One of my favorite phrases from a mentor and guide is, “We teach what we need to learn.” How true is that? How many times have you found yourself trying to instruct a friend, coworker, or child on something that you might need to learn in some way yourself? I receive the reminder quite often… and I’m grateful.

In one of my recent coaching sessions, I was reminded of a concept that can plague us all: “The Evil Shoulds.”

They look like this:

“I should have gotten up earlier today and worked out.”

“I should have done better on that project/presentation/report.”

“I should have stood up for myself.”

We tend use them most in our internal dialogue – constantly! We could argue that by having those little conversations and reminding ourselves of these expectations, we are staying motivated and strategic. That might be possible.

But is it also possible that you’ve taken it a bit too far with your “shoulds?” They are not always positive and encouraging reminders. They can instead serve as berating and defeating self talk. That’s why I call them evil. For me, they are usually pretty evil.

When you find yourself drowning in a few ‘Evil Shoulds,’ how can you make a shift? Here are a few things that work for me:

Explore the Expectation Behind Them

What or who is creating the “should” in the conversation? Why are you expecting this of yourself? Did someone else tell you that you didn’t meet their expectations on a project, or did you set outrageously high expectations on yourself? Could it revolve around internal frustration you have:  Maybe you naturally retreat when someone is heated in an argument, but you know deep down that you need to stand strong. The goal in this questioning is to explore WHY you are telling yourself that you “should have.” 

Is it realistic and productive to be judging yourself in that moment, or are you trying to live up to something that is unrealistic in nature?  What more can you learn about yourself?

Change the Should to “Could”

How different does this sound: “I could have gotten up early this morning and worked out.” Crazy! Altering one word shifts this phrase in two ways:

We can see the situation as an opportunity (instead of a failed expectation), and we can acknowledge that we had a choice in the matter.

We ALL could have gotten up earlier this morning, but many of us chose to make sleep a priority over whatever else we could have been doing. Are the people that slept later wrong or lazy? No. They chose differently, and possibly more effectively for themselves. And what about that opportunity you are now exploring? What might it look like to get up earlier, and what other possibilities might exist for you?

Ask Yourself, “Is This Useful?”

My best friend and I use a term, “Sneaky Hate Spiral”,  for that string of self-negating inner dialogue that shows up at times. It’s that pattern of getting down on yourself over and over, enough so you feel as if you can’t stop. I’ve learned one of the only things that can break my Sneaky Hate Spiral is forcing myself to take a breath and ask, “Is this useful?”

Asking that question jars my brain into reflecting on the negative pattern I am in, and it usually helps me see my statements from more rational perspective.

If the statements are not serving you, you have a chance to realize that they have no place in your head at that moment. From there, you can choose to take a breath and try to shift your thoughts toward something that is  more useful.

For what it’s worth, this blog post was started two weeks ago, and sat undone until I was motivated enough to pick it up again. Should I have finished it sooner? I don’t know, but I’ve stopped caring. Thinking negatively about what I chose doesn’t serve me, and I refuse to spend any more time there.

I will not let the Evil Should Monster win – he’s a stupid bully.