Things we all need to know about how our shoulds and rules cause our anxiety, I wish I knew about these sooner!

“Shoulds” and “aughts” are a major and almighty tributary to anxiety and practically every person on the planet has used them in some shape or form.

In this distortion, we operate occasionally from a list of inflexible rules about how we and other people “should” act. The rules are right and indisputable and often they are so embedded in our unconscious that we don’t even know that we have them.

We assume our “shoulds” are just the norm, the rules that don’t need to be spoken about. However, we find ourselves reminded of them when we or others break them. When we deviate from our particular values or standards, we react and punish ourselves or others.

“Shoulds“ just like many of the distortions on our list can manifest in two ways: about ourselves, or about others. Each are unhelpful in their own way.

The birth of a should:

We tend not to be born with “Shoulds”. We pick them up along the path of life which means they are often given up to us.

As we grow up we build up our system of beliefs through what we experience and what we are told. Children are impressionable and plastic so many of our “shoulds” get implanted in us by our families or origin.

This is not always communicated overtly/openly to the child, and sometimes kids read between the lines to develop shoulds. Some children may have had an anxious or absent parent and as such learnt: ”I should worry” “I’m too much and shouldn’t put my needs out there” or “I should be responsible for everything”.

In an ideal world no child should ever have to feel like this. But life isn’t fair sometimes and our parents, circumstances, families and upbringings cannot be perfect, therefore we develop shoulds.

Another example might be a child who is humiliated or stifled by their parents or other events. They might respond in two ways: by internalizing the belief “I should never try or hope for anything, I’ll never get there” or by internalizing a defiance of “I must never be beaten again”.

“Shoulds”, “aughts”, “musts” also come from culture and from education. Some of us might learn I must never show fear, or I must never admit that I’m wrong, or I should always make other people happy.

When we develop these “shoulds” they are internalized to help us respond to threats and to keep moving. A threat could even be disappointing our parents or seeing others suffer and feeling responsible, so it doesn’t just denote physical threats.

But no matter where they come from, having absolute and ridged “shoulds”, “musts” and “aughts” make us far more prone to anxiety.

“Shoulds” for ourselves:

Our “shoulds”, “aughts” and “musts” often make us feel compelled to do things, or be a certain way. They are the type of distorted thinking that contain the biggest calls to action. However, how often do we bother to ask objectively if they really make sense or to wonder where do our “shoulds” come from.

We all internalise things growing up, some good, some bad. No “should” was ever taken on because we are bad, they exist because we want to be good.

Here is a list of some of the most common and unreasonable shoulds:

  1. I should be the epitome of generosity, consideration, dignity, courage, unselfishness.
  2. I should be the perfect lover, friend, parent, teacher, student, spouse.
  3. I should be able to endure any hardship with grace.
  4. I should be able to find a quick solution to every problem.
  5. I should never feel hurt; I should always be happy and serene.
  6. I should know, understand, and foresee everything.
  7. I should always be spontaneous and at the same time I should always control my feelings.
  8. I should never feel certain emotions, such as anger or jealousy.
  9. I should love my children, parents, siblings equally.
  10. I should never make mistakes.
  11. My emotions should be constant – once I feel love I should always feel love.
  12. I should be totally self-reliant.
  13. I should assert myself and at the same time I should never hurt anyone else.
  14. I should never be tired or get sick.
  15. I should always be at peak efficiency.

Even superman/woman would struggle if they had too live by these rules. But many of us so called mere mortals have these rules running in the back ground: unseen, causing problems, anxiety and stress within our lives.

“Shoulds” about others:

When we have “shoulds”, we often believe that others also must do the same. As a result, we are often in the position of judging and finding fault with others. People who don’t do that irritate us. They don’t act right and they don’t think right.

They have unacceptable traits, habits, and opinions that make them hard to tolerate and relate to. They should know the rules and they should follow them.

Some examples:

A man working in a company felt that his colleagues should take the work more seriously. When his colleagues didn’t work as hard as him he got frustrated and strained the relationships in work. He ended up looking like the bad guy to HR.

One woman felt that her husband should want to take her on Sunday drives. A man who loved his wife ought to take her to the country and then out to eat in a nice place. The fact the he didn’t suggest going meant that he ‘only thought about himself’ and that made her sad.

