By Beverly Ward
June 26, 2022
From Science: This is my third in a series of blogs on Cognitive Distortions, which are unhelpful ways of thinking that lead to painful emotions and dysfunctional behaviors. Renowned Psychiatrist Albert Ellis believed that most all psychological suffering was brought on by ‘should statements’ and he coined the cheeky phrase, ‘stop shoulding on yourself’. Should statements are the most difficult cognitive distortion to discern, it takes a bit of study to understand what science is saying here. There are things we clearly should and should not do, and science is not saying to pretend otherwise. Dr. David Burns, a pioneering influencer of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) explains that there are 3 valid uses of should statements:
1) “Should laws” of science, for example, if we drop a pen, it should fall to the
floor because of the law of gravity.
2) “Should laws” of morality, for example, the laws of God given to Moses in the 10
3) "Should laws” of society, for example, we should drive the speed limit.
Problematic should statements are distortions of reality, hence I will call them "should distortions" (SDs). SDs fall into one of four categories, each of which leads us toward experiencing certain painful emotions.
1) SDs about ourselves, for example, “I should be an outstanding student”. These
thoughts can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, depression, and anxiety.
2) SDs about others, for example, when others do not hold the same opinions we
do, as in “they should not support Trump/Biden”. These thoughts can lead to
feelings of anger, rage, resentment, and hatred.
3) SDs about the world, for example, “it should not be raining on my wedding
day”. These thoughts can lead to feelings of discouragement, anger, sadness, and
4) Hidden SDs, for example, when Margaret finds out she is terminally ill with
cancer and becomes angry at God and wrestles through a season of doubt. She
feels guilty and ashamed because she holds a hidden SD that she should not
ever have negative feelings about God.
Surprisingly, the first step in crushing any SD is to list what is good about it. Sometimes SDs motive us and/or cause us to think through hard things, this gives them some beneficial effects. But, these benefits come at a high cost and the next step in demolishing a SD is to look at that. Make a list of the painful emotions and dysfunctional behaviors the SD leads to. Ask yourself if it is worth it, or if you want to give if up? Do you want to try a new approach? (In CBT, we call this a cost/benefit analysis).
There are three other CBT techniques that are quite successful in changing our problematic should statements, they are: 1) Socratic questioning, 2) semantic shift, and 3) radical acceptance.
Socratic questions are used in response to an SD to establish how accurate it is. We ask thought-provoking questions to determine the validity and utility of the thought, and to gain a different perspective on and get some distance from the thought. (There is an informational video about Socratic questioning in the Lagniappe section below.)
A semantic shift is simply using new words that describe our new way of seeing our situation. Instead of “I should not have done that”, we use more realistic statements like, “it would have been better if I had not done that, but I made a mistake and I can move forward from it and learn from it”. Good phrases to use in making a semantic shift are, “it would be preferable if…”, “it would have been great if…”, and “it would be more desirable to..”. A semantic shift coupled with accepting ourselves where we are, helps us see thing more realistically and move forward.
Radical acceptance is just what it sounds like, to accept ourselves as flawed human beings, to have self-compassion and to give ourselves grace. Often, we think we are supposed to be, or should be, “special”, or "perfect". We often believe, to some extent, that if we are not “special” or "perfect", we are not okay, we are not good enough. Accepting our real self, faults and all, and letting go of the idea of our ideal self, is radical acceptance. Dr Burns says, “I find I do my best work when I am trying not to be special but to be ordinary. Being with people, being in the moment, that is when life becomes special and when I do my best work. Life is filled with all kinds of chances for joy. Give up the need to be special and life becomes special. The death of yourself is really like a rebirth and a celebration.”
From Scripture: Hallelujah that science is catching up with scripture in understand our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. With SDs, God says all of the things science is now discovering. God says there are things we should and must do. He says that there are things that we should not and must not do. He says to show compassion, grace, mercy and love to others and to ourselves. He says to think about what we are thinking about and take our thoughts captive to the knowledge of Christ (check our thoughts and ask, ‘does this thought agree with God’s Word’?). God says we have the power to change and that we are to die to self. He says the way up is down, humility is the goal and pride goes before a fall.
Let’s look at the story of Charlotte Elliot, lyricist and composer of the miraculously impactful hymn, “Just As I Am”. Initially, Charlotte led a life filled with love, joy, and purpose, she was happy, loved, loving and prosperous. At the age of thirty, she became inexplicably and profoundly ill. She became confined to a wheelchair and dependent on others for care. Charlotte had an awfully hard time accepting this and became bitter, angry, rageful and listless. After being confronted by a minister, she became enraged, for a time. But the seed he planted took root and, after a few days of self-pity, she turned a corner and turned her situation around. Nothing changed in her physical condition, but everything changed in her life. She became a writer and composer of many iconic hymns, most notably, “Just as I am”. This hymn was a catalyst in Billy Graham’s acceptance of Christ, and he then used it at every revival and crusade he held. The hymn became instrumental in bringing millions of people to receive life in Christ.
What had most crippled Charlotte was not her physical illness, but her response to it. When she came to shift her response, she shifted her life and the lives of a lot of others. (In the Lagniappe section are videos telling Charlotte’s story and a telling and performance of "Just as I Am" by Wintley Phipps.)
Action Plan: We all have some should distortions. Identify one of yours and respond to it with the steps described in the “From Science” section. 1) Make a list of the good things about your SD, and then consider the cost of them 2) Question the SD Socraticly, 3) Make a semantic shift: On an index card, write out the original SD and, on another index card, write out the new statement formed by your shift. Tear up the card with the old thought and keep the new. Put your new statement on sticky notes where you will see it often. You are working on changing your thinking and it takes time and repetition. 4) Work on radical acceptance, work on seeing yourself as God sees you and through His grace and mercy. Listen to the messages of God and not the messages of this world. Study scripture, be in fellowship with people who can disciple you and witness to you, pray, memorize scripture verses that resonate with you, listen to music with messages that line up with scripture (some people like contemporary Christian, other like classic hymns, find what you love and let it encourage your heart toward the radical acceptance of yourself that God has for you.)
Socratic questioning demonstrated
Charlotte Elliot’s story
Wintley Phipps telling about and singing “Just As I Am”