Key 16. ‘The Tyranny of the Should’.

‘I should study if I want to pass the test.’

‘People should see a doctor if their leg is bitten off.’

‘You ought to treat your partner well if you want a healthy relationship.’


Beliefs like the above are helpful and the word should is appropriate. Those beliefs are based on common sense and knowledge. However, we also grow up adopting beliefs about what we expect from ourselves, and from others, and those beliefs are not based on common sense, they’re based on values. Those beliefs can be unrealistic and unhelpful. We need to be careful when using the words should, ought, or must when we express our values.

In 1939 American psychiatrist Karen Horney wrote about this type of misleading belief, labelling it ‘The Tyranny of the Should’.

1. We have shoulds about how we expect other people to behave and how the world should be.

Julie dates men with firm beliefs about how men should behave.
‘Men should offer to pay for the first date.’

‘Men shouldn’t expect a kiss on the first date.’

 ‘Men shouldn’t drink more than two glasses of wine.’

 ‘Men should be taller than the woman.’

And so on.
Julie had so many shoulds and should nots in her belief system that every man she dated failed to meet her expectations. She found it hard to find, or keep, a boyfriend. She had allowed her shoulds – her expectations – to limit her.

‘Your son doesn’t clean his room. You’re frustrated/angry because your son is supposed to behave differently – he’s being inconsiderate, you’ve told him a thousand times, etc. Your anger is not caused by your son, but by your ideal of how he should behave.’

From Leo Babauta’s booklet, ‘Letting Go’ on his website, ‘Zen Habits’.

Bob has a lot of shoulds in his life:
‘People should clean up after themselves.’ 

‘Students must speak to me respectfully.’ 

‘We ought to save money for things important.’

When Bob uses the words should, must and ought he is effectively saying, ‘This is the right and sensible thing to do.’ His statements are based on his values. Bob values cleanliness. He values respect. He values money.

The trouble is, other people have different values to Bob. They don’t value cleanliness (or they don’t value Bob, who is left to use the unclean area). They don’t value Bob’s feelings when they speak to him. They don’t value saved money. So, they’re going to act contrary to how Bob would like and expect. Bob will be upset. He expects other people to act according to his own values and expectations, and therefore has a problem.

When we use the words should, ought and must we are making claims based on our values. If the other person has different values they will act differently and confound our expectations. As a result, we can end up feeling puzzled and exasperated.

When we say a value-laden should, we reinforce our view of how the world should be, and invite more frustration. That’s because our expectations – our demands of the world – will often not be met. Our sense of justice is violated.

Bob has a choice. He can stick with his shoulds and oughts and musts, or he can rephrase his statements to be SUGGESTIONS, or PREFERENCES.

Bob visits a park and finds rubbish left by picnickers. He wants to comment, and has two options.
Option A: ‘People should clean up after themselves.’ 

With that imperative Bob could feel dismayed, exasperated, angry and upset.
Option B: ‘Gosh, it would be nice if people cleaned up after themselves.’ 

Adopting (B) will reduce the intensity of his dismay, because the statement does not demand that other people behave in the way he expects. He understands that other people have not violated an obvious, sacrosanct, set of rules; instead they simply don’t share his values. Rather than feel angry and frustrated, Bob will merely feel disappointed.

Someone speaks to Bob rudely. He has two options in how to respond.
Option A: ‘You must speak to me more respectfully.’

Option B: ‘Speak to me respectfully.’

B is the better option. Instead of expecting the other person to be respectful, Bob is focusing on asking the person to be respectful.
Yes, the other person might refuse to comply with Bob’s demand, but Bob can cope better with the refusal, knowing that there is no golden rule in life requiring one person to speak to another respectfully.

Bob is giving his spendthrift adult son advice.
Option A: ‘You ought to save money for things important.’

Option B: ‘I suggest you save your money for something important.’

Option B is a big improvement. By making it a suggestion Bob forces himself to relinquish the ‘rightness’ of his opinion. He will be more accepting of his son’s decision, and less anxious.
Further, by making it a suggestion, rather than trying to shepherd his son into making the ‘right’ decision, he is no longer taking responsibility for his son’s life. And, importantly, he is not weakening the bond he has with his son.

In each case, by changing his sentences to suggestions or preferences, Bob will become less frustrated and less resentful. That’s because he is less attached to his belief of how things ought to be. He is more accepting of the way other people think and behave. As a result, he will be more relaxed in life, more easygoing, and therefore, less anxious.

If we can drop the ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ from our sentences and think instead in preferences, ‘Gosh, it would be nice if —’ then the benefits come.

I’m not asking you to change your thinking, I’m asking you to change your behaviour: drop the imperatives from your language. Make that conscious choice to drop the ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ from your life. You will become more accepting, more flexible, and more easygoing. And as a result, more resilient.

If you do find yourself saying a ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘must’ retract it, and rephrase your sentence.

2. We have shoulds about ourselves.

Can you see in the sentences below how disabling the shoulds could be?
‘I should always be polite.’

‘I should always do things well.’

‘I should be a better person.’

‘I should be someone that people like.’

