Stop ‘shoulding’ yourself and set yourself free!

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I’ve always been a smiley girl. I really like smiling at people. Kids, the elderly, strangers, whoever. If you’re heading my way, I will smile at you. This became rather ingrained after I started to work in a pharmacy when I was 15. My smiling was relentless.

As I got older, smiling away, I realised something about myself. Smiling had become such a habit that I hadn’t realised the effort I spent smiling at random people I would never see again. But it was the underlying belief that I ‘had’ to do it that shocked me. Now that stopped me in my tracks.

I had become trapped into believing that I should smile at people all the time, everywhere, no matter the circumstances. I felt this inner pressure to please and be ‘nice’. All the time. No matter what’s going on. It was a must, a should, a have to.


It appeared to line up with important values like treating people with respect, being kind, gentle and good. Nothing wrong with that, right? It was the shoulding on myself that became the problem.

Don’t we as women do things just because it’s nice, or expected, or it’s polite, or we should? Then if we say no, we have an attack of the guilts and then we start shoulding on ourselves. Ever done that?

I should have been able get the kids to school, take my mother to the doctor, go to work, achieve everything on my ‘to do’ list, pick up the kids, cook a meal (a fabulous one no less!), go to the gym because God forbid I’ve got hips, make sure I’m there for my husband, oh and by the way I have the flu! Come on Sistas, we need to give ourselves a break!

It was only when I began my training as a therapist that I realised I didn’t need to be the all smiling, all perfect woman. My liberation came to me in the form of a handout that set me free. It was a list of shoulds.


Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning wrote a great book called ‘Self-esteem’. In it, they describe neatly in four little words what I was experiencing. The Tyranny of the Shoulds. Oh boy is that should a tyrant. And that tyrant lives in our heads beating us up to do more, be more, see more until you have no idea why on earth you’re doing it but by gee you should!

McKay and Fanning compiled a list of the things we say to ourselves when we are in the realm of the shoulds.

  • I should be the epitome of generosity and unselfishness
  • I should be the perfect lover, friend, parent, teacher, student, spouse, etc
  • I should be able to endure any hardship with equanimity
  • I should be able to find a quick solution to every problem
  • I should never feel hurt – I should always feel happy and serene
  • I should be completely competent
  • I should know, understand, and foresee everything
  • I should never feel certain emotions such as anger or jealousy
  • I should love my children equally
  • I should never make mistakes
  • My emotions should be constant – once I feel love, I should always feel love
  • I should be totally self-reliant
  • I should never be tired or get sick
  • I should never be afraid
  • I should have achievements that bring me status, wealth or power
  • I should always be busy; to relax is to waste my time and my life
  • I should be unfailingly kind
  • I should be able to protect children from all pain
  • I should not take time just for my own pleasure

How many of these shoulds should on you? All of these shoulds have great values underpinning them. Our values are building blocks that point towards who we are and what’s important to us. It’s when these values become hard and fast rules, where there’s no room for flexibility, or indeed no sense of humanity or compassion towards our personal needs, that our values become our jailers – rather than our liberators.


It is when our shoulds attack our self-esteem that they become a problem. We can have unrealistic expectations that when not carefully considered bind us up in knots. We become unhappy, pressured, and dissatisfied with ourselves. So how do you stop the should?    

  • Assess the shoulds listed and see which ones apply to you
  • Look for the values that underpin the should
  • Ask yourself if you have a sense of guilt about this should – if so, when and how did that guilt first start?
  • What would happen if you didn’t do your should?
  • Ask yourself if you feel like you owe someone something in this area and why?
  • Do you comply with the should as a way to avoid something in this area?
  • Does the should seem to split you in half? I should be doing this when I’d rather be doing that.

Answer these questions without judgement, without a sense of having to be right or wrong. Answer according to what is, what is true for you and what is real.


If we are being driven by something without any understanding, we are often left in a powerless position, rather than being powerful.

Changing the language we use to describe what we want to achieve and why, helps by allowing flexibility, meaning and purpose. Rather than having statements that lock us into a course of action, developing considered and thoughtful messages we can give ourselves helps unbind us from beliefs that limit us.

McKay and Fanning offer some great examples which include:

Powerless: I should go back to uni and make something of my life.

Powerful: I went to uni because it was my parent’s idea, and I wanted to please them. But life doesn’t work for me. I’d only drop out again from boredom and the pressure will be too much.

Powerless: I shouldn’t make mistakes.

Powerful: Not making mistakes was important to my mum. But I’m just learning this new job. I can only learn by trying. If I worry about mistakes, I’ll freeze up and stop learning.

Powerless: I should diet and stay thin.

Powerful: Mum always told me she likes me thin. But I’d rather weigh what I do than be constantly dieting and worrying about the number on the scales.

Powerless: I have to have a better job

Powerful: Status and position was really important within my family. But this job is low stress and suits me right now. When I’m ready for more pressure, I’ll move on.

Powerless: I should always take a lot of care with how I look.

Powerful: I like to get dressed up and look nice when I need to for work or going out to parties or functions. But really, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt is when I’m most comfortable.

Are you ready to come up with your own power statement to replace your should? Maybe you’d like to share how you’ve been shoulding on yourself and your new power statement.

Oh, and by the way, am I still a serial smiler? Definitely! But I do it from a place of authenticity, not because I should.

With love, 

Rita xx

Rita Barnett

Rita Barnett is a counsellor/psychotherapist who loves working with women who may have had difficult relationships in the past, and want to discover new ways to have happy and fulfilled relationships in their future. Rita believes that the most important person you need to have solid relationship with is you. From that, everything else follows.

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