This chapter is also based on Karen Horney’s ‘Tyranny of the Should’.
In the last chapter I suggested we drop our ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ of other people, and replace those words with suggestions or preferences. I said the sooner we realise people value things differently to us, and that there are no golden rules to live by, the better.
Let’s also drop the shoulds about ourselves.
Can you see a problem with these sentences? ‘I should always be polite. I should always do things well. I should be a better person. I should be liked by people.’
Yes, the sentences are imperatives, not preferences. If ‘Harold’ believes he should be liked, but isn’t, he is going to feel hurt, confused, and resentful. We can become disheartened when our expectations are not met. With a more realistic approach – a preference – Harold would fare a lot better.
When we have ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ about ourselves we can replace them with aims or preferences or ‘coulds’. For example:
(i) Harold could say, ‘I would like to be liked.’
(ii) Instead of saying, ‘I should always be polite’, we might say, ‘I aim to be polite’ or ‘I could be polite’. Those statements are more realistic, and we are not setting ourselves up for failure.
(iii) Instead of, ‘I should always do things well,’ we might say, ‘I aim to do things well.’ That’s a more sensible, realistic approach. And, it’s a subtle reminder that not everything needs to be done well. Further, if it’s not done well we will find it easier to accept the result. Less resentment, less anxiety.
(iv) Instead of ‘I should lose weight.’ we could say, ‘I aim to lose weight.’ That’s a better sentence. More empowering.
‘What if we have no intention of trying to lose the weight?’
We could say, ‘I could lose weight.’ Or, ’I should lose weight if I am to wear those jeans again’. In that instance, the word ‘should’ is acceptable, because the statement is a fact, not a value.
(v) Instead of, ’I must not stand out’ we could try, ‘I would prefer to not stand out.’ That’s a better sentence because the speaker is reducing the importance of not standing out. That way, they won’t feel so bad if they do stand out.
(vi) Instead of, ‘I shouldn’t feel this way,’ we could say, ‘I am feeling this way.’
In each instance of rephrasing we are looking after ourselves.
The hard part is remembering to omit the ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ from our speech in day-to-day life. But when we are in the habit of it we will be more relaxed and easygoing. With that lower capacity to become anxious we add to our core happiness.
Try the chapter, The Tyranny of the Should – our expectations of the World.
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.
On paper, list ten shoulds, oughts or musts you have adopted about yourself.
(1) keep an eye out for your shoulds, oughts and musts. If you say one, etract it and rephrase your sentence.
(2) if you find yourself becoming exasperated, frustrated, angry, resentful, jealous or despairing, that’s a strong indicator that you have an imperative in your thought. Look for that ‘should’ and question it.
– If you feel resentful when no one expresses interest in your project, look for your ‘should’.
– If you feel overwhelmed, look for your ‘should’.
– If you find yourself despairing when someone isn’t as loving or as helpful as you would expect them to be, look for your ‘should’.
Then ask yourself, ’Is my should a golden rule, or is it 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?’