Self-Talk: The use of “should”


I was recently facilitating a course and I made a comment that struck a few chords.  Interestingly enough, it was regarding the cognitive distortion should.  Let me tell you the background.  There are certain thinking traps that we can fall into.  One of them is using the word should in our internal dialogue.  As Dr. David Burns states, self-directed “shoulds” can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy.  Other directed  “shoulds” can cause frustration and anger.

I used an example at work regarding what an employee should do.  Specifically, being on time for work.  Now, from a contractual perspective, this is appropriate.  If the expectation was set up that there is a designated start time for work, the employee should be on time.  If the employee is not on time, discussions regarding the cause of the tardiness, reiterating expectations and performance management, if applicable, should ensue.

However, what I am talking about is the self-talk of the manager.  The manager is unable to control the employee and there are things that can happen that are outside of the manager’s and employee’s control.  For example, perhaps the employee left five minutes earlier than they normally do, but there is a traffic accident that blocks access to getting to work.  Or, perhaps a child is ill all night and the employee was trying to make arrangements for the child to be cared for.  If I tell myself that the employee SHOULD be on time, then I may get frustrated and angry when they do not.  This may prevent me from asking questions non-judgementally of why the employee was late.

Dr. Burns does talk about three valid uses of the word should in the English language: legal, laws of the universe, and the moral fabric of society.  But when you are looking at self talk, perhaps it might be best to state, “I would like the employees to be on time” instead of “The employees SHOULD be on time”.  It helps to reduce anger and frustration so that you can concentrate on finding out what is going on.

Reference: Feeling Good.  The website of Dr. David D. Burns, MD. Negative and Positive Distortions, Part 3.

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