A theme that I come back to again and again in my work with clients is that one’s mind is powerful. My joke about that is that you need to use such a powerful tool safely. Another thing to keep in mind– and we learn this from mindfulness practice–is that you are always thinking. You may be thinking about what you want for lunch, or you may be thinking about the kid that bullied you in second grade, or you may be thinking about a revolutionary way to deliver behavioral health care. It’s all thinking. Additionally, you may be flooded with emotions of various kinds, be hearing mental music, or other kinds of mental processes may be going on, but whatever is happening, the mind is always on.
One of the most salient examples of how we think– again, one that comes up repeatedly– is how “should” statements work. When I first started studying cognitive therapy, this one baffled me, I’ll admit. Isn’t it true that people sometimes should behave in certain ways? Isn’t it true that we should be polite, be considerate of others, be responsible for ourselves, and a long list of other shoulds?
Albert Ellis, who famously originated REBT, used to tell people, “You’re shoulding all over yourself!” When I first began to understand the problem with should statements, I realized that they are comparisons. The world is one way, and we want it to be another. I used to tell people that when they used should statements, they were at war with reality, and reality would always win. That seemed harsh to me, and I looked for a different way of putting it. One day I came up with an alternate frame. I told my client, “Every time you say ‘should’ you just created a parallel universe where things went differently.” This is in keeping with my view that each of us has a very powerful creative mind. Our minds are so powerful that we can, with a single word, create a parallel universe where things went differently. It also takes the harsh, judgmental edge off of spotting our shoulds. It’s OK to wish for something different; we just want to recognize that we don’t have it.
From whatever trick of language, however, the should always comes out as a kind of accusation: you should be better– but you’re not. You are, in fact, bad, and in addition to being bad, you’re shoulding all over yourself. Dang, Dr. Ellis! I already feel bad– that’s why I’m in therapy! Can’t you be a little nicer? Well, any therapist will tell you that sometimes you have to give people bad news, and sometimes you have to be blunt. But the flip side of that is the well known saying that diplomacy consists of telling someone where to go so nicely that they look forward to the trip.
To me, that’s the whole thing about having the power to create a parallel universe where things turned out differently– with a single word. So to come back to my original puzzlement with the problem with should, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with visualizing a world where people are polite, are considerate of others, are responsible for themselves, and so on. It’s just that it’s a goal statement. Of course people want a world where people are polite, considerate of others., and so on. To crib yet another trite and true statement, for your dreams to come true, you must first dream. But the problem arises when you forget that it’s a goal, not a reality. “I should be more assertive.” “I shouldn’t be so depressed, anxious, obsessive…” Language is such a weird tool, isn’t it? Try saying it this way: “I want to be more assertive.” “I want to feel more relaxed, more positive…” Now it’s a goal statement, not an accusation. Now I’m using that power tool– my mind– in a safer, dare I say it– saner– way. I’m trying to get to a better place, not condemning myself for not already being there. And taking credit, as well as responsibility, for being a powerful, creative person.
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