In my work as a clinical therapist, I often hear, “I should have done this…” or “Well, I should do this…” What comes next is often a statement laden with shame and guilt.

Courtney Ackerman of Positive Psychology writes, “When we hang on too tightly to our “should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When we cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by their failure to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.”

Are “should” statements damaging to our self-concept? Are they damaging to our interpersonal relationships? Cognitive-Behavioral theorists would argue, yes!

It is often difficult to work with clients wrapped up in what they should do or should have done. So how do we overcome the power of the “should?” The renown theorist Albert Ellis coined the term “musterbation,” humorously referencing a “set of absolute and unrealistic demands that they place on themselves, others and the world.” These demands often take the form of distressing automatic thoughts about what one should or should not do.

As clinicians, we can work with clients to identify when “should” statements are affecting the well-being of our clients. Developing insight and sensitivity to guilt-ridden and shaming cognitive patterns is the first step towards eliminating them. When are these thoughts coming up? Is there a pattern? What purpose are they serving? What might be a more helpful reframing?

Can we as clinicians guide our clients towards self-compassion?

Yes. The good news is that there exists a large dearth of evidence-based research that can help our clients escape the spiral of guilt and shame. Cognitive restructuring practices, thought logs, values inventories, verbal processing, mindfulness/meditation and many other therapeutic tools can help set clients on a path of self-compassion. Together, we can combat the power of the “should.”

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