Posted in CBT, compassion, mental health, Mindfulness, psychology, wellbeing, wellness

Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? The unhelpfulness of ‘I should’ and ‘I must’ expectations

As part of my compassion group learning over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking unhelpful and more helpful thinking styles. I’ve previously talked about the psychology of using the term ‘I can’t’ (click here to read this post) when we really mean we find something difficult. In today’s wellbeing post, I’m going to focus on the pressure we put on ourselves using terms such as ‘I should’ and ‘I must’.

At the beginning of the year, I went through a really difficult patch with my mental health. I was suffering from debilitating anxiety and everything was a constant struggle. I was having panic attacks and my mood was very low. I spent a lot of time worrying that I wasn’t going to get better and found it extremely difficult to motivate myself to do anything but cry. I’m pleased to report that I’m now feeling much better and life is good. However, my improved mood and elevated motivation levels did start to cause a few issues with my self talk and my thinking and it is this which today’s post focuses on.

As soon as I started to feel better, I totally went into what is known as ‘drive mode’ and felt like I needed to make up for lost time by doing it all and not stopping. I had finally found the joy in achieving things in my day and my head was full of ideas and thoughts. I was writing huge to do lists and spent my time flitting from activity to activity in a frenzied way from when I got up at 6.00am to when I went to bed at 10pm. My head was filled with talk such as ‘I need to…’, ‘I have to…’ ‘I should…’ and all of the other terms associated with the intense desire to be productive and get a buzz from it.

The therapists in our compassion group helped us to see, however, that constantly being in drive mode and making these unrealistic assumptions of how to live can be really unhelpful. Terms such as I need to, I must, I have to and I should, put undue pressure on ourselves to perform and create expectations of ourselves that are very difficult to keep up with.

The effects of using these rigid terms have been studied by a number of psychologists and was a key part of the work of Albert Ellis. He coined the term ‘musterbation’ which has certainly stuck in my mind since reading about it online! The following quote I found online sums up the effects nicely:

“Musterbation” is a term coined by famed psychologist Albert Ellis to describe the phenomenon whereby people live by a set of absolute and unrealistic demands that they place on themselves, others and the world. For most of us, these rules come out in a series of should statements that we repeat to ourselves over and over again. These “should” and “shouldn’t” statements leave us feeling bad about ourselves because they set up standards that we cannot realistically meet. They also leave us feeling frustrated and hurt by others when they inevitably fail to fulfill our expectations. Recognizing this habit to set rules for yourself, others and the world gives you the opportunity to relieve some of the stress these messages cause. When dealing with “should” statements, it is important to keep in mind that while it may be nice to reach your goals and be treated the way you want all the time, we are human and live in an imperfect world. Therefore, the pressure to be anything all the time is more likely to cause harm than good.

Rowan Center BLOG, 2015.

If you would like to read more of their interesting article click here.

I’m now much more aware of when I’m using these terms (I haven’t stopped using them and I’m very much conditioned to their use, I’m just more mindful of when I do) and I try to reframe my thinking to be more helpful. This is taking time, but I do think it’s a really important step in increasing my good mental health. I’ve also noticed that my husband is fond of saying ‘I’ve got to…’ ‘I need to…’ and the like and so we laugh about it and then help each other to create more compassionate thoughts and beliefs too. Here are some examples and how I’ve re-articulated things:

  • I need to get rid of all of the weeds in the garden this week >>>> it would be great if I found some time this week to do a little bit of weeding as it would make the garden look a little nicer
  • I must take new and improved photographs of my products today >>>> If the lighting is okay today, I might take a few new photos of a couple of my products and upload them to Etsy
  • I really should get all of that washing done whilst the weather is okay >>>> it would be good if I did some washing this week as the basket is getting pretty full. I might do a load tomorrow and hang it out in the sunshine

You’ll notice that I’ve been more gentle and kind with my expectations too as another way of putting less pressure on myself. This is a big part of being more self compassionate which is what our wonderful therapy group is all about.

I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting and helpful. Maybe it’s made you think about the expectations you set and how you might re-frame your thoughts. Perhaps over the next week, you might notice yourself using ‘I must…’, ‘I need to…’ and ‘I should…’ a lot and you might try to be more mindful of what you say or think. It would be great if you let me know in the comments, but remember, you don’t ‘need to’ or ‘have to’, you just might like to or want to!

Much love and kindness.