Stress Mastery: Three Silly Shoulds, Part 2—“I Shouldn’t Have Done What I Did”

by Doc Orman, M.D.

This week, I’m focusing on three very common internal causes of human stress.  These are three “should” statements that often make us feel bad, but that have little to do with reality.

Here are the three topics for this week’s blog posts:

I Shouldn’t Be Feeling This Way.

“I Shouldn’t Have Done What I Did.”

“I Should Have Known Better.”

Why Did I Do That?

Today, I want to talk about the second of these three “should” statements. Just as with the first one—“I shouldn’t be feeling this way”—this also represents a conclusion we draw…after the fact.  In other words, we behave in a certain way and then we look back and feel bad about what we did.  In addition, we believe that we should have (and could have) acted differently.

Actually, there is some truth to the idea that we “could” have acted differently.  Unlike the idea that we could have felt differently, feelings and actions are not quite the same.  Most of our feelings occur so quickly and so automatically that we really don’t have much immediate control over them.  However, our actions are different.  Sometimes they also occur reflexively, but much of the time, we feel the urge to act in a particular way and we have enough time to step in and abort the process…or consciously choose to act in a different way.

But once we’ve already acted, the deed has been done.  There is no good reason to believe that you “should” have done something different.  Either you had the presence of mind to quickly alter your behavior in the moment…or you didn’t.  Whatever the case, you probably did the best you could at that time.

This is the fundamental problem with most types of “should” thoughts.  It presumes that as a human being, you could have felt differently or done something differently than you did when you were in the moment.  This is often a very unrealistic conclusion and it leads to much unnecessary self-recrimination, guilt, shame and other types of stress.

So it’s far better to assume that you behaved exactly as you should have behaved, given all the many elements (positive and negative) that were involved at the time. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a goal to try to act differently in the future. It just means that you shouldn’t waste time and emotional energy beating yourself up for what’s already in the past.  Of course, if you do find that you can’t easily stop beating yourself up—notice that this is just another conditioned behavior that you and many other human beings find very difficult to volitionally control.

NOTE: For more information about my unique approach to eliminating stress, please visit


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