Cognitive Distortions: Faulty Ways of Thinking - Part One

“There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.” — Albert Ellis, Ph.D

Let’s get started with my all-time personal favorite: Should Statements

Famous psychologist, Albert Ellis, coined the term “musterbation”, which refers to people believing that they MUST live by a set of absolute and unrealistic demands that they place on themselves, others and the world. When engaging in this cognitive distortion, people try to motivate themselves and push themselves into shape, emotionally and physically, by using “should”, “shouldn’t”, “have to”, “ought to”, and “musts”. These words are a set-up for negative self-judgment and feelings of guilt.

There are no pre-determined “shoulds” and “should nots” in life. It depends on your personal circumstances. Determine what would be most beneficial for you and then do your best to act accordingly. If you’ve organized your life in terms of “have tos” and “must nots,” then when you fail to follow those, you’ll feel guilty and even believe you deserve punishment. In reality, what you truly deserve is self-compassion for having unfairly set impossible standards for yourself.

How do we identify Should Statements?
An easy hint is to look for the following words: must, never, should, need to, ought to, can’t, shouldn’t, and have to. Again, it is important to note that some of these statements would absolutely be nice to have in a perfect world, but is unlikely that they will all come true for you all of the time.

Examples of Should Statements:

            “I should be perfect”
            “I must get everyone to like me”
            “He should always keep his promises”
            “I should be working out/eating better”
            “I should be over these feelings by now”
            “I must lose weight so that people will like me”
            “I must get a better job/partner/life”
            “A best friend would never forget to call me back”
            “I should be happy”
            “I shouldn’t eat chocolate”

So now that you can recognize a Should Statement, what do we do from here? Let’s challenge some of those statements.

1.     Ask yourself if the “should” is absolutely true.
For example, “I shouldn’t eat chocolate”. You want to think about whether that statement needs to be true 100% of the time. What would it be like if you changed that to “I will save chocolate for special occasions.” In this case, you have given up the absolute statement for one that is more likely to be able to be followed and it does not cause a harsh criticism from you when you do enjoy a treat.

2.     What would you tell your best friend?
You may find that when you turn around these absolute statements as if your best friend was saying them about themselves, you will find that your judgment disappears and you give them a break that you may not give to yourself. For example, if your friend suggested that a “best friend never forgets to call you back,” you might remind your friend of all of the times that you forgot to call someone you love and how that didn’t really indicate anything about how you felt but more about your current level of stress and distraction. So why not give yourself the same courtesy? Let’s change the statement to “a best friend eventually calls you back when they have time”. This statement leaves some leeway for your friend to deal with their current situation and leaves you feeling less resentful and hurt.

3.      Phrase the statement as a wish.
For example, the statement “I must get a better job” really adds a lot of unnecessary pressure to yourself. You can identify the desire for something different, but without the criticism that we often give to ourselves. You might change that statement to, “I would like a new job that pays more.” Changing the statement shows you what to strive for and allows room for change.

4.     Look only at the facts.
Thoughts are not facts! It can be difficult to see the facts of a situation when your thoughts are being filtered through emotions. So let’s apply some logic to the situation. Ask yourself, “how do I know if this thought is accurate?”, “what evidence do I have to support this thought?”. Pretend that you are a prosecuting attorney and you have to prove the facts of the case.

If you find yourself frequently “shoulding” all over yourself and others in your life, CBT can be a really helpful tool.

Stay tuned for more on cognitive distortions…