“Shoulding yourself” is a term coined by Psychologist Clayton Barbeau to describe the action of telling yourself what you should do as opposed to what you want to do. Parents are particularly good at using this technique. With so many options, resources, and outside influences, parents second guess their decisions on a daily basis. These thoughts come up automatically and with no warning. The conversation in your head might play out something like this:
I want to be a good mom/dad.
I should make all my own baby food.
I should be reading to my baby more.
I should be able to keep a clean house.
I should enjoy being home with my baby.
I should not want to spend time alone or by myself.
I should not need help from other people.
I should be a better parent.
Whatever your specific “shoulds” are, they stem from the same underlying belief – that you are not a good enough parent. Parents make lists of all kinds of shoulds; it comes naturally when you are responsible for raising a child. You’ve read all the parenting books, you stay current with online groups, and family members (as well as strangers) have told you everything you need to do in parenthood. Your anxiety builds as you worry about whether you are a good enough parent and if you are doing what you are “supposed” to do. So how is it helping you be a better parent to continue shoulding all over yourself? The answer is it’s not, and here’s why.
1. You're Setting Yourself up for Failure
“Shoulds” don’t always come from our own ideas and values, but often from what others are doing or distorted views of what being a good parent means. We think we should be perfect, but what is perfect? Rigid ideas of what you should be doing are a good way to set yourself up for failure, disqualify all the things you are doing well, and shatter your confidence and self esteem.
Additionally, there are opposing “shoulds” out there. For example, many believe one partner should stay home whereas others believe that both partners should work. Obviously you can’t strictly comply with both ideas. Take into account what works for your family situation when making these decisions; you may find that a combination is what you need.
2. Anxiety is Heightened
Telling yourself what you should do sometimes fights with what you want to do; in fact, people often confuse the two. By telling ourselves that we should do/feel, we are telling ourselves what we really want to do/feel is wrong and bad. Interpreting our feelings as wrong leads to anxiety, and we then interpret the anxiety we feel as wrong; as a result the cycle of anxiety builds and continues.
3. Shoulds are Ineffective
What happens when someone tells you that you have to do something? Most people are resistant to the idea and desire to do the opposite. Parents think that they are on the way towards setting goals and structure for their family by thinking in shoulds, but it is actually hindering progress. People believe their shoulds will motivate them to make changes. Actually, shoulds create internal conflict and keep you stuck, therefore they are ineffective in helping you move forward. If a strategy isn’t helping you, why continue using it? Leave behind what’s not working and figure out what will work.
4. You're Taking Yourself Out of the Present
When people start going down the road of shoulding, they’re missing what’s happening right now! Getting caught up in what kind of parent you should be takes you away from being the parent that you are and enjoying the present moment you have with your family.
Although it’s a natural and automatic process to go through our list of shoulds, I would encourage you to take notice of how often you are doing this, particularly in regards to parenting. Don’t allow these ideas to have too much power over your life. Start thinking in terms of “I want,” “I’m feeling” or “I might like to.” These words provide empowerment and will help you take control over your thought patterns.
If you need help with the transition to parenthood, forming goals as a parent, or managing anxiety, please contact Erika Labuzan-Lopez Therapy for a free 20 minute phone consultation. In therapy, I can help you explore more about your values as a parent and gain a better understanding of the anxiety provoking thoughts patterns you are engaging in. Together we can implement coping skills based on your strengths that will help you make progress towards your goals.