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Should Statements

This article is part of the Cognitive Distortions: Unpacked Series

Explore the full Series HERE

5 Key Points

  1. Understanding Should Statements in Cognitive Distortions

  • "Should" statements involve imposing rigid rules on oneself or others, often leading to feelings of guilt or frustration. Recognizing and understanding this cognitive distortion is the first step towards managing it effectively.

  1. Psychological Triggers Behind Should Statements

  • These statements often stem from internalized societal norms, upbringing, and personal insecurities. Identifying common triggers can help in mitigating their impact on one's mental health.

  1. Emotional Impact of Should Statements

  • Experiencing "should" statements can lead to significant emotional distress, including guilt, anxiety, and frustration. Understanding the emotional toll can motivate individuals to seek healthier thought patterns.

  1. Social Consequences of Should Statements

  • "Should" statements affect how others perceive us and can lead to strained relationships and misunderstandings. Exploring these social dynamics helps in understanding the broader impact of this cognitive distortion.

  1. Daily Manifestations of Should Statements

  • These statements can manifest in various daily situations, from social interactions to work environments. Recognizing these manifestations is crucial for applying effective coping strategies in everyday life.

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The information in this blog is for educational and entertainment purposes only

A Deeper Definition: Should Statements

"Should" statements are a cognitive distortion where individuals impose rigid rules and expectations on themselves or others, often leading to feelings of guilt, frustration, and resentment. These statements are rooted in internalized societal norms, expectations, and personal standards that dictate how one ought to behave or how others should act. This type of thinking can create unrealistic expectations and significant emotional distress when these standards are not met.

Common Triggers: 

Typical triggers for "should" statements include cultural norms, upbringing, and personal insecurities. Cultural norms often dictate what behaviors are considered acceptable or desirable, leading individuals to internalize these standards and apply them rigidly to themselves and others. Personal upbringing can also play a significant role; individuals raised in environments with high expectations may develop a tendency to use "should" statements frequently. Additionally, personal insecurities and a need for validation can drive individuals to impose these unrealistic standards on themselves, believing that meeting these expectations will lead to acceptance and approval.


The mechanism by which "should" statements operate involves creating internal pressure and external judgments. When individuals use "should" statements, they set up a dichotomy between their current behavior and an idealized standard. This creates internal conflict and pressure to meet these standards, often leading to feelings of inadequacy and failure when the standards are not met. Externally, imposing "should" statements on others can result in judgment and disappointment when others do not conform to these expectations, further straining relationships and increasing interpersonal tension. Recognizing these patterns is crucial for developing healthier, more flexible thought processes.

How it Feels to You

The internal experience of dealing with "should" statements is often fraught with intense emotions and cognitive dissonance. When you impose these rigid expectations on yourself, failing to meet them can trigger deep feelings of guilt and self-criticism. For example, if you believe you "should" always be productive, any moment of rest or leisure can be overshadowed by a sense of unworthiness or laziness. This can lead to chronic stress, as you constantly feel the pressure to meet these unattainable standards. Over time, the emotional toll can become overwhelming, leading to burnout and decreased mental health.

The anxiety associated with "should" statements is another significant aspect of this cognitive distortion. The constant worry about not living up to your own or others' expectations can create a pervasive sense of tension. You might find yourself repeatedly going over situations in your mind, wondering if you did enough or if you should have done something differently. This can lead to a cycle of overthinking and second-guessing, which exacerbates anxiety and diminishes your ability to enjoy the present moment.

Frustration is also a common companion to "should" statements. When reality doesn't align with the idealized standards you set for yourself or others, the resulting frustration can be acute. For instance, if you believe that your partner "should" always understand your needs without being told, any miscommunication or unmet expectation can lead to feelings of resentment and disappointment. This frustration not only affects your relationship with others but also your relationship with yourself, as you struggle with the gap between expectations and reality.

First-Person Narrative:

Imagine you're someone who believes you "should" attend every social event to maintain your friendships and be seen as a reliable friend. After a long and exhausting week at work, you're invited to a party on Saturday night. Despite feeling physically and mentally drained, you tell yourself that you "should" go, fearing that missing the event might make your friends think you don't care about them.

As you prepare for the party, you feel a growing sense of dread. You force yourself to get dressed and put on a happy face, even though all you want to do is stay home and rest. During the party, you're physically present, but mentally, you're somewhere else. You're too tired to engage in meaningful conversations, and you find yourself counting down the minutes until you can leave. The whole time, a voice in your head keeps telling you that you "should" be more enthusiastic and social, adding to your stress and discomfort.