A guy going on a college trip got angry and snapped at his friends because they were taking their time in the airport rather than going to the gate. They should have wanted to be at the gate 2 hours before the flight, so he went alone. He felt annoyed, lonely and jealous that they could take their time in duty free while he was alone.

These examples show how by projecting our “shoulds”, not only are we judging people by our own preferences (not the universal truth), but we are also driving ourselves mad with comparison. We feel aggrieved and annoyed by people’s self-centredness of not obeying our “shoulds”. The fallacy of fairness froms another blog is also a component of this.

Secretly a part of us wishes we could break the rules. Yet we double down and doubly make ourselves suffer with “shoulds”. A key step is to learn that our personal standards are not the law and our introjected “shoulds” are not written in stone for others or ourselves.

Personal ethics versus “shoulds”:

Many might say well what about just having some standards for ourselves or sticking to our convictions. My shoulds get me somewhere. To that I would say yes, indeed, any personal conviction that makes you happy and lets you get stuff done sounds excellent.

To have high standards for ourselves and to motivate ourselves and others to do stuff that we care about for people we care about is a wonderful thing.

But can a wonderful thing turn into a burden? With anything we have ask is there flexibility there? If we use the analogy of a criminal court to imagine “shoulds”. In the court of “shoulds” we skip the trial, the judgement and the sentencing and go straight to the execution.

If a should indictment is brought there is typically an instant retaliation and penalty. No appeals court either, its final. A problem with running this kind of court in real life would be that miscarriages of justices would start piling up.

Though we do the same thing with ourselves and others when “shoulds” are broken.

When “shoulds” come before the court we need to allow every case to go to trial where we can deliberate on the evidence, allow time for the different perspectives of the jury.

Then sit as the final judge over ourselves and others, before deciding guilt based on the evidence and then deciding on sentence, if at all.

Flexible values

Re-examine and question any personal rules or expectations that include the words should, ought, or must. Flexible rules and expectations don’t use these words because there are always exceptions and special circumstances.

Think of at least three exceptions to the rule, and then imagine all the exceptions there must be that can’t be thought of.

Replace any “shoulds” with a more flexible value. For example: “I should always provide for my family” and “I should be the best in work” could become “I am always going to try my best to provide and work hard, but I am only human, I may get sick, I may have an off day, I may get tired, but my love for my family is never in question”.

“others should always work hard” can become “others should not expect me to do their work for them, but generally they are going to things at their own pace”.

We may get irritated when people don’t act according to our values. But our personal values are just that – personal. They may work for us but, as missionaries have discovered all over the world, they don’t always work for others. People just aren’t all the same.

The key is to consider each situation/person’s uniqueness, his or her needs, limitations, fears, and pleasures. It is impossible to know all of the complex factors motivating even intimate family and friends so it is better not to judge.

We are all entitled to an opinion but allow for the possibility of being wrong. Also, allow for other people to find different things important. Realize that others have grown up with different experiences to us and won’t see things the same way or even similarly.


I personally try never to use shoulds with myself and train, clients to avoid them as well. Instead soften the language. “It might be a good idea if I ……….” and then see how it feels.

I imagine it will feel more spacious and free. “Shoulds” make us hold our breath and panic. We don’t enjoy then what we are doing.

Ditch the should and check in with what is right right now, in this moment. Weigh up the evidence, the history, the motivation of the should and the compulsion.

Maybe it’s worth softening those “shoulds”, dropping them and allowing room to breathe for yourself and others!

Thanks for reading this blog and if any of the themes struck a cord with please feel free to like the page here to see regular blogs and updates.

Other Distorted Thinking styles are also extremely important for how we deal with and suffer from anxiety. Distorted thinking styles include: Filtering, Polarized Thinking, Over-generalization, Mind Reading, Catastraphizing, Personalization, Control Fallacies, The Fallacy of Fairness, Emotional Reasoning, The Fallacy of Change, Global Labeling, Blaming, Shoulds, Being Right and Heaven’s Rewards Fallacy.

If you would like to hear more about how therapy can help I am always open to chatting to how from my location in Glasnevin I can help clients overcome anxiety. If my place doesn’t suit Anxiety Ireland have a team of accredited psychotherapists located around the country

If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help.

Again, I am always happy to answer messages to our page or I am happy to take calls/text to see how I can help: 087 063 0948.

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Team Anxiety Ireland