Overcoming (the big three) Shoulds, Musts, and Oughts

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Thank you for stopping by for my ongoing positive self-talk series.  Self-love starts with positive self-talk, and all of that starts with you.  Shifting the way that you think requires the ability to recognize the power of your thoughts.  You can learn to love yourself by changing what you think about yourself and how you talk with yourself.   

We all struggle from time to time with cognitive distortions.  The healthiest person you know will struggle with a little cognitive distortion here and a little exaggeration there.  Doing this here and there won’t have an impact on your mental state in the short term.  However, when you start to do it constantly and become your everyday thinking style, your mental health will suffer. 

If you feel that your mental health has suffered to the point that you would benefit from therapy, then take a look at and you can use my link to receive a 20% discount [affiliate link]. It’s my belief that everyone should be able to have access to mental health resources and if you feel that you would benefit from therapy then I encourage you to give it a try.

What do (the big three) shoulds, musts, and oughts look like?

They look like a set of rules that carry impractical demands and are used to govern over our own lives and the lives of others. 

Self-directed shoulds, musts, and oughts create feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, depression, and eat at self-esteem and self-worth. 

Other-directed shoulds, musts, and oughts create feelings of anger and resentment that spill over into conflict with others. 

Although shoulds, musts, and oughts are at the root of most emotional distress. They are also easily used and conveyed. And can also look similar to personalization. This type of thinking is common in people that struggle with anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, low self-esteem, low self-worth, and self-criticism. 

Shoulds, Musts, and Oughts.

Here are some examples of (the big three)

Telling yourself, “I shouldn’t have made that mistake.”  OR  ”You shouldn’t get upset with me.” 

“I must get this right, or everyone will know what a failure I am.”  OR  “You must have done this wrong, or it would have been right.” 

“I ought to have known better, and I can’t believe I made that mistake.”  OR  “You ought to know better, and I can’t believe you made that mistake.”        

How (the big three) can be harmful.

Shoulds, musts, and oughts can trigger internal suffering in terms of shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression.  As well as conflict and hostility with others.  You end up beating up yourself and other people with shoulds, musts, and oughts. 

You can also have hidden should statements.  These are when the shoulds, musts, and oughts are implied in the negative thought even when they are not present.      

Cognitive Distortions

How to know if you are using should, musts and oughts in your life. 

You might be if…

You are using should, must, ought, have to, or are implying them in your thoughts or spoken words.      

How to get out and overcome using should, musts, and oughts. 

  • I.C.E. – and I’m not talking about “in case of emergency.” 

I’m talking about…

Identify the thought with the shoulds, musts, or oughts. 

Call it what it is – a cognitive distortion. 

Explore a new way to rephrase your though “it would be preferable if…”. 

  • Separate self-worth from fear of failure – Strive for a more accurate way to express what you are feeling. 
Feeling Great book by Dr. David D. Burns
Feeling Great

Check out Feeling Great by David D. Burns, MD [affiliate link].  Positive reframing can help modify should, must, and ought statements once you understand how they may, in fact, be helpful.  These statements often reflect morals and values and, through positive reframing, can soften their harshness and criticism.       

  • Introduce shades of grey into your vocabulary – it would be preferable if…sometimes I would prefer…at times it can be…, etc. 

Let me know your thoughts and what strategies have worked for you for overcoming the shoulds, musts, and oughts in your life.   


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