Exercises for Self-Awareness (part 2) – the “should” exercise

Last week, I talked about self-awareness tools such as the MBTI, the Enneagram, and the Via survey of signature strengths. This week, I’d like to offer you a description of another self-awareness exercise that I’ve found powerful and illuminating. And more exercises will come in future blog posts!

The Should Exercise

I learned this one in Gestalt training at the Transpersonal Therapy Centre.


We all have internalized rules and messages that we carry around inside us. In Gestalt, these messages are known as introjections — something we swallowed whole and haven’t “chewed on” enough to see if it’s truly our own desire/rule, or if we’ve just absorbed it from the outside world.

Every time you hear “I should” in your head/voice, it’s a sign that you might be dealing with an introjection — and thus it’s an invitation for you to take a closer look.

Step one: “I should”

Spend ten minutes or so writing down all the “I should”s or “I shouldn’t”s that regularly come into your mind.

Here’s what my list looked like the first time I did this exercise (November 2008 – I still have the piece of paper!):

  • I should pay off debt.
  • I should have more money.
  • I should be on time.
  • I should do something for my sister.
  • I should get more done in less time.
  • I should have fun.
  • I should have passion.
  • I should be loving and accepting and spiritual.
  • I should organize my time better.
  • I should chill out.
  • I should practice the piano more.
  • I should get a real job.
  • I should make some friends.
  • I should meditate.
  • I should stop worrying.

Step two: “You should”

One statement at a time, ask someone you trust to read your list back to you, reading it as “You should…”.

So, my partner would say, “You should pay off debt.”

After each statement my partner reads to me, I take a moment to:

  • notice any internal feelings or emotions that come up in me as I hear the statement.
  • notice whether it feels like my own voice, something I truly want to do, or whether it’s someone else’s voice (e.g. often someone has a “should” statement that really belongs to a parent, and as soon as they hear someone else say “You should…” they recognize that this statement is their parent’s voice, not their own inner guide).

Step three: Decide and Take Ownership

After each statement my partner reads to me, I decide if “I will” or “I won’t”, and then I report the new statement back to them.


My partner: “You should pay off debt.”

Me: “I will pay off debt.”

(Or, “I won’t pay off debt.”)

(Or, “I will pay off debt within five years.”)

(Or, “I will not focus on paying off debt until I finish school.”)

Whatever you choose — whether you will, or won’t, or under which conditions — is fine. The key part is that instead of carrying around an unexamined “I should”, a statement weighing you down with judgment, you are now carrying around a decision that you have made and owned yourself.

It can be incredibly liberating to move from, “I should practice the piano more,” to “You know what? I don’t want to. I won’t.”

It can be empowering to move from, “I should organize my time better,” to “I will be highly organized from 8am-12pm everyday, and after that will work in an unstructured way.”

Whether you’re already smitten with this exercise or not, I invite you to give it a try and see what you discover.


Laura McGrath is an Ottawa-based life coach and therapist who works with clients all over the world. She and the love of her life do a kick-ass job keeping “shoulds” out of the house.

If you’d like to talk more about self-awareness exercises designed just for you, Laura is more than happy to pick up the phone and have a conversation. Get in touch.


When Words Don’t Matter (Part 4), or Jingle Bells

A few months ago I was in a group training class with what I can only call an ornery old-school Gestalt therapist as the facilitator. Nothing got by this guy. Nothing.

He started off with a group check-in. When I said, “I’m excited about the course this weekend,” he scoffed. “Your words say you’re excited,” he said, “but nothing else does. The words are Jingle Bells, but the tune is The Old Rugged Cross.”

It was true. My words said I was excited, but my body was slumped in my chair. My eyes were half-closed. I was speaking in a mumble and so quietly I was almost inaudible. There was a complete disconnect between my words and everything else I was conveying. I might have believed what I was telling myself – “I’m excited!” – but no one else did.

Such an obvious disconnect between what someone is saying and what someone is feeling is a rich place of exploration for coaches (and for therapists). When one of my coaching clients starts talking about a goal they “should” get around to, and starts making half-hearted plans, then it’s the perfect time for me to say, “I hear you saying you want to do this, but I don’t hear any desire, drive, or excitement in your voice. Is this a goal that truly resonates with you?”

I invite you to check in this week on the messages you’re conveying in your body language, your tone of voice, your facial expressions. Do those messages match up with your words? If not, what’s up?

Words Matter – Consciously Chosen Words

Over a few years of therapist training and coach training, I became acutely conscious of how I used pronouns: I, you, we, they, it.

I began to believe that my pronoun choice was a powerful way for me to discover my unconscious assumptions, and to communicate more clearly.

Here’s an example to walk you through what I mean:

First variation: “When I disagree with someone, I feel tense, anxious, and uncomfortable.”

When I choose to express this sentence in the first person (“I”), I am taking ownership of my actions (disagreeing) and my reactions (feeling tense, anxious, and uncomfortable).

Second variation (with the same intent as the first): “When you disagree with someone, you feel tense, anxious, and uncomfortable.”

(Imagine this in a buddy-buddy tone, as in, “You know when you disagree with someone, and you feel tense and anxious and uncomfortable?”)

I frequently hear people speak in the second person when they actually are describing their own experience. I imagine they mean, “When a person disagrees with someone, the person feels tense, anxious, and uncomfortable”, but instead they say it in the second person: “When you disagree with someone, you feel tense, anxious, and uncomfortable.”

The speaker’s actual meaning, I imagine, is not their belief about what “a person” does, but the truth for themselves. In the above example, the speaker means that when she disagrees with someone, she feels tense, anxious, and uncomfortable. But instead, she said “you”, when a quick poll would show that for many “you”s, reality is different – other people may get excited and energized by disagreement, may feel intrigued and curious, may feel ready to fight… a myriad of reactions.

When I describe my feelings in the second person (“you”), not only am I distancing myself from my own feelings and refusing to own them, but I am also assuming that what is true for me is true for others. I’ve been trying for a long time to be more aware of how I speak about my feelings. To not say, “You know when you get tired and you feel overwhelmed?” and instead say, “When I get tired, I feel overwhelmed.” To not say, “It hurts”, or “It makes me sad”, but to say, “I hurt”, and “I feel sad.”

These small changes in language are making me more aware of what I believe and feel, more aware of what I assume without questioning, and bringing me into more direct relationship with what I am experiencing.

This week, I invite you to pay attention to what pronouns you use:

Do you use “you” when you mean “I”?

Do you use “we” when you mean “I”? (Common in groups, e.g. “I think I’m speaking for all of us when I say that we believe…”)

Do you use “it” when you mean “I”? (e.g. “It hurts,” instead of, “I’m hurt”.)

What’s the impact on you if you consciously choose “I”?


If you’d like to read more on language, I recommend:

-Pretty much everything from The Center for Nonviolent Communication, and particularly the book Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life (I found it at my local library, and eventually bought my own copy)

-On “I-statements”: here and here and here

Gestalt Processes and Language