“I should have visited my mother more often.” “I ought to have worked harder for my exam.” “I must spend more time helping my child with his homework.”
When you want to beat yourself up, there’s no better way than telling yourself all the things you “ought to” do or “should have” done. These phrases express a sense of obligation and correctness and when you use them you feel that you’re not doing the best you can.
“Should” and “ought” encourage feelings of guilt. You may spend far too much time feeling guilty. Lessen that guilt by changing the way you think.
You, like all of us, have an internal dialogue running through your head. You may be aware of it constantly, or just occasionally. You use it to rehearse things you plan to do or say, and to relive past events.
The language you employ during that conversation reflects how you feel about yourself and reinforces those feelings. It perpetuates any feelings of worthlessness, of failing to come up to scratch, of being less good than all those other perfect people who, you imagine, would have done the things you “should” have. It feels as though you have a nagging critic constantly telling you how far you’ve fallen short.
Those weasel phrases hold up a distorted mirror to your face. In that mirror, you see the reflection of someone who has failed to be perfect. You take away that picture, imagining it to be the real you.
Adjust the dialogue
Break in to this vicious circle. Remember you have charge of your thoughts. You can change your internal conversation with yourself to make it positive. Instead of thinking, “I should have said ‘no’ to that slice of cake,” say, “I enjoyed that cake. I will choose to have an apple instead of dessert tonight so that I continue to maintain my diet.”
Take responsibility for your actions.
Notice how rarely you do things simply because you feel you “ought”. If you do, you probably feel miserably resentful. You usually do things because you think the outcome will be worth the effort in some way.
When you find yourself using the “ought” or “should” words, take a moment to consider just why you believe you should be doing something. Maybe you actively want to do well in your exam, or make your mother happy.
Decide what outcome you want, so you take the appropriate actions. You can decide not to do something, and take the consequences. If you fail to study, for example, you may fail the exam. How much does that matter to you? Only you can decide.
Concentrating on the outcome of your actions, not on the actions themselves, gives you permission to decide not to do things. Imagine being at your mother’s funeral. How will you feel then if you look back and know you visited her? How will you feel if you decide not to visit? You may decide that she is asking for an unreasonable commitment from you, that will not improve her life or yours in the long term. You may decide to be firm and say “no”.
Make sure you think carefully about the eventual outcome of your action, so that you choose it through logical thought, not a vague, guilty feeling that you “ought” or “should”.
Learn from the past
As you replay past events in your head, you may decide an outcome was less good than you hoped. For example, you may have given a public presentation and stumbled over your words, dropped your notes and tripped down the stairs. You feel bad. You feel guilty: that you let people down. You may think you “ought” to have spoken more slowly, tied the notes together and held the banister of the stairs.
This is hindsight talking.
You did your best according to the resources you had available at the time. It was your first presentation. You did not know how much practice you needed. Perhaps you were surprised at how nervous you felt.
Next time, you have additional resources at your disposal because of your experience. You know how you may feel, so you can prepare yourself more effectively. Make a plan. Practice slower speech and learn your notes by heart. Arrange not to walk down stairs, or practice going more slowly.
Increase your stock of resources for the next time and work towards a better outcome.
Your child’s dialogue
Help your child learn more mature ways of making decisions. She builds her internal conversation habits on the way she feels about herself, just as you do. Help her to think positively so that she understands and learns from mistakes while keeping a healthy regard for herself.
If she is rude to an adult, for example, rather than telling her she “should” or “must” be polite, point out that her behaviour was a mistake. Show her the consequences. It put her in a bad light. You are cross with her and the adult thinks she is ignorant and stupid. She may sacrifice a treat because of her behaviour.
Help her to see that behaviour that is more acceptable, leads to a better outcome, so she learns to make sensible decisions based on reality, not guilt.