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Basic Stress Relief: Don’t “Should” All Over the Place

Patrick McGrath, Ph.D.



OK, funny title, but serious matter. The word “should” has been written about for years by therapists who specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — a type of therapy that looks at the relationship between the way that you think, feel and behave.

The word “should” plays a role in anxiety and depression and general stress because it is an absolute word. Once you have said something “should” be done a certain way, then it must be done that way or else you are a failure. Why a failure? Because “should” is an all or nothing word, and you either fail or you succeed. If the only way that you can succeed is to do what you “should” do (which is just a small dot on a big target) then it goes without saying that if you did not do what you “should” do, then you failed (anywhere else on the rest of the target).

So, a few pointers to try out:

1. Recognize that “should” leads to a lot of arguments.

If I tell you you “should” do something and you do not do it, then I will be mad at you for not doing what I think you “should” do. I do not care if you do not want to do it or not — all I care about is I think that you “should” do it, so that is good enough logic (or lack thereof, really) for me.

As you can see, this is how a lot of arguments start — two people disagreeing about what should be done when in reality, both of them are just expressing their opinion about what they would like to have done. If you want to stop a lot of arguing and stress in your life, stop demanding that people do things the way you think they should be done and allow them to get things done how they want them done — maybe you will even like their results better!

2. Replace “should” with other words or phrases.

These include things like “I wish,” “I want,” “I hope for,” “I would like” or “It would be nice if.” When you use these phrases, there is a less absolute feel to your discussion, and therefore, less conflict. You can actually talk about why you would like something to be a certain way, instead of just saying, “Because it should be that way.” If that response would be frustrating to you, then imagine how others feel when you say it to them.

3. “Should” is almost always negative.

“I should have done this, they should have said that.” “Should” always points out what you did not achieve — it never points out what went well. So, if you want to stay positive, change your vocabulary. Also, do not only search for things that did not work, but point out the things that went well — try to focus on two or three positives for every negative that you pick out. This will be a great way to start to feel better about yourself and what you do and not just down about everything that is going on.

As always, I would love to hear from you about how these tips are working. Please feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Dr. Patrick McGrath is the director of the Alexian Brothers Center for Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and the co-director of the School Anxiety and School Refusal Program at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates, Ill.

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