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A Greek American Girl’s “Shoulds and Shouldn’ts” and other Cognitive Distortions

I recently had a conversation with a good friend (and yes, she was Greek!) about the “shoulds and shouldn’ts” that many Greek women (and non-Greek) have, that quietly and regularly intrude their daily thoughts. What are these “shoulds and shouldn’ts”? They’re self-generated automatic thoughts that surround our ideals, goals, and daily actions. Examples of these types of thoughts include:

I should lose weight.

I should exercise more.

I shouldn’t eat those loukoumades (Greek fried doughnuts drenched in honey and cinnamon).

I should keep my house cleaner.

I should stop yelling at my kids so much.

I should go to church more often.

I should be more like…(fill in the blank).

Sound familiar? These are just a handful of the “shoulds and shouldn’ts” that many women have circulating in their minds and depending on your current lifestyle you may still be verbally hearing these statements from others.

imgres-1Shoulds and shouldn’ts
are cognitive distortions that were tagged and elaborated on by psychologists Albert Ellis and Clayton Barbeau. They stem from loved ones, authority figures and or caregivers and even though they were, and or are, most likely well intentioned, when they turn into automatic thoughts, they’re extremely detrimental.

Why? When the automatic thought surrounding your goals or desire to instill a change in your behavior takes on the should or shouldn’t format, not only will you most likely fail to reach your goals, but you also won’t even be able to take the first steps needed towards achieving them.

While you may believe that you’re providing a form of positive motivation by telling yourself that you should improve in some way, shoulding yourself actually blocks you from moving forward!

How and Why “Shoulds” and “Shouldn’ts” Block You.

While “should” statements did provide us with much needed guidance as children, the internalization of this guidance in the should format has now morphed for many into what’s called self-nagging and as we’re all familiar with, nagging, whether it’s from others or self-generated, rarely works.

images-3Why? Because automatic should and shouldn’t thoughts inadvertently project guilt unto us. Take the example of “I should lose weight.” By telling yourself that you should lose weight, you’re immediately inducing guilt by inferring that the weight you are at right now is “wrong,” hence, why you tell yourself you should lose weight. While you may actually benefit from dropping a few pounds, being wrong, has the universal feeling of guilt associated with it. By telling yourself you should lose weight, you’ve literally turned one aspect of your health (your weight) into a moral failure, and as a result you feel guilty about it!

What does this mean in regards to you reaching your goals? It means that you probably won’t take the steps needed to lose weight, because its human nature to want to try and avoid feelings of guilt or failure. So you avoid the topic all together both physically and mentally (a.k.a. procrastination!). This type of distortion is one of the top reasons as to why many women fail to lose weight AND why so many women don’t take those first steps needed to achieve their health related goals.

I shouldn’t eat those loukoumades (Greek fried donughts)” is a variation of the same distortion. You may automatically tell yourself that you shouldn’t eat those loukoumades but deep down, you actually DO want to eat them and why wouldn’t you?! They’re delicious! However, instead of stating things the way they are, you believe that by telling yourself you shouldn’t eat them, you’re somehow self-motivating yourself not to. Unfortunately by using this statement, you’re actually self-sabotaging.

If you WANT to eat them, then it’s IMPOSSIBLE for you to believe that you SHOULDN’T eat them!

images-5This demonstrates the illogicalness of should and shouldn’t statements. On top of it, by telling yourself that you shouldn’t eat those loukoumades, you may end up eating even more! The immediate self-induced guilt (described above) generated by your shouldn’t statement may trigger a desire to self-sooth and if one of your self-soothing techniques is eating, which is for many who struggle with weight, then you’ll most likely eat even more.

How to Combat this Type of Thinking.

So what’s a woman to do when trying to undistort all the shoulds and shouldn’ts in her mind?

Pay attention.

Automatic thoughts are exactly that–automatic. As a result, many times, they occur without us even realizing that were having them! Because they are hard to pick up on, especially when we’re distracted and or busy, slowing down, being more mindful and paying attention will help us identify them. It’s that first thought that comes into your mind when you start thinking about a goal, ideal or desire. The more you practice identifying it, the easier it becomes. Then you can work on replacing it (described below).

