Should and Shouldn’t

I upped my reading goal at the start of the year (from 12 books to 24 books). There’s a shelf on my bookshelf of “books that I should read but haven’t read yet” and after ignoring that shelf for way too long, I set up a recurring reminder – “read the books you’ve already got!”

So after I finished a book that dad gave me for Christmas, I went over to my “books I should read” shelf and picked out one that seemed interesting: Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. I vaguely recalled that my sister brought it over one day, so I asked her about it before reading it. She said that one part of it had been recommended to her, and she’d read that part and then handed it to me (and of course she’d told me at the time – which specific part to read!) but she couldn’t remember the important part anymore. I just started reading it from the top.

Turns out, it’s one of the earliest best-selling books on cognitive therapy, which I also vaguely recall learning about in psychology at uni.

The book begins by introducing some cognitive therapy concepts:
– mild depression isn’t caused by imbalances of brain chemicals, it’s caused by a negative/distorted thought that can change how you feel, which can then can spiral into further negative/distorted thoughts and feelings
– the thoughts cause the negative feelings, not the other way around, so if you can address and change the thoughts, then you change the feelings
– mild depression can be treated by cognitive therapy as effectively (or more effectively) than depression medication

The book then gives the reader a quiz to figure out what kind of depression they might have – normal fluctuation of moods, mild depression, or deep depression. (I got “normal fluctuation.”)

The book then gives an overview of ten main “cognitive distortions.” For some of the distortions, I was like: “Oh sure, I do that.” Like the Overgeneralisation distortion – I’ll think, “I always find it hard making friends these days!” – which then is paired with the Mental Filter distortion (focusing on a negative detail) – “this person’s body language completely shut me out of the conversation they were having with another person, and we were the only three people in the room!” – which can lead to: “I am an unlikable person.”

Butttttttt, the distortion I found super interesting? Should Statements.

Lemme just copy that bit here (p47):

Should Statements. You try to motivate yourself by saying, “I should do this” or “I must do that.” These statements cause you to feel pressured and resentful. Paradoxically, you end up feeling apathetic and unmotivated. Albert Ellis calls this “musturbation.” I call it the “shouldy” approach to life.

When you direct should statements toward others, you will usually feel frustrated. When an emergency caused me to be five minutes late for the first therapy session, the new patient thought, “He shouldn’t be so self-centered and thoughtless. He ought to be prompt.” This thought caused her to feel sour and resentful.

Should statements generate a lot of unnecessary emotional turmoil in your daily life. When the reality of your own behaviour falls short of your standards, your shoulds and shouldn’ts create self-loathing, shame, and guilt. When the all-too-human performance of other people falls short of your expectations, as will inevitably happen from time to time, you’ll feel bitter and self-righteous. You’ll either have to change your expectations to approximate reality or always feel let down by human behaviour. If you recognise this bad should habit in yourself, I have outlined many effective “should and shouldn’t” removal methods in later chapters on guilt and anger.


I find this interesting because I feel like I am battling “should statements” all the time. (Even at the start of this post – “books that I should read but haven’t read yet”.) And I’ve reflected over the past couple of years that – especially in regards to my career – I’ve been sensing that the “should statements” are more damaging than helpful, and I’ve been trying to reduce them.

So Ima keep reading this book and I’ll see what help it can give me.


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