While the title may sound provocative, the reality that it is about is somewhat cerebral. What I’m thinking about is the cognitive distortion known as “should” statements. In cognitive therapy, telling yourself “I shoulda done the other thing,” or I should be able to do it better,” or any kind of statement, especially a self statement, with the word should, is considered a cognitive distortion. It’s one of the ways of thinking that can result in depression or anxiety, or keep one stuck in these negative feelings.
When I first started learning about cognitive distortions, I quite honestly didn’t think much about this one. Sure, when I tell myself you should have, I’m creating an inner scold who is admonishing me– or just listening to one who was installed by my parents, perhaps. But isn’t the task then a task of getting rid of the inner scold (or inner critic as some call it)? Or in some approaches, making friends with the inner scold? Well, maybe. that would be a more psychodynamic approach, and might take some time.
What if I want to take a cognitive approach? I don’t care about who my inner critic is, I just want to feel better fast because I’m an impatient American. Then I look at what the problem is with the should statement. It turns out that should statements are generally at war with reality. Thus my title. Take an example statement: “I should have known to not go to that party– they all drink, and I’m trying to quit.”
When we look at that statement, a big part of it is that I don’t like the reality embedded in it. I made a mistake in going to the party, and I made a mistake in drinking when I’m trying to quit. I don’t like the outcome of my action. If you compare the italic should statement with the bold restatement, one acknowledges reality, the other is, in essence, at war with the facts or is trying to wish them away. So it’s really quite possible to take any particular should statement and restate it in a way that is better suited to understanding both the behavior I don’t want to do and can be a guide to how I want to do it next time– I’m learning from experience instead of beating myself up. I’m using self-compassion rather than self-judgment.
Let’s look at another, more internal example of a should statement: “I should be able to handle criticism from my boss without just wilting.” In this one, I’m unhappy with myself because of my reaction to the boss’s criticism. But again, I’m essentially wishing that I was someone else, or acted in a different way. I’m at war with reality. I could say, “I want to be able to stand up for myself better when the boss criticizes me.” That’s a goal. I can then make an action plan around my goal. I’m not stuck.
Let’s face it, folks– when you’re at war with reality, reality always wins. In the drinking slip example, I can learn from my experience– next time, don’t go to a drinking party. Or take a sober friend for support. Or… The point is, I can make an action plan. Instead of bemoaning a past mistake, I acknowledge that I made the mistake– that I’m unhappy with the results. Especially, I recognize that I can do it differently next time around. With the more internal example, I can acknowledge that I don’t like my passivity, but I may also have to acknowledge that I work for a very authoritarian boss & I need the money, so I can’t fire back to criticism without getting fired. The plan to deal with the boss is more complicated.
I suppose another way of looking at it would this: should statements are like trying to make war on reality without a plan or weapons. When you analyze your should statements you are making a plan to win, if not the war, at least a well defined battle.
(image from wikimedia commons)
For those who are not fans, the Swedish heavy metal band At the Gates apparently has an album titled “At War With Reality.” I haven’t heard it and have no opinion. But for the record, I’ve heard heavy metal music that I liked.