“I shouldn’t eat that cookie.”
“I should really work out.”
“I should call my mom.”
“I shouldn’t go out to eat tonight.”
How many times in a day do you find yourself thinking in terms of “should” and “shouldn’t”? If you’re anything like me, the answer to that is probably a lot. Especially if you’re an anxious person, odds are good that your mind runs that should/shouldn’t narrative pretty regularly.
What’s the big deal? Every time you think in terms of should or shouldn’t, your brain is telling you that for whatever reason, you aren’t good enough the way you are. Depending on your narrative and your own personal brand of insecurities, that can mean a lot of things. Every “should work out” and “shouldn’t eat that cupcake” reminds you that you aren’t happy with your weight. Every “should stay late at work” or “shouldn’t wait until tomorrow to check my work email” reminds you that you don’t think you work hard enough. Our days are a constant barrage of shoulds and shouldn’ts, which is a constant reminder that you aren’t enough the way you are. These reminders can also lead to massive guilt if you don’t follow through on your should/shouldn’t. Now not only do you view yourself as overweight/lazy/bad with money/anti-social/whatever your insecurity is, but you can’t even do this one little thing to make it better. I’m sure you can imagine what an ugly cycle that can lead to.
How do you stop the should/shouldn’t narrative? This part’s a little tricky. We all know that telling yourself not to think about something is a surefire way to have it doing a constant conga line through your brain. Here’s what I want to avoid:
Your brain: I should really work out tonight.
Your brain: Wait — I shouldn’t be thinking the word “should.”
Your brain: Crap, I shouldn’t be thinking “shouldn’t” either.
Your brain: Dammit!
So what to do instead? Try these four steps:
- Think of the consequences and rewards.
- Check your priorities.
- Change the “should” or “shouldn’t” to a “will” or “won’t.”
- Follow through.
I know it seems like kind of a lengthy process, but I promise it won’t take more than a few seconds. Here’s what it looks like:
Statement: “I should work out tonight.”
Consequences vs. Rewards: If I work out, I’ll burn some calories and improve my mood. On the other hand, I worked out pretty hard last night, and my muscles are really fatigued. If I don’t work out, I can rest my body and spend some time doing other things that are important to my self-care.
Check your priorities: My health is my top priority. How will that best be served?
Change the narrative: Tonight, I will not work out. I will do ten minutes of light stretching, and I will spend the rest of my usual workout time doing things from my self-care lists.
Follow through: This might be obvious, but do ten minutes of light stretching, and spend the rest of your usual workout time doing things from your self-care lists.
And here’s another one, just for fun:
Statement: “I shouldn’t go out to eat tonight.”
Consequences vs. Rewards: If go out to eat, it will definitely be delicious and I’ll get to spend time with a friend I don’t see very often. If I skip it and eat at home, I will save some money and probably eat something healthier.
Check your priorities: My priorities are my health, my budget, and connecting with people I love. How will that best be served?
Change the narrative: I will not go out to dinner. I will invite my friend over for a homecooked meal at my place instead.
Follow through: Explain to your friend that you want to see them but you’d rather stay in, then cook a killer meal for them that will make them forget why they wanted to go out in the first place.
It’s that simple. It might be hard at first, but it will become second nature before too long. If you start to feel guilty about the choices you make, go back to your consequences vs. rewards and remind yourself: you made the choice that was the best for you right now, and that’s awesome!