How To Stop Being Hard On Yourself
Do the following statements sound familiar?
“I should call my parents more often.”
“I should play with the kids when I’m home from work, but I don’t.”
“I should try harder at work.”
If you recognize some of your own thoughts and perceptions here, chances are good that you’re used to being hard on yourself. You’re constantly beating yourself up for all the things you wished you’d done, or wish you could do. You don’t feel like you deserve the praise or care others give you because you feel you haven’t done enough to earn it. Most of all, you feel beholden to what you “ought to do,” even though you never feel like you live up to that expectation in your mind.
While thoughts like these can be painful, there’s a silver lining: if you’re already recognizing that you’re being hard on yourself, you have a better chance of fixing the problem.
So, how do you stop being hard on yourself?
The answer lies in the word “should,” and what you can do about it.
Why “should” doesn’t help
Think about the world “should” for a moment. What does it do for you? When you say things like “I should respond to more emails,” or “I should really finish my teaching license,” the internal compass within you starts to point in a different direction than where you’re going. You’re not responding to as many emails as you like, and you haven’t completed that teacher’s license, so you feel bad, wrong and upset with yourself.
What may feel like constructive guidance in those moments—the “should” moments—often leads to unnecessary pressure. Saying you ought to do something or behave in some way can create an expectation that becomes burdensome, leading to self-criticism and creating discomfort and friction in your life.
More than that, should doesn’t change the way the world works.
What do we mean by that?
The world doesn’t respond to “should”
Let’s take the problem of should out of our own lives for a minute and focus on the world at large instead. What should the world be like?
The world should be free of hate, bigotry, racism, poverty, poor health, greed and violence.
The world should be fair, kind and just.
The world should be everything we want it to be, and it should allow us to make the most of our lives in every single moment.
Unfortunately, we all know the simple truth here: the world just isn’t this way. It should be, but it’s not. And wishing it would be doesn’t make things any better. In fact, it makes things worse.
Because wishing that the world (or your life) was different doesn’t actually change anything. Instead, the dissonance between how things are and how things should be creates internal discomfort, anger, stress and anxiety. Wanting something to be another way without it being that way is a recipe for constant disappointment and frustration.
And that’s what being hard on yourself does, too: when you get angry with yourself for not being how you should be, you get despondent, dejected and lose hope.
So what do you do about that? How do you simply accept that things aren’t what they should be?
This is the tricky part: you don’t.
Redefining what “should” means
Should doesn’t change how things are. But it does do something valuable. Instead of foregoing the word should and accepting things as less than ideal, your job is to use should as a bellwether of sorts—instead of choosing to sit in the discomfort of a bad feeling, choose to use should as information that allows you to choose a new course.
Here’s how that works in practice. When you say: “I should hang out with my kids more often,” let go of all the negative feelings associated with that thought. Don’t be hard on yourself for not spending time with them. Instead, consider that thought as a big, flashing light inside your brain that’s saying, “I want to choose to act differently in order to be in better alignment with my beliefs.”
This is what we call contrast. Contrast is understanding what you don’t want so that you can pursue what you do want. By having the opposite experience of what you desire, you now have clarity as to what you do desire.
That clarity is powerful. A lot of people simply get stuck in the should phase, leaving them angry and distressed without a means for recourse. They become hard on themselves, they beat themselves up, the works. But they don’t seek out a new path toward their true goals.
Instead, they get stuck in Should-land, oblivious and upset.
But remember how we said “should” was like a compass pointing in a different direction from where you’re going? While anxiety-inducing, that compass is also your best friend: by realigning yourself in the direction of that compass, you can create the kinds of positive changes in your thoughts that will lead to positive changes in your life.
Applying contrast to your life
Understanding contrast and using it in your daily life works for things big and small. Feel like you should try harder at work? Don’t be miserable about it—instead, think of ways you can start to reorient your thinking so that you can become more engaged with your career.
Is there a way you could ask for new or different responsibilities from your boss that would be more exciting, engaging and fun? Might you be able to carve out an extra thirty minutes in your day to get the job done? Or could you delegate some of your lesser responsibilities to another coworker in order to tackle the high priority items that have been slipping your grasp lately?
See what’s happening here? When you let go of should, you start to get creative with the solutions at hand. There’s no should involved, because you shouldn’t necessarily do any of these things—they’re just options that will put you on a path toward a healthier relationship with your job.
Now let’s get big. If you think, “There shouldn’t be any racism in the world,” you don’t have to become despondent about the fact that there is. Instead, think of ways you—just you—can live in accordance with that belief you have.
Can you donate to a cause that supports your beliefs? Can you join an organization that offers volunteer services for impacted communities? Can you become an educated advocate on social media who helps show others how to be more accepting, kind and open?
Again, there are endless possibilities, and none of them make you feel like a bad person for not doing them. These are just new, interesting ways to live in accordance with your beliefs.
Swap “should” statements for “choose” statements
Alright—we’ve talked a lot about how should shows up in life, and how it leads to being hard on yourself. Here are some practical ways to start nipping should statements in the bud… and create new, better, more purposeful “choose” statements.
- Practice mindfulness to become aware of your "should" statements. Notice when they arise and the emotions they trigger.
- Cultivate self-compassion by acknowledging that it's okay not to meet every "should" and that imperfection is a part of being human.
- Instead of saying, "I should call my friends more often," rephrase it as, "I choose to strengthen my connections by calling a friend weekly."
- Regularly reflect on your actions and decisions. Ask yourself if they align with your values and aspirations.
- Identify areas where "shoulds" may be limiting your potential and explore alternative, more empowering perspectives.
- Allow room for flexibility in your plans. Life is dynamic, and unexpected events may occur.
- Adapt your goals and expectations as needed, and recognize that change is a natural part of the journey.
- Share your goals and aspirations with a trusted friend, family member, or coach.
- Discuss challenges and victories, and receive constructive feedback to stay on track.
A final word on should
In this big, messy dance we call life, the concept of "should" plays many roles—yes, it can be a destructive force that rules your emotions and leads to being hard on yourself, causing major discomfort. But it can also be your greatest ally when it comes to creating the kind of authentic, meaningful life that you want to live.
Recognizing the value of should, and how it provides contrast, is the key to not being hard on yourself. The power of should lies in its ability to prompt the kind of self-direction that guides us toward choices aligned with our true desires. It’s not about abandoning should—nor is it about accepting things as they are. Instead, it’s about finding which way the compass is pointing, and finding a creative, fulfilling and healthy way to walk toward it.
One last thing: if this blog was helpful to you in any way, you might want to consider what coaching could do for you—coaching about “shoulds” and the concept of contrast are two things we’re experts at. Try a free consultation call with us, and if we’re a good fit for each other, we can talk more in detail about how to let go of the world “should” for good.