Share our Umbrella.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.

WHEN CARING BECOMES “SHOULDING”

In the rare event that I’m hooked into watching a video posted on Facebook, I can guarantee you it’s of babies or toddlers. I’m powerless over videos of babies and toddlers. Recently I watched a video with a little girl who was about three years old. She was sitting in her car seat trying to buckle her own seat belt. Her dad was in the front seat asking her if she needed help.

She was insistent on doing it herself and told her dad over and over:  “Worry about yourself. You just worry about yourself.” I wish my brain sent me that same message.

An occupational hazard of being a psychologist is that I spend a lot of time thinking about other people’s lives. I am sought out to listen, observe, reflect and help my clients to problem-solve and learn about themselves. But my primary role is not “advice giver.”  In my graduate-level courses, I teach my students that therapists are not in the position of giving advice.  Students need to learn that advice-giving creates the illusion that they are the “expert” and can impede self-discovery and self-care. A good portion of our work involves offering clients a new vantage point. While not technically advice giving, it would fall under what I call “advising.”

In my personal life, I struggle to turn off the “advising” part of my brain. I tend to think about what other people “should” be doing—what I think is in their best interest—a great deal of the time. The good news is I’m not the only one. We all do this—it’s part of the human condition. It is easier to “know” what other people should be doing, rather than think about what we are doing. In the name of wisdom (?), we judge other people for their parenting decisions, career choices and relationship struggles. Those closest to us are prime targets. This is yet another reason therapists should not give advice to clients. It is likely that they already have plenty of people telling them what they should do.

In a 12-step recovery program I attend, the statement “give no unsolicited advice” is heard frequently. The key word here is unsolicited.

It is a violation of another person’s autonomy to think that I know what is best for them, even in my own head.

If someone’s behavior is affecting me, then I naturally go to thinking about why they are doing what they are doing and then what they should be doing differently. I might tell them what I’m thinking. But even if I don’t, I spend a lot of time in my head thinking about how things could be so much better if they only did A, B or C. The truth is I am applying my own version of “shoulds” to their personal life.

Spoiler alert: I do not have their best interest at heart when I think and behave this way—I am really looking out for myself. I should on others when I experience discomfort—fear, urgency or worry. Deciding what they should do is my self-soothing yet deceptively futile attempt to make myself comfortable again. And did I mention it never works?

That’s right, shoulding on others has an almost 100% fail rate. Einstein said it best: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So I am taking a lesson from that spirited three-year old in the car seat. When I start shoulding on others I can turn the lens back on myself and, with gentleness, ask myself what I am feeling, what is contributing to that discomfort and what it is communicating to me about myself.  In other words, “Worry about yourself!”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A6Bu96ALOw

Dr. Chris Lawrence
Dr. Chris Lawrence
Dr. Chris Lawrence is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Stephens College. She is co-owner of Lawrence, Oliver and Associates, a private practice clinic in Columbia, Missouri. To learn more go to www.loacounselingandcoaching.com
Recent Posts

Leave a Comment

Start typing and press Enter to search

No-Should-thinkingsad woman on bed cropped