The Hazards Of “Should” Statements

Posted on March 17th, 2015

Jacob Towery, MDAdolescent and Adult PsychiatristAdjunct Clinical Faculty at Stanford University School of Medicine

What I am about to claim is somewhat radical. If you are having trouble with your teenager and you are very upset as a result, the problem is not their grades or their sleep, their video game playing, or even their partying. Ninety-nine percent of your suffering is due to “should” statements. You might have thoughts like “my son should be studying more” or “my daughter should be more respectful.” “My child shouldn’t smoke pot” or “he/she shouldn’t be out with so and so.” Your suffering comes not from the actual events but from your belief that things “should” be other than they actually are.

Now, two important disclaimers: first, I didn’t make any of this up. Philosophers (Epictetus), Buddhist scholars, and cognitive therapists (Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, David Burns) have advanced these ideas for many years. Second, if your son is smoking crack or driving drunk or your daughter is suicidal or has multiple pregnancies, these are REAL problems and not just in your mind.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for you to let your fourteen year old stay up until three in the morning or your twelve year old smoke marijuana daily. You have the right and responsibility as a parent to set limits and encourage skillful behaviors. Furthermore, you can get help from a trained professional to help your child be more effective and happy. All I’m saying is that if you expect and demand that things go the way you want them to, you will be disappointed: continually.

You are faced with a difficult philosophical choice: do you demand that reality be the way that you want it to be (no war, no poverty, no B minuses) and be angry and resentful until that comes to pass? Or do you work towards improving the world and helping your children while expecting little and being excited when things do go well? Both are valid options, the first choice just leads to more suffering.

“Should” statements imply that we deserve for things to always be the way we want them to be. At the risk of sounding cavalier, I would argue that not only do you (and I) not “deserve” to have our children go to Harvard, we are not entitled to anything. The whole concept of “deserve” or “entitlement” makes no sense and is an absurd life philosophy.

An alternative is to focus on how fortunate we are to have anything. If you have a child who is alive, wonderful! Many want to but don’t. Has your child ever laughed or felt the sun on their face or accomplished something new? Fantastic! It could have been that your child was born blind with an IQ of thirty or died at a young age. We don’t “deserve” a child with difficulties any more than a healthy child; there is just a lot of luck.

It is very tempting for all of us to buy into our negative thoughts but these are no more real than a focus on the aspects of life that are going well. I didn’t “deserve” to be born as a human and with four working limbs, but I’m grateful for this good fortune. If you remind yourself (I forget this easily and need frequent reminding) that the Universe doesn’t owe you anything (including life or happiness), you can be pleasantly surprised whenever something goes well. This is just one of many techniques to defeat “should” statements.

The first step is to be aware that it is not the external events that are causing your unhappiness but only your interpretation that things should be other than they are. The good news is that when you defeat or change “should” statements, the miracles of the world open up and you can be grateful for the numerous things that are going well. And that predictably leads to happiness.


What are you grateful for?

What makes changing how you think about something difficult?

In what ways could you change how you are thinking about your teen or your interactions with your teen?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

* * * * * *


Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.

3 thoughts on “The Hazards Of “Should” Statements

  1. Lindsay Smith

    Wow – I love this shift in thinking! It feels radical, but also profound. It’s amazing that the way we think about things is so powerful. And that if we shift our focus to everything we have and everything we are grateful for, then the things that aren’t exactly as we want them no longer seem quite as important. I know that for me, I have to really put energy into shifting my focus in this way (sometimes reminding myself multiple times per day), but it sure does seem worth it!

  2. jacobtowery

    Good morning. I’m the author. I will mostly be reading novels today and going to yoga but if you have a question or a thoughtful comment, I’m happy to check back today periodically. Great comment Lindsay! Thanks.

  3. Carol Satterlee

    Hi Jacob… your article TOTALLY resonates for me. I am spiritually a Buddhist and thus practicing to let go of “shoulds” (one of the Four Noble Truths –“the origin of suffering is attachment”) is one of the most challenging yet potentially rewarding practices to live by. My spiritual growth developed from a family crisis. Of course I wish I had the foundation of this practice long ago. However, it developed when I most needed it and I will always welcome opportunities to practice this.

    For parents, it is so difficult as we raise our children. In order to fit in, (as parents and/or kids), it’s easy to compare ourselves and base this on “shoulds”. My suggestion is rather than feel overwhelmed by the idea of a whole new way of thinking or being… or waiting for a spiritual awakening via crisis like I did, start slow and simple. And Jacob’s recommendation of focusing on gratitude is such a do-able and positive start. Yes, it requires being mindful (see other articles in this blog about that!) and intention on your part. I will personally attest that every opportunity I have practiced of letting go of “shoulds” has served me well and I think making me a better mom, wife, friend and human being.

    Much gratitude to you, Jacob, for sharing your wisdom.

Comments are closed.