Home » Insights » Executive Coaching » Reducing Anxiety by turning ‘Shoulds, Oughts and Musts’ into ‘Prefers, Likes and Wants’

Reducing Anxiety by turning ‘Shoulds, Oughts and Musts’ into ‘Prefers, Likes and Wants’

Write down 3 statements about yourself, each of which contains a ‘Should’ ‘Ought’ or Must’. For example:

  1. ‘I should call my parents more’.
  2. ‘I ought to exercise more’.
  3. ‘I must pass my exam/this audition’.

Now, read each statement back and pay attention to the feelings that arise in you as you read each statement. (These typically include guilt, feeling a failure, anxiety, etc.)

2. Write down 3 statements about others, each of which contains a ‘Should’ ‘Ought’ or ‘Must’. For example:

  1. ‘Dog walkers should clear up after their dogs’.
  2. ‘Tutors ought to be available when I want to see them.’
  3. ‘Other people must treat me fairly’.

Now, read each statement back and pay attention to the feelings that arise in you as you read each statement. (These typically include anger, feeling let down or the victim of injustice, etc.)

3. Now re-write each statement from list 1, substituting ‘Prefer’‘Like’ or ‘Want’ for ‘Should’‘Ought’ or ‘Must’. For example:

  1. ‘I want to call my parents more’.
  2. ‘I would prefer to exercise more’.
  3. I would like to pass my exam/this audition’. 

Now, read each statement back and pay attention to the feelings that arise in you as you read each statement. (These have typically softened considerably from the feelings evoked @ point 2 above).

4. Now re-write each statement from list 3, changing each of the ‘They’ statements to ‘I’ statements (because the only person we can control directly is ourselves) and substituting ‘Prefer’, ‘Like’ or ‘Want’ for ‘Should’, ‘Ought’ or ‘Must’. For example:

  1. ‘I would prefer that dog walkers clear up after their dogs’.
  2. ‘I would like teachers to be available when I want to see them.’
  3. ‘I want other people to treat me fairly.’

Now, read each statement back and pay attention to the feelings that arise in you as you read each statement. (These have typically softened considerably from the feelings evoked @ point 2 above).

By turning ‘Shoulds, Oughts and Musts’ into ‘Prefers, Likes and Wants’ and by turning ‘They’ statements into ‘I’ statements we can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety, guilt, persecution, anger, etc.

The Survival Continuum

Not Needed for Survival (ie. choices not absolutes)     Needed for Survival (ie. absolutes)

————————————————– ——————————————————–


Beach holidays        Cats              a Boyfriend/Girlfriend    Food

Heinz beans            Nice smells       a Well-Paid Job             Shelter

Mild curries             Long walks        to Feel Comfortable      Water

Relaxing music        Football             to be Appreciated         Warmth

One of the most helpful techniques for turning ‘Shoulds, Oughts and Musts’ into ‘Prefers, Likes and Wants’ is to place the thing, situation, event, etc. on the Survival Continuum (above). For example, I prefer beach holidays, tho’ I don’t need them, I like long walks tho’ I don’t need them, I want to feel comfortable, tho’ I don’t need to, etc…..tho’ I do need food, shelter, water, warmth, etc.

Similarly, I would like to pass my exam/audition, tho’ I don’t need to, I want a girlfriend, tho’ I don’t need one, I preferbeach holidays to activity holidays, tho’ I don’t need a beach holiday, etc.

Alongside turning ‘Shoulds, Oughts and Musts’ into ‘Prefers, Likes and Wants’, it is helpful also to become aware of Cognitive Distortions, such as:

  1. All or Nothing Thinking –ie. looking at things in absolute, black and white terms, rather than recognizing the many ‘shades of grey’ –eg. ‘The show was a complete disaster!’
  2. Over-Generalization –ie. viewing a single negative event as one in a never-ending pattern of defeats.
  3. Mental Filter –ie. dwelling exclusively on the negatives and ignoring or discounting the positives.
  4. Mind Reading –ie. assuming that you know what people are thinking about you.
  5. Fortune-Telling –ie. arbitrarily predicting that things will turn out badly.
  6. Awfulizing/Catastrophizing –ie. blowing things way out of proportion –eg. ‘My train is running late, it’s a nightmare!’
  7. Emotional Reasoning –ie. reasoning from how you feel –eg. ‘I feel like an idiot, so I must be one!’ or ‘I don’t feel like doing this, so I can’t do it’, etc.
  8. Have To statements –eg. ‘Because I’ve been asked to do this, I have to do it’, etc. 
  9. Labelling –ie. instead of ‘I made a mistake’, telling yourself ‘I am useless!’
  10. Personalization and Blame –ie. blaming yourself for something you were only partially (or not at all) responsible for – or blaming others and not acknowledging your own contribution to the problem. 

Magic Words Exercise

  1. Think of a word that you link with Stress/Anxiety –eg. Exam, Dissertation, Audition, etc.
  • Imagine the word in writing. How does it look? Is it written in block letters or script? What colour is it (letters and background colour)? How big is it? Where do you see the word?
  • How does the word sound in your inner ear? What kind of voice is saying the word? Is it a voice you recognize? Is it loud or soft?’
  • Change the Visual and Auditory sub-modalities of the word, to transform it into a Magic Word

For example, shrink the word down in size so that it is tiny, change it from capitals to lower case, change the font from block to script, change the colours from technicolour to pastel or watercolour, change the background colour to make the word less distinct, etc. 

Turn the volume down as you hear the word in your inner ear, change the voice tone from a fierce to a friendly tone (or to Mickey Mouse’s voice), hear the word as if a whisper or as tho’ spoken from a distance, etc. 

Now see and hear the transformed word and notice how it no longer creates the same impact.

And Breathe……

If you should find yourself becoming anxious, one of the most effective techniques for returning quickly from Survival Mode back to Competency Mode is 7/11 breathing –ie.  breathing in to the count of 7 and out to the count of 11. 

The figures themselves are not important. The important thing is that your out-breath is significantly longer than your in-breath; thus signalling to your brain-body system that the emergency has passed and that it’s time to return your body to its pre-stress state.

John Perry, MA, MA, MA, MSc, FHEA.

About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 30 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

Latest Posts

nick-fewings-EkyuhD7uwSM-unsplash Team Coaching

Effective leadership teams outperform even the most effective individual leaders. Every time. In almost every context.

A study by Bain of 1,250 companies found that those with highly effective top teams outperform their competition in revenue ...
Read More
headway-5QgIuuBxKwM-unsplash-2 Team Coaching

Techniques for Leading Virtual and Hybrid Teams with Confidence

Introduction – The current state of leadership To be an effective leader of a virtual or hybrid work team you ...
Read More