What do YOU want?

images-6Get extremely clear on what YOU want for yourself and then express it, either internally or verbally if need be. The latter is a must if you’re still being currently “shoulded”. Many times, other people’s unsolicited shoulds irk us and or end up infiltrating our brains because we haven’t effectively clarified the question what do we really want?

As children it’s expected that our experience of shoulds be internalized and used as a guide, since we’re still growing and discovering who we are and what we want. As adults, though, clarifying our true desires is a must so as to be able to release ourselves from our self-imposed shoulds.

For example, do you tell yourself that you should be more like your mom? Your theia (aunt)? Your cousin? What is is about them that you admire and desire for yourself?  Identify the trait, map out the steps needed to achieve it, and work towards it. By getting as specific as possible, you’ll no longer be nagging yourself about what you’d like to achieve, but you’ll instead be actively working towards it.

In addition, if others are continuing to self-impose their OWN shoulds on you, being extremely clear on what YOU want will allow to more effectively deflect the “shoulding.”

Figure out your WHY.

If you feel that you should stop yelling at your kids, then, WHY do you want to stop yelling at them? By figuring out your why, you’ll be more able to formulate a focused intent with a specific goal. For example, “I want to stop yelling at my kids because I don’t want them to remember me as the mom that always yelled” is a lot more specific than the former should statement.

Beware so as to not become the “shoulder” when formulating your why! Using the same example, it’s very easy to shift focus onto your children, continue to ask yourself why you yell, and then claim, “I yell at my kids because they should listen more!” Shoulding others allows for anger and resentment to build, due to the unrealistic expectations that you’ve now externalized, along with negating you from taking responsibility.

Use the Word “Choose” not “Should.”

Substitute the word “choose” for the word “should.” “I choose to go to church” rather than “I should go to church” allows you to make an educated decision in regards to the costs and benefits of your actions. If you know that making a habit of going to church will benefit you, then you’ll more likely go regularly if you choose to do so, rather than stating that you should do so.

Bear in mind that the statement, “I should go but I choose NOT to go” is also a distortion! You can’t believe that you should do something and then state “I choose not to.” It’s IMPOSSIBLE. You either think you shouldn’t go so you choose not to go OR you think you should go and you choose to go. This is just another example of how deceiving cognitive distortions can be.


Change Your Language.

Continue to change your language. Replace should with “I prefer.” “I prefer to have a clean house” is a lot more self-nurturing and motivating than “I should have a clean house.”

A warning when it comes to word substitution: stay clear of words such as “I must” “I ought to” or “I have to.” These are all variations of the should distortion and encompass the same guilt associations.

Stay in the Present.

Finally, try to remain in the present, and not focused on the future. The odds of you telling yourself that I will exercise today, and actually doing it, are a lot greater than you randomly telling yourself that you should exercise more throughout the day. The free floating anxiety and guilt associated with the should statement is wiped out when rephrased and reworded in the present tense.

images-5While you may be of the many Greek-American girls lugging around these intrusive shoulds and shouldn’ts like extra carry-ons weighing on your shoulders while traveling to Greece, the act of bringing this cognitive distortion to the forefront of your mind is the first step in clarifying what you WANT rather than what you SHOULD want.

Keep in mind that there can be no specific shoulds and shouldn’ts in life. Every person’s individual life circumstances make that impossible. By using the techniques mentioned above, you can finally stop nagging, guilting and or shoulding yourself (however you prefer to call it!) into hopeful compliance. Instead, you can nurture and effectively encourage yourself into making the changes that you desire, so that you can finally live a healthier and happier life.

roulaThis is just one of many little changes that you can do TODAY to help you reach your health-related goals. If you’re struggling with reaching your goals, and are ready to take the first step towards achieving them, contact me for a free discovery session at roula@myhealthysoma.com!



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