How to identify ‘should statements’- and what to do with them

Shame is a fundamental human experience living within all of us. It’s the emotion elicited that can reflect anything from humiliation, dishonor to inadequacy. Shame pops its head up usually when we are having an experience of ourselves that feels exposing and negative. For example, perhaps we have mastered the art of hiding a certain part of ourselves from the world and when it has unintentionally hit the light of day- shame can be felt deeply, and sometimes pervasively.

What often serves as helpful in discussions around shame is drawing the distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt represents a feeling of “I have done something bad” and can include a mistake or difficult decision that was made- or not made. Whereas shame tells us “I am bad”, indicating a deeper feeling of being wrong, defective or fatally flawed somehow.

Shame indicates a perception of a failure of the self in some way. I find in my work that these perceived failures of the self sometimes get symbolized through “I should” statements (I call them the shaming-shoulds). When we’re engaging with these shaming-should statements we are reinforcing this idea that we are ‘not enough’ or wrong pretty casually- and often repetitively! We may also be doing this unconsciously. Typically, they include statements that involve what we ‘should’ have done differently (and as an extension- what that means about us), or what we “should and shouldn’t be” feeling- attached to a self-judgement.

A gentle reminder there is no right way to be or feel.

Shaming-should statements can look like this:
“I should have known better. All the signs were there- What’s wrong with me?”
“I should have never told them how I feel. Then none of this would be happening.”
“I should have gotten on this sooner. Of course I would put this off to the last second.”

Or, the common and deeply burdening messaging we may carry of:
I shouldn’t feel this way. It doesn’t make any sense to be feeling like this based off what actually happened.”

What happens with the shaming-shoulds in these contexts is that we are usually repeating and internalizing messaging that is fundamentally not true about ourselves- and I’ll tell you why:
One hundred percent of the time we are operating off of the information we have in the here and now. Meaning, we do the best we can with the information we have at the time and this informs how we feel and behave.

I often encourage those I work with who struggle with the should statements to consider: Always err on the side of you make sense, and move from there. This means, whatever you were thinking, doing or feeling at the time (or at present moment) is likely for valid reason.

From there, pivot to curiosity.

Here are some check-in questions below to pick up when you catch yourself in a ‘shaming should’ spiral that may help challenge your thoughts and foster more compassion:

“If I’m erring on the side of I make sense, where would this feeling be coming from?”
“How was that behavior serving me at the time?”
“What was most important to me at the time?”
“How was I trying to protect myself with X behavior?”

Already, we’ve moved away from judgement and into the territory of understanding. In fact, much of deeper shame work in therapy involves allowing it to see the light of day and greeting it with a combination of empathy and curiosity. And keep in mind- small tools like this can be learned to be used more effectively within a counseling experience, and an expert to help guide the way!

Should statements like these are somewhat common and can become less ‘automatic’ from simply being questioned or spoken to in a more compassionate way.

This article was originally published on Thrive Global,