6 ways to Deal with “I Should Be Better” Syndrome

“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ~Lao Tzu

Pretty much everyone I know thinks they should be doing better in some way, at least sometimes.

Are you totally and completely satisfied with what you’ve done so far in life? No little part of you thinks, maybe I should have more money in the bank? Or maybe I should have a more professional wardrobe, or a book contract, or a dog that’s housebroken?

The word “should” isn’t exactly enlightened or peaceful, nor is the practice of judging yourself or believing that you’re not exactly where you’re meant to be. But we’re human, so our thoughts inevitably go there from time to time.

We judge ourselves. We hold ourselves to standards that someone else made up—standards that may not even make sense for our current life.

I often hear people say things like:

  • “I can’t believe I’m in my forties and still don’t have matching luggage.”
  • “Shouldn’t my child be reading by now?”
  • “I always assumed I’d exercise regularly after I finished college.”
  • “I can’t believe I don’t have better health insurance at this stage in my career.”

I have to wonder, whose beliefs are those? Whose standards are they, really? It’s not like we wake up at forty and suddenly crave matching luggage. Someone fed us that expectation somewhere along the way, and we forgot it wasn’t our own.

Would the mother feel genuine concern for her child’s reading skills if they lived on a deserted island? Or is the pressure external, based on what others say, think, and read, and she simply doesn’t realize those thoughts aren’t hers?

And I, too, have thoughts like these all the time. Not those exactly, but ones like them.

Like how I should be famous by now. Really. The ship has sailed for being on Oprah, but isn’t someone going to beg me to come on their show?  And how I always thought that by age thirty-four I’d own a home with a yard, not a small condo in the city. Or how I still buy all my clothes on sale and I don’t have a decent wardrobe. And how I still say “like” and “awesome” way too much for an adult.

So it’s starting to look like we’re all in the same boat with this I-should-be-doing -better stuff.

Since it’s such a universal human issue, maybe we can make a collective pact to just stop with the shoulds? Can we collectively agree to be just a little kinder to ourselves? Can we set aside the judgments and be proud of ourselves, right this minute, not when we achieve something we haven’t yet achieved?

Here are some ways you can work on dropping “I should be better” syndrome and decide you’re okay, right now.

1. Understand your own personal flavor of I-should-be-better.

How does this syndrome show up in your life? Are there particular times you’re more likely to compare yourself to others? Are there certain skills or habits or traits you’re always requiring of yourself?

Does it tend to show up primarily in your career, family life, weight, or finances? Or is it a theme across the board for you?

Is it triggered by particular people (i.e.: that “cool girl” from high school who is now your Facebook friend, or an older sister to whom you were constantly compared?)

Understanding how this tendency looks in your life—and being on the lookout for it—is the first step to dropping the habit.

2. Notice. Stop. Breathe.

When you find yourself in the middle of I-should-be-better, stop. Drop what you’re doing and take a deep breath.

I-should-be-better is cerebral and ego-based. It’s your mind spinning stories that aren’t real in any factual way.

So when you notice those mental stories spinning, stop and consciously shift from being in your mind to being in your body. The fastest and most effective way I know to do that is to breathe deeply and consciously. Notice, stop, and breathe.

3. Remember that you created the rules.

Remind yourself that the standards to which you’re holding yourself aren’t objective or real. You invented them and you’re the only one holding yourself to them.

Buying into the standards is simply a habit. With a little intention and awareness, change is not only possible, but within your reach.

4. Remind yourself that this is a universal issue.

Pretty much everyone feels this way at one time or another. It’s not just you.

And we can’t all be right. By definition, we can’t all be not good enough. If 99% of the population should be doing better, isn’t it time to change our definition of “good enough”?

5. Are you telling the truth?

How does it feel when you focus on what you should be doing?

If what you’re telling yourself doesn’t feel good, it’s probably not the truth. Don’t worry—that doesn’t make you a liar, it just makes you a perfectly normal human who believes too many painful and unnecessary thoughts.

Think about the rules you’re setting for yourself. “I should have more money saved” or “I should be further up the corporate ladder.” Can you absolutely know for sure that you should? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re exactly where you should be right now?

6. Look for the lessons.

Look for the lessons in the supposed “mistakes” you’ve made. Why is it that your kid isn’t reading as well as the neighbor kid? Ask this with an open mind, considering all possibilities. Is the neighbor kid extraordinarily gifted? Could your kid simply use a little more practice?

This is not an invitation to blame or judge, but an opportunity to look honestly at the situation and your role in it. If there was something you could do differently, what might it be?

What can you learn from this nagging sense of I-should-be-better?Because if you insist on being dissatisfied, you might as well learn something from it.

As hard as the “I should be better” syndrome can be, I actually see it as a sign of deep self-love to believe you deserve good stuff. You care enough to shame yourself over not having what you know you’re capable of.

Now maybe we can come together in the name of all that self-love and do it without the conditions. Without needing to prove our worth through arbitrary accomplishments. And without the shame.

About Amy Johnson

Dr. Amy Johnson is the author of several books, including The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit. She is also the creator of The Little School of Big Change, an online school that helps people find lasting freedom from habits and anxiety. Please go here to get a free sneak preview of the school.

See a typo or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!