If, for example, someone believes they should be liked, but isn’t liked, they could feel hurt, confused, or resentful. Or feel like a failure. We can become disheartened when we fail to meet our own expectations.

Let’s rephrase the statements by replacing the shoulds and oughts with AIMS and PREFERENCES, or with the word ‘COULD’.
‘I should always be polite.’
‘I aim to be polite.’  That’s better because it’s more realistic.
‘I could be polite.’ That works too.

‘I should always do things well.’

‘I aim to do things well’ is more realistic. Not everything needs to be done well. Further, if 
the job isn’t done well the speaker will find it easier to accept their failure to perform.

‘I should lose weight.’ This ‘confession’ is disheartening and unhelpful.
‘I aim to lose weight.’ It’s a better sentence because it focuses on the speakers’ intention.
‘I should lose weight if I am to wear those jeans again.’ Even though the word should is used, the sentence is fine. That’s because the comment is not based on a value, but on a fact.

‘I shouldn’t stand out.’ Who says so? Who is the authority telling you what to do?
‘I would prefer to not stand out.’ That’s a better sentence because the speaker is reducing the importance of not standing out, which means they won’t feel bad if they do stand out. Further, the statement is less limiting. The speaker might find that it’s okay to stand out. It might even be preferable!

‘I shouldn’t feel this way.’

‘I am feeling this way’ is a better sentence because the speaker accepts the feeling.



‘You’re angry, but you think you should be more compassionate. The truth? You feel angry.
 You’re hurt, but you think you don’t deserve to be upset because others have it worse. The truth? You feel hurt.’
Sam Turton.

When you express an opinion, catch yourself saying should or ought or must. Rephrase the sentence as an aim, a suggestion, or a preference.

If you like, shrug.

By avoiding value-laden shoulds, oughts and musts we drop our belief of how things should be, and become more relaxed, easygoing and flexible. As a result we reduce our capacity to become anxious and add to our core happiness.

Exercises:

Exercise 1.
How would you replace the shoulds in the following sentences with aims or preferences?
‘I should be a better person.’

‘I should forgive myself.’

‘I ought to be someone that people like.’

‘I should be proud of who I am.’

‘I ought be more confident.’

‘I should never say anything that might offend.’

‘I should make the right decisions.’

‘I should not make mistakes.’

‘I should put my needs aside to assist others.’

‘I should always look good.’

 ‘I must do that one day.
’
‘We are supposed to work and earn money, and pursue our interests in our leisure time.’

 ‘We’re supposed to pursue our interests, and earn a wage if we can. Work to live, not live to work.’



Exercise 2.

Rephrase the following sentences getting rid of the imperatives.
‘You should be grateful.’

‘He should get a job.’

‘She ought to visit her mother.’

 ‘He must be ashamed of himself.’

‘People should be considerate.’

‘Our house ought be tidier.’

‘Kids should behave when they are in supermarkets.’

‘We should all be nice to one another.’



Exercise 3.

We are unaware of most of our shoulds. How many of these shoulds have you adopted?

 ‘People should clean up after themselves.’

 ‘People should be considerate.’

‘People should be nice to each other.’

‘Life should be fun.’

‘People should be fair and honest.’

‘My friends should show interest in what I do.’

Exercise 4. 

On paper, list ten shoulds you have adopted.

Exercise 5. 

Keep an eye out for your shoulds, oughts and musts. If you find yourself getting exasperated, frustrated, angry, resentful, jealous or despairing, that’s a strong signal that you have an imperative in your thought. For example:
– If you feel resentful when no one expresses interest in your project, look for your should.
– If you feel overwhelmed by the work you must do, look for your should.
– If you find yourself despairing when someone isn’t as loving as you would like, look for your should.
– If you get angry, jealous, or feel hurt in any way, look for your should.
‘Then what?’

Ask yourself: ‘Is my should assumption a golden rule, or just my belief on how things should be? Is it possible that the other person has different values to me? If so, is it worth me getting upset about this? Can I let go of my should and feel better? Can I change it to a preference?’

Q. ‘What is wrong with saying, “If I drop an egg on the floor it should break.”?’

Nothing. You are not making the claim based on values.

Q. ‘I have a friend who keeps telling me what I ought to do. Her behaviour is irritating.’

Yes. Your friend assumes she knows what is best for you because she bases her opinion on what she values in life, not on what you value.



Q. ‘One of my shoulds is that my housemates should keep the place tidy. If I dump my should I’ll end up in a grotty, cluttered household. I don’t want that.’

Rephrasing your sentences is not giving in; it’s a way to feel better about a situation. When you remind yourself that your housemates have different values to your values, and that your expectations of life are just that: expectations, then life gets easier. When your housemates clutter the place you will feel less frustration and resentment. You won’t feel violated. When you speak to your housemates about the issue you will be calm and clear minded.
‘That doesn’t mean the problem gets solved.’

But you will feel better about the situation. Besides, you will have a better chance of solving the problem calm and clearheaded than if you are frustrated and resentful.
When we drop our beliefs of how things should be we perceive a situation in a healthier perspective, and become less stressed. And we increase our chances of solving the problem.

This entry was posted in Key 15. 'The Tyranny of the Should'. and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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