When "I Should..." Controls Our Lives

When "I Should..." Controls Our Lives
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Let it all go – all of the shoulda coulda woulda   psychological tyranny. It trips us up, getting in the way of our happiness. These thoughts come up in those automatic conversations we have with ourselves, where we tell ourselves to stay one step ahead of our lives. We undermine our own self-esteem to prioritize the “I should…” over the “I want…”.

This idea might surprise you. In our day-to-day lives, we’re trampled by an endless stream of obligations and responsibilities. We’re social creatures. Our ultimate duty is to form part of that perfect, well-oiled machine. There are inevitable consequences when we do get off-rhythm or fail at completing a task.

We know this very well. However, there’s already enough external pressure on us. There’s no use in adding the even more debilitating pressure of getting in your head. Sometimes we obsess so much about “I need to try harder to prove how much I’m worth”. Or maybe, “I should have said this, not that”. Or “I should have behaved differently”. But these thoughts will only make you feel disheartened, frustrated, and isolated.

Woman in a cloud.

Shoulda coulda woulda… Common psychological tyranny

There are many kinds of obligations. The ones that eat away at us and sabotage our personalities are the ones we obsess over. I should visit my parents, I should lose weight, I should try harder to get promoted at work, I should be more attractive, I should have better people skills, I need this or that thing to be happy…

These thoughts transform our desires or preferences into all-or-nothing obligations and impositions. When we fall into this shoulda coulda woulda trap, there are a few things we’d do well to remember:

  • Firstly, what we do is create a fantasy about how we think things should be. “I have to show that I’m valuable because I need external validation and recognition.” “I have to have a nice cell phone because that’s how things work nowadays…”
  • Secondly, we also end up focusing on what we haven’t yet achieved. By doing this we stop exploring other options or realities that might be more satisfyingWhy give ourselves the expectation of being thinner or having the perfect body, rather than accepting ourselves as we are?
  • As a third observation, these behaviors and mental focuses drain our energy and resources. Sometimes, we may even blame ourselves for not finishing what we “should have” and “have to” do. It’s a sad form of self-sabotage.

How to overcome the shoulda coulda woulda obsession and feel freer

The “I have to” and “I should have” thoughts take up mental space. In fact, an article in Psychology Today reported that these thoughts are built into our neural circuits. They’re programmed into the deepest and more primitive parts of our brains, like the amygdala and corpus striatum.

We’ve been internalizing some of these internal rules since childhood, always willing to “do whatever” or “follow whatever” role society gives us. But these rules can deprive us of all happiness and freedom. Albert Ellis said that these mental tyrannies were irrational thoughts. They’re ways of destroying ourselves and wasting time and effort on senseless, useless things that may even be outside our control.

Here are some strategies to eliminate the shoulda woulda coulda in our lives.

How to work on our self-imposed duties:

  • Think more about the responsibilities that are so deeply ingrained in your head that you don’t even recognize them. Sometimes our sense of duty is so automatic that we’re not even aware of it. We can also forget when others (family, society, etc.) imposed those responsibilities on us.
  • Confront them: “I should thank others more, I should try harder to be like everyone else.” Do I really need to be like others to be happy?
  • Be aware of any absolutist “all or nothing” thoughts: “I should get this promotion or I’m screwed.” Will the world really end if I don’t get this promotion?
  • Register each thought and start filtering through them: A good way of being conscious of our mental focuses and thoughts is to write them down. Start a diary and take note of what your mind is telling you, what your heart is feeling, what worries you. Two weeks later, come back to those entries and take note of how you’re thinking. Maybe you can control certain thought processes.
Woman thinking

In conclusion, we should accept that we’ve all navigated the shoulda coulda woulda thoughts. We don’t need to erase them completely, just chip away at them. It’s all about achieving a proper balance between “I should” and “I want”.


This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.