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Feeling guilty? Do you think in words like "should, must, ought or have to."?

Dr Elizma van der Smit. May 2019

· Mind

A particularly damaging distortion is the tendency to make “should” statements. Should statements are statements that you make to yourself about what you “should” do, what you “ought” to do, or what you “must” do. They can also be applied to others, imposing a set of expectations that will likely not be met. You use these thoughts to criticize yourself, or sometimes to criticize others.

“You try to motivate yourself with statements like “I should do this”, “I must do that” etc. These statements cause you to feel pressured and resentful. With that kind of statements, you achieve the opposite result, feeling even more unmotivated and apathetic. When the reality of your own behaviors falls short of your standards, your “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” create self-loathing, shame and guilt.”

Example: You don't like playing tennis but take lessons as you feel you 'should', and that you 'shouldn't' make so many mistakes on the court, and that your coach 'ought to' be stricter on you. You also feel that you 'must' please him by trying harder.

More examples:

· "If I don't do.......................then ........................ will happen!"

· “I must not get angry.”

· “He should always be on time.”

· “I should always have an immaculate house."

· “If I say no to him / her I’ll be a bad person."

· “I should be happy all the time.”

· “Life shouldn't be so hard.”

· “A good person should always do what’s right”

· “A successful person should always be happy.”

When we hang on too tightly to our “should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When we cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by the failure of the others to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.

What should I do?

Guilt is, first and foremost, an emotion. You may think of guilt as a good way to get someone to do something for you out of a sense of obligation. Guilt is not a very good motivator. It’s one of the “sad” emotions, which also include agony, grief, and loneliness, (Fischer, Shaver, & Carnochan, 1990).

Here's how to stop feeling guilty:

· Stop magnifying: Ask yourself if your self-punishment fits the crime. It probably doesn't.

· You are not your actions: You're responsible for your actions but they don't make you a bad person.

· Self-compassion: Forgiving yourself makes you behave better. Thinking you're a bad person makes you act worse.

· Apologize: Say you're sorry for what they think you did wrong, not what you think you did wrong.

· Become aware of your should, oughts, and musts and try to replace them with more encouraging thoughts. Whenever you hear yourself say a ‘Should / must or ought’ ask: “Why should I?” "Am I putting unreasonable demands on myself or others?" 

· Ask "What can I learn from this?": Torturing yourself doesn't make you a better person. Learning does.

You'll screw up again. It will happen. But you don't have to be tortured by guilt again. Forgive yourself. Repair the damage. And move on. You're not a bad person. But you sometimes do bad things. You know what that makes you? Human. Give yourself a break and the permission to be less than perfect………the permission to be human!

This post is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered therapy.This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental Health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.

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This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.