According to McKay and Fanning (2016), “Reality hardly matters”. It’s rather the belief of reality that shapes our world. The way we think about events, and the judgments we ascribe, as a result, determines our reaction towards it and towards ourselves. One important cognitive distortion (or ‘thinking error’) that will be discussed in this article involves the belief and expectation that the world, and oneself, ‘should’ or ‘must’ be, or act, a certain way. Rather than focusing on what is, we focus on our expectations and assumptions of how things ought to be.

Some examples of these rigid expectations and idiosyncratic assumptions include statements such as “The world should be a fair place”, “My partner should be able to meet my needs without me having to specify what they are”, or “I must be perfect”. This is rooted in an uncompromising idea of what is acceptable or unacceptable, and we can become distraught when these don’t materialize the way we expected them to. These cognitive distortions have been linked to increased anxiety and a range of difficult emotions.

These thinking errors are often developed and strengthened throughout childhood and become more pronounced the more we continue without questioning them. These might initially develop in response to a strict and unyielding caregiver that strongly enforces that you must be perfect all the time, you should have perfect grades, and must maintain a certain weight. These expectations of what you should be often become ingrained until you believe that you are flawed unless you prescribe to these same ideals. If you don’t, you might experience shame, anxiety, or anger; all of which will have a negative impact on your mental health and well-being. Once we take control of these thinking patterns or cognitive distortions, we can begin living a life that is more authentic and congruent with our true selves.

Since these cognitive distortions can be unlearnt, I encourage my clients to ask themselves why they should always be perfect or why things must be a certain way. By questioning these assumptions we can start to notice the flaws in these beliefs. We might start to realize that these beliefs are not always based on logic and often result in harmful consequences. We can then be empowered to create our own, more realistic, beliefs and to move away from these rigid expectations of ourselves and the world around us. By doing this, we are changing our perspective to focus on the things we can change which enhances our agency and contributes positively to our mental health.

Which ‘should’ and ‘must’ statements do you need to start challenging today?

written by Leisha Mostert, Registered Counsellor