Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda: Fighting Words?

by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC

Most of us are probably familiar with the phrase, “shoulda, coulda, woulda”. This all inclusive phrase is meant to encompass all of the what-ifs that never come to fruition in our lives. It’s interesting that this is something stated pretty flippantly, mostly to sarcastically shrug off the implication that we “should have” done something that we failed to do. However, this seemingly insignificant pun actually packs a lot of hidden Psychological punch. This statement parallels the Freudian concept of the Superego, the ethical component of personality that functions as the moral compass, the inner voice that constantly reiterates the prohibitions and inhibitions that make up one’s perfect, although mostly make-believe, self. Similarly, in Schema Therapy, this phrase aligns with self-talk and/or behavior that is constantly functioning in a punitive parent role. For more information on schema, see my blog on schema and cognitive consistency.

It is common for us to internalize the voices of our caregivers and parents, those responsible for teaching us the “rules” of life early on. Often this is what helps us survive the risky adolescent and young adult years. We may not know from experience yet, but we have been taught that we “shouldn’t” cross the road without looking, drink and drive, drop out of high school, follow the crowd if they were to jump off a bridge. Many times, however, we fail to throw off the constraints of imposed rules, even when we no longer identify them as holding meaning or being ethically in line with who we are as adults. Often times we actually continue to live by the “should’s” of our parents that were possibly self-serving or even down-right wrong. Our parents and caregivers weren’t perfect individuals with perfect rules, and so we often took on rules of life that actually have harmed, not helped us, over the years.

“Many times we fail to throw off the constraints of imposed rules, even when we no longer identify them as holding meaning or being in line with who we are as adults.”

It may seem somewhat insignificant in passing that many of us hear our parents or other significant figures in our heads pretty regularly. However, many may be surprised that often a lot of the work individuals do in therapy has to do with overcoming the critical, punitive, or judgmental voices they have internalized. These internalizations can cause a lot of emotional distress for individuals who may be faced with making a decision in their life that contradicts a parental “should”. Unlike, the pun of “shoulda, coulda, woulda”, the intense feelings of incongruence that these conflicts cause in individuals can be particularly hard to overcome. For anyone unfamiliar with the term incongruence, this term is used to describe a conflict of thought and feeling, feeling and belief, behavior and moral code, etc. When someone experiences two conflicting things, emotional discomfort typically occurs. Read more about congruence here.

It makes a lot of sense that if, for instance, you were raised to believe that all other races, other than yours, were inferior or bad, that this would impact you significantly. If you began to feel romantic attraction to someone from another race, you would likely struggle to make peace with the idea of pursuing the relationship. You might actually go through great lengths to try to change the feelings you are experiencing or even try to remove the possibility of the relationship occurring by any means possible. This would help you return to a state of equilibrium and calm the critical, judgmental, or shaming voices that you hear when you feel the attraction or see the person of of interest.

If you read this and think to yourself, “I don’t have voices like that in my head”, I would encourage you to be particularly mindful of your thought life going forward. The trickery of these inner voices is that they may overtly sound like your father, mother, grandparent, teacher, etc., but many times they sound like ourselves. Teasing out the voices that aren’t benefiting you can be a much harder task than you might think, especially given that they have likely been present for a lot longer than your own assertive, adult voice. Consider the fact that shame often leads to negative feelings about self, others, and life, and often leads to coping behaviors that hurt, not help. If you wrestle with behaviors that you see as unhealthy or undesirable, consider what feelings and beliefs are underneath that behavior.

“Teasing out the voices that aren’t benefiting you can be a much harder task than you think, especially given that they have likely been present for a lot longer than your own assertive, adult voice.”

Could it be that you are coping with harsh or critical beliefs about yourself that are coming from important others in your life? If so, perhaps it is time to rethink your submission to those thoughts and start fighting back. Talking back to your inner voices can give you a sense of empowerment, new choices, and put you on a path to making choices grounded in who you are and the values that you deem most important.

Published by thinkagainjenn

Jennifer Newton Martin is a Licensed Professional Counselor and writer in Libertyville, Illinois.

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