt guilt about binge eating, and guilt, unlike remorse and regret, was more likely to make me binge eat more. CBT holds that guilt comes from a feeling that you've violated your standards because something in you is fundamentally bad or wrong. If you believe such a horrible thing about yourself, then you will feel terrible and trapped and look for comfort in your usual coping methods... such as binge eating.

A lot of CBT is about recognizing that guilt doesn't help you change your behavior in a healthy way, it just makes you feel badly about yourself and keeps you stuck in unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior. One way of overcoming this was a little hard for me to wrap my mind around at first. I had to understand that I act in the ways I do because I'm trying to meet my needs and I have conscious or subconscious habits that I rely on to help me do so. Whatever I did to meet those needs is the option I thought at the time would take the least amount of effort relative to the satisfaction and utility I'd get out of it. Because meeting my needs is a good thing for me to do, and because I can only use the habits and tools available to me to meet them, then using those habits to meet my needs is exactly what I should have done. So I wouldn't think "I shouldn't have binge eaten" and beat myself up for it. I would think "It would have been nice if I hadn't binge eaten, but I needed to help myself feel better. It's good for me to try to take care of my own needs, and that felt like the best tool I had at the time, so that's what I should have done and until I change my habits I can expect I'll keep doing it." Seeing it that way, there's no guilt attached to it, just a matter of what your habits are and what your needs are.

So the question then becomes, how can you change your habits? Well, if you look at why you do or don't do things, you'll find that you have a reason for your actions. Why did I binge eat? I was feeling stressed and helpless and lonely, I felt like I deserved something fun, and I hadn't had a proper meal and was hungry. But it causes my body to feel bad and doesn't actually take care of my emotional needs, so I want to find other habits I can use to meet those needs. What are some other things I can do when I'm stressed? when I'm feeling helpless? when I'm feeling lonely? when I want some reward or treat? What caused me to feel those ways in the first place and can I change the situation or my reaction to it? What else can I do for myself when I'm feeling hungry? When I understand all the factors that contribute to my trying to meet my need in that specific, maladaptive way, I can work on changing my habits.

The same goes for the things that you listed. Why don't you volunteer? Maybe you're already busy, and any spare time you do have needs to be used to refresh yourself. Maybe you have mental health issues that cause you anxiety and trepidation about putting yourself out there. Maybe you have physical health issues that sap your energy. Maybe you have other passions you want to devote yourself to, and there's only so much time in the day. Maybe you haven't found a niche or a cause for yourself that feels right. Maybe you need to work extra hours to earn more money. Maybe you have a schedule that isn't consistent, and fitting in volunteering feels like it'd be too difficult. Maybe you resent yet another external demand on your time and energy, but you feel guilty if you acknowledge that you don't want to volunteer. Maybe you're an introvert, and after dealing with people at work, your family and friends, you don't want to deal with a new group of people. Whatever the reason may be, it exists, and the action you're taking right now -- that is, not volunteering -- is meeting the needs behind those reasons. Once you know the reasons for why you're spending your time the way you're actually spending it, not the way you think you would like to spend it, you can either change your situation to make room for this new priority or accept that it's not what you really want to do.

One of my guiding principles is "the healthier you are, the easier it is to be healthy." For example, after I've been sick for a week, I want to return to getting regular exercise, but if I start by forcing myself to walk ten miles a day, I'm going to fall short of those expectations because my body is still recovering. But if I'm feeling healthy, feeding myself well and getting moderate exercise, I naturally feel ready to up the amount I walk, or to take a new class or try to start doing yoga every morning or whatever. In the same way, if I'm feeling stressed and I'm having a lot of negative thoughts, I need to spend time on the basic rebutting of negative thoughts that is the cornerstone of my CBT practice. But when my mental health is good, I can work on other CBT exercises that help build my self-confidence or delve deeper into my patterns of thought. In these examples I'm separating 'mental health' and 'physical health' but of course the two are linked. For example, treating my depression made me finally get to an allergist without telling myself it'd hurt and take a lot of time and not fix anything anyway. It turns out I'm allergic to cats, and once I stopped letting them in my bedroom my sleep drastically improved, improving my state of mind and giving me more energy. It is easier now to change my habits than it was a year ago because of the small, gradual steps I've been taking to improve my health, and indeed I've been having excellent results with if-then planning.

So the tl;dr:
1) Try replacing "should" with "want." If you don't really think you do want to do the thing, think about the ways it serves you to do it.
2) Try replacing "should" with "it would be nice." Find the reason you didn't do the thing that would have been nice to do.
3) Focus on your mental and physical health. Start with small changes to improve both of them, rather than ambitious and unrealistic ones. The better they both are, the easier it's going to be to change your habits and make room in your life for what you want.

I hope you find that useful!
posted by shirobara at 1:28 PM on July 1, 2018 [7 favorites]

Yes agree with 'should' vs 'want'

Also treat yourself when you do something you 'should', brains are trainable!! We are not that different from pavlov's doggos e.g. I should get up now --> I don't feel like getting up now, but I want some water, and the sky is really pretty in the morning. Maybe I can walk around with my blanket until I get ready. It will get gradually easier if you train your brain with rewards. It also helps to let your willpower meet your instinct for comfort and safety half way.

Also you can say "I don't feel like doing X... but it really want to have X on my CV, so, because I'm smart and determined, I will do it when I count to 10"

To sidestep guilt, I also like to budget for imperfection when setting performance goals - e.g. I don't need to get up at 8 every morning, 80% (4/5) weekdays is good enough - so if I press snooze on Monday, I'm still on target.
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 8:14 PM on July 6, 2018

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