Three little words…..

How often does our self-talk start with words like should, must or need?

  • I should be able to complete this.

  • I must do this perfectly (or else I'm useless, may be the unspoken underlying core belief).

  • I need to do all these tasks today.

These three simple words so often reflect unspoken (and unconscious) rules to live by that we have established over time, in response to our experiences and as coping strategies for dealing with difficult or stressful situations. If we abide by these unwritten and unspoken (but deeply believed) rules then all will be well (or so the belief goes); our core belief, for example - 'I'm useless, I'm a failure, I'm not good enough' - won't be triggered. If I'm as good as I can be - perfect - or do as ‘expected’ of me, then I can prove to myself and others that I'm not a failure.

Except that, as we have seen before (blog 11 December 2018), being perfect isn't possible, because we are human. As humans we are fallible; we can't be excellent at everything and we learn by making mistakes, not by being perfect. So we set ourselves up to fail if we set, and then invariably can't meet, our impossibly high and unachievable expectations.

Shoulds, musts and needs are commands that we’re expected to obey, not just in relation to perfectionism (though they so often go hand in hand), but other aspects of life too; for example, I should call my mother, brother, boyfriend/girlfriend (because she/he expects me to or I expect myself to because that’s what good sons/daughters, boyfriends/girlfriends etc do). But you can decide what you do, not some unwritten rule; you may have good reasons not to.

So if not should, must or need, what?

Well, for example:

  • It would be nice to....(but it isn't essential);

  • I would like to (but it's OK if not feasible);

  • I would like to do well, but it's not the end of the world if I don't, there will be other options/opportunities.

These are all more helpful alternative thoughts to the highly prescriptive shoulds, musts and needs. To be competent rather than perfect - if one can accept that, then you might be surprised that you might be able to be competent at quite a lot of things, and more things than you can possibly be perfect at.

With these unwritten rules represented by these three little words we create a strong conditionality (and so often an external conditionality, because we over-value the opinions of others) on our own self worth, and therefore our own happiness[1]. We become our own worst (self) critic, and 'beat ourselves up' over the smallest apparent 'failure', because we should be better than that, we must be perfect, and we need to prove to ourselves and others we're not the failure we fear we are. We feel guilty or ashamed that we’ve not met our own expectations or those we believe others have of us.

Phew! That is all so exhausting, and all because of the power of believing those three little words. Shift to 'I would like to', 'it would be nice to’, or even 'it's OK, you can't be perfect at everything', and see what a difference it makes.

And then you can begin to be just a little more kind to yourself, giving yourself compassion. But that's for another posting!

Bill Sheate, 24 January 2019.

[1] Self-esteem, by the way, is not a helpful concept, because inherent to it is external validation (praising ourselves when others approve, damning ourselves when they don't), rather than our own acceptance of self - see Albert Ellis (2005), The Myth of Self-Esteem; or Baumeister et al (2005), Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth]