The Tyranny of the Should – our expectations of ourselves.

Uncle: The last time we spoke I said we should . . . 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.

Nephew. That’s correct. You did say that. You also said a woman invented it.

Uncle: Karen Horney in 1939.

Nephew: What about it?

Uncle: Well, we can also drop the shoulds about ourselves.

Nephew: I saw that coming, believe it or not.

Uncle: Well, I don’t believe it. 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.’

Nephew: I can see a problem with the last sentence. I can’t see why you should be liked by people.

Uncle: What?

Nephew: You’re not conjugating the substantive verbs?

Uncle: No! Look, if Harold believes he should be liked, but isn’t liked, then he is going to feel hurt, confused, and resentful, isn’t he?

Nephew: It serves him right. I don’t like him either.

Uncle: For goodness sake, stop these silly jokes! My point is: we can become disheartened when our expectations are not met.

Nephew: Should I take you seriously, or would you prefer it?

Uncle: That’s a good distinction. It appears my time with you isn’t completely wasted.

Nephew: Not completely, no.

Uncle: Look, I’ve had enough of your cheek.

Nephew: Plenty more to come.

Uncle: (Sigh) When we have shoulds and oughts about ourselves we can replace them with aims or preferences or coulds.  Instead of saying, ‘I should always be polite’, what might you say?

Nephew: ‘I aim to be polite.’

Uncle: Yes. That’s more realistic, and you are not setting yourself up for failure.

Nephew: ‘I could be polite.’

Uncle: Yes, That works too. How about the sentence, ‘I should always do things well.’

Nephew: ‘I aim to do things well.’

Uncle: Good! That’s a more sensible, realistic approach. Not everything needs to be done well. And you have avoided the exaggeration of ‘always’. Plus, if the job isn’t done well you will find it easier to accept the result. Less resentment, less anxiety.

Nephew: Wow.

Uncle: Sarcasm noted. How about, ‘I should lose weight.’

Nephew: I didn’t want to say anything, but now that you’ve brought it up . . .

Uncle: Modify the sentence!

Nephew: ‘I aim to lose weight.’

Uncle: Yes. It’s a better sentence. More empowering.

Nephew: But what if the speaker of the sentence has no real intention of actually trying to lose the weight?

Uncle: Fair point. They 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. How about the sentence, ’I must not stand out.’

Nephew: ‘I would prefer to not stand out.’

Uncle: Very good! 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. How about the sentence, ‘I shouldn’t feel this way.’

Nephew: ’I am feeling this way’?

Uncle: Yes, a much better option! The speaker is accepting the feeling. Good work!

Nephew: This is pretty simple stuff you know.

Uncle: That’s true. It is simple. The hard part is remembering to omit the shoulds, oughts and musts from our speech in day-to-day life. But when we get into the habit of avoiding those words we become more relaxed and easygoing. As a result, we reduce our capacity to become anxious and add to our core happiness.

Nephew: We’ll see. Now, about that weight you want to lose . . .

Uncle: Clear off!

Try the chapter, The Tyranny of the Should – our expectations of the World.

Exercise 1

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.

Exercise 2
On paper, list ten shoulds, oughts or mustsyou have adopted about yourself.

Exercise 3
In life, keep an eye out for your shoulds, oughts and musts. Retract your statement and rephrase it.
  If you find yourself becoming exasperated, frustrated, angry, resentful, jealous or despairing, that’s a strong signal that you have an imperative in your thought. Look for the should and question it.
– 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.

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?’

This article has been about our expectations of ourselves. But what about our expectations of the world?

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