The next day, you wake up feeling even more exhausted and frustrated with yourself. You think about how you didn't really enjoy the party and how your friends might have noticed your lack of enthusiasm. This leads to feelings of guilt, as you chastise yourself for not being the perfect friend you believe you "should" be. You also feel resentment towards your friends, even though they did nothing wrong, because you're projecting your own unrealistic expectations onto them. This scenario illustrates the heavy emotional burden of "should" statements and how they can lead to a cycle of stress, guilt, and frustration that impacts both your well-being and your relationships.

How Others Perceive You

"Should" statements don't just impact your internal world; they also significantly affect your social interactions and how others perceive you. When you impose these rigid expectations on others, it can create a sense of judgment and pressure in your relationships. Friends, family members, and colleagues might feel that they are constantly being evaluated against unrealistic standards. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and resentment, ultimately straining your relationships.

For instance, if you often say things like, "You should always be on time," or, "You should never make mistakes at work," people around you might feel as though they can never meet your expectations, no matter how hard they try. This perception can cause them to distance themselves from you, as they might fear constant criticism or judgment. Additionally, your well-intentioned advice might be perceived as controlling or overbearing, further complicating social dynamics.

Anecdotes and Hypothetical Scenarios:

Imagine a scenario where you tell your partner, "You should know what I want without me having to tell you." This expectation creates pressure for your partner to be mind-readers, leading to misunderstandings and frustration. When they inevitably fail to meet this expectation, you might express disappointment or irritation, which can make them feel inadequate and unappreciated. Over time, this dynamic can erode the intimacy and trust in your relationship, as your partner may start to feel that nothing they do is ever good enough.

Another example could be in a workplace setting, where you tell your team, "We should never miss a deadline." While this might be intended to motivate and encourage high standards, it can also create a high-pressure environment where team members feel anxious and stressed. The fear of failure and the pressure to meet these stringent expectations can lead to burnout and decreased morale. Team members might start to resent you for the constant pressure and lack of understanding of the challenges they face.

Balanced Perspective: While "should" statements can indeed have negative consequences, it's important to recognize that they can also have positive outcomes when used appropriately. For instance, having high standards and encouraging others to strive for excellence can be motivating. In certain contexts, such as a competitive work environment, these expectations can drive performance and lead to impressive results.

However, the key is balance. If "should" statements are used excessively or without empathy, they can lead to frustration and resentment. For example, a manager who frequently tells their team, "You should always be at your best," might inspire some employees to push their limits and achieve great things. But if this message is delivered without understanding the personal and professional challenges team members face, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and burnout.

Finding the right balance involves setting high standards while also being flexible and understanding of individual circumstances. It's about encouraging growth and excellence without creating an environment of constant pressure and judgment. By doing so, you can foster motivation and drive while maintaining positive and healthy relationships.

This balanced approach helps maintain strong social connections and ensures that your high standards do not come at the cost of your relationships and the well-being of those around you.

Reel-Life Realities: Movie Character Cognitive Distortions

"Dead Poets Society" is a drama film set in an elite all-boys preparatory school known for its strict adherence to tradition and discipline. The story follows a group of students who are inspired by their unconventional English teacher, Mr. Keating, to pursue their passions and think independently. The film explores themes of individuality, conformity, and the pressures placed on young people by society and family.

Character Identification:

Neil Perry, played by Robert Sean Leonard, is one of the main characters in the film. He is a talented and ambitious student with a passion for acting. However, Neil faces immense pressure from his authoritarian father, who has rigid expectations for Neil's future, specifically that he become a doctor.

Specific Scene:

A pivotal scene that highlights Neil's struggle with "should" statements occurs when he decides to participate in a school play. Despite his deep desire to act, Neil is conflicted because his father has made it clear that he "should" focus solely on his academic and future medical career. The tension culminates when Neil tells himself he "should" become a doctor to please his father, even though his heart is set on acting.

Analysis of Distortion: Neil’s internalization of "should" statements exemplifies the intense pressure and guilt associated with this cognitive distortion. In this scene, Neil grapples with the conflict between his own dreams and the rigid expectations imposed by his father. His belief that he "should" follow his father's wishes leads to significant emotional turmoil.

