Careful of the Shoulds!

MarcusAureliusQuoteTry to notice today how many times you say or think the word ‘should.’  You can also include other similar words such as ‘must,’ or ‘have to.’  Here are some examples:

  1. “He shouldn’t treat me that way.  What a jerk!”
  2. “Life shouldn’t be so hard.  I can’t take it anymore.”
  3. “I have to ace that presentation at work today.  If I don’t, my boss will think I’m completely incompetent and with the layoffs coming I’ll be the first to go.  How am I going to pay my rent if that happens?”

Most people assume that it is the situations they face in their life that determine how they feel.  Although it is true that difficult situations influence how we feel, it is really the way we think about those situations that has the biggest impact on our feelings.  The style of thinking we engage in determines the kinds of feelings we have and how strong those feelings are.   The big problem with the three statements I listed is that they are absolute demands we are making on other people, the world, and ourselves.  A famous psychologist named Albert Ellis with a slightly off-color style called this form of thinking ‘musturbation’ because of the ‘musts’ contained in it.  Another of his terms was ‘shoulding on yourself.’

Let’s take a look at the possible emotions each of the statements I listed are likely  to produce:

  1. Anger, rage
  2. Depression, anger
  3. Fear, anxiety

Not very fun, and not very likely to lead to any kind of productive response, right?  So what do we do?  We can change these irrational, demanding, and black-and-white beliefs into more rational beliefs.  This doesn’t mean ‘thinking positive’ or denying something unpleasant is going on.  It just means taking the edge off of these ideas and making them less demanding and black-and-white.  Let’s consider some other things we might say to ourselves in these situations:

  1. “I really wish he would stop acting like that.  I don’t like it, but he’s not a 100% horrible human being.  Maybe he’s having a bad day for some reason I’m not aware of.  I’ll make it clear to him that I don’t like it and see if he’ll change.  If he doesn’t then I may have to just avoid him.”
  2. “This really sucks, but I’ve gotten through difficult circumstances before.  I’d prefer for things to always go well, but I realize that’s not the way life works for anyone.  I wish that this wasn’t so hard, but if I put in the work I know eventually things won’t be this bad.”
  3. I hope I do a really good job with this presentation today.  I know I’ll be disappointed in myself if I don’t, but I also know that I can’t expect to be perfect or to always do well.  I’m nervous about it, but that’s pretty normal given the circumstances.  I’ll do my very best and when it’s over I’ll take any problems I had and learn from them.  I am concerned about the layoffs, but worrying myself sick about them isn’t going to change anything.  In fact, it will probably make me perform worse, so I’m going to just focus on this task right now.  I don’t have to be perfect although I really want to give a great presentation.”

The common theme in all of these altered thoughts is that they have changed the absolute demands into preferences.  What emotions flow from these thoughts?

  1. Annoyance, irritation, frustration
  2. Sadness, frustration
  3. Concern, nervousness

All of these emotions are of course negative, but they are much better than rage, depression, or paralyzing anxiety.  These rational beliefs are more flexible, logical, helpful, and consistent with reality.

So pay attention to the way you are talking to yourself and others, and be on the lookout for ‘musturbation’ or ‘shoulding on yourself.’  See if you can find more flexible and realistic ways of thinking about difficult situations that avoid the black-and-white demandingness that is the real source of your upset.  Preferences, not demands!

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