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The Tyranny of the Should

‘Shoulds’ are a list of ironclad rules about how we and other people ‘ought to’ act. These rules are indisputable; and, any deviation from these is deemed bad (by ego). We feel we ‘have to,’ ‘must,’ ‘need’ or ‘ought to’ do certain things out of duty, obligation or compulsion, never bothering to question our actions because, “That’s the way it’s been.”

Some of the most common shoulds are: I should be able to find a quick solution to every problem; I should always be at peak efficiency; I should never be tired or get sick; I should be totally self-reliant; I should never make mistakes; I should always be happy and serene, even during hardships; and, I should know, understand, and foresee everything.

Known as “categorical imperatives,” shoulds, oughts, musts and have tos create unrealistic and overgeneralized absolutes. When we don’t stop to look objectively at these inner statements, we live by an enslaving force of rules. This way of thinking was first recognized by psychiatrist Karen Horney who wrote about “the tyranny of the should.”

This psychologically destructive thinking pattern was further developed by Dr. Albert Ellis who coined the terms “shoulding” and “musterbating.” According to Ellis, the three main musts are: “I must do well or I’m no good,” “You, you louse, must treat me well or you’re worthless and deserve to roast in hell,” and, “The world must give me exactly what I want, precisely what I want, or it’s a horrible, awful place.” Let’s further explore these unrealistic demands.

When a part of us thinks we should be acting a certain ‘ideal’ way, we create a judging and fault-finding inner critic. As a result, a part of us pressures ourselves to follow these rules and feels guilty and bad when we don’t. This form of demandingness often leads to strong feelings of guilt, self-hatred, anxiety and depression, and to behaviors like procrastination, withdrawal, obsessing about what has been done (“I should have done X instead of Y.”) and worrying about, “What should I do?”

We also place these clear-cut imperatives onto others. We judge their actions and get annoyed when others don’t act ‘right.’  An inner voice exclaims, “They should know the rules and they should follow them!” This form of demandingness often leads to feelings of anger (“How dare you!), guilt-tripping (“You should know better.”), jealousy, hurt and self-pity (“How could they have done that to me?”).

We can even place shoulds on how we think the world (e.g., our environment, economic and political conditions) ought to exist. We might (unrealistically) think that at all times the world must be safe, hassle-free, flowing and full of good; that investment returns will always yield 5% or more. This form of demandingness often leads to a low frustration tolerance, to feelings of despair (‘poor me’), anger and depression, and to behaviors such as withdrawal, procrastination, phobias and addictions.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.