This distortion is evident as Neil feels he must sacrifice his own happiness and passion to meet his father's standards. The guilt of potentially disappointing his father and the fear of not living up to these expectations weigh heavily on him, illustrating how "should" statements can create a profound sense of obligation and internal conflict. Neil’s tragic struggle underscores the detrimental impact of "should" statements, highlighting the emotional distress and the potential loss of one's true identity and desires.

Through Neil's story, "Dead Poets Society" poignantly depicts how rigid expectations and internalized "should" statements can lead to severe consequences, emphasizing the importance of pursuing one's true passions and values over imposed obligations.

Daily Manifestations

"Should" statements can manifest in various aspects of daily life, affecting social interactions, work environments, and personal goals. Here are some specific examples:

Social Interactions:

In social settings, "should" statements might make you feel obligated to engage in conversations or attend events, even when you're not feeling up to it. For instance, you might tell yourself, "I should go to this party to support my friend," despite being exhausted or overwhelmed. This can lead to resentment and burnout, as you're prioritizing perceived obligations over your own well-being.

Work Environment:

In the workplace, "should" statements often involve imposing unrealistic standards on yourself or others. You might think, "I should never make mistakes at work," which creates immense pressure and stress. This mindset can lead to overworking, anxiety, and conflicts with colleagues who may feel judged or unsupported. Similarly, expecting perfection from your team with statements like, "They should always meet deadlines," can foster a toxic work environment where employees feel undervalued and constantly on edge.

Personal Goals:

When it comes to personal goals, "should" statements can result in setting rigid and often unattainable targets. For example, you might think, "I should exercise every day," and then feel like a failure if you miss a workout. This can erode your self-esteem and create a cycle of guilt and disappointment. Instead of recognizing progress, you're constantly focused on unmet expectations, which can diminish motivation and enjoyment.

20 Things to Look Out For:

  1. Frequently telling yourself, "I should be more outgoing," at social events.

  2. Feeling guilty for resting because you believe you "should" always be productive.

  3. Criticizing yourself for not meeting every expectation at work.

  4. Judging others for not adhering to your standards, e.g., "They should be more punctual."

  5. Feeling pressured to maintain a perfect appearance because you "should" look your best.

  6. Experiencing frustration when others don’t act as you think they "should."

  7. Struggling with relaxation, thinking you "should" be doing something more productive.

  8. Feeling inadequate if you don't achieve your daily personal goals.

  9. Avoiding hobbies or activities because you believe you "should" focus on more "important" tasks.

  10. Pressuring yourself to excel in all areas of life, e.g., "I should be a perfect parent."

  11. Berating yourself for minor mistakes, thinking you "should" never err.

  12. Expecting immediate results in personal development, e.g., "I should be good at this by now."

  13. Feeling compelled to follow societal norms, even if they conflict with personal values.

  14. Experiencing anxiety over unmet expectations in relationships, e.g., "My partner should always understand me."

  15. Comparing yourself to others, thinking you "should" be at the same level.

  16. Feeling constant pressure to meet perceived obligations, e.g., "I should call my parents daily."

  17. Judging your progress harshly, thinking you "should" be further along in your career.

  18. Struggling with accepting compliments, thinking you "should" be more modest.

  19. Avoiding asking for help because you believe you "should" handle everything on your own.

  20. Feeling overwhelmed by a constant barrage of "shoulds" in every aspect of your life.


In understanding "should" statements, we’ve explored their profound impact on both our internal world and social interactions. These rigid expectations, often stemming from societal norms and personal insecurities, can lead to feelings of guilt, anxiety, and frustration. They can also strain relationships, creating an environment of judgment and pressure that impacts how others perceive us. Through examples from everyday life and a deeper dive into how these statements manifest, we’ve seen the pervasive influence of this cognitive distortion.

By recognizing the signs of "should" statements and understanding their effects, you can begin to challenge and reframe these thoughts. This shift can lead to greater flexibility, self-compassion, and healthier relationships, both personally and professionally.

I encourage you to continue this journey by reading the full series on cognitive distortions. Each article delves into different types of distorted thinking, offering insights and strategies to help you manage and overcome these patterns. Understanding these concepts can be a transformative step towards better mental health and personal development. Stay tuned and empower yourself with knowledge to navigate life's challenges with greater resilience and clarity.

Additional Resources

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About the Author

Cody Thomas Rounds- Clinical Psychologist

photo of author Cody Thomas Rounds

Cody is board-certified clinical psychologist, but he sees himself as a lifelong learner, especially when it comes to understanding human development and the profound impact of learning on our well-being.

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