In the sentence, ‘I should study if I want to pass the test.’ the word ‘should’ is appropriate. It’s commonsense. However, we sometimes we adopt beliefs based not on common sense, but on values, and those beliefs can be unhelpful.
In 1939 American psychiatrist Karen Horney wrote about that type of misleading belief, labelling it ‘The Tyranny of the Should’. She pointed out that we have ‘shoulds’ about how the world should be.
Julie dates men with firm beliefs about how men should behave: ‘Men should pay for the first date. Men should not expect a kiss on the first date. Men should not drink more than two glasses of wine. The man 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. Teenagers 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 saving money. The thing is, other people have different values to Bob. They don’t value cleanliness, they don’t value Bob’s feelings when they speak to him, and they don’t value saving money. So, they’re going to act contrary to how Bob would like and expect. And, because Bob expects other people to act according to his values and expectations, he 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. And resentful, like Bob.
Let’s stop using the words ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’ when we are speaking of our values. When we use those words we reinforce our view of how the world should be, and that invites frustration and disappointment. Our sense of justice can be violated.
Bob has a choice. He can stick with his shoulds and oughts and musts, or he can rephrase his statements as 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 will feel angry, dismayed and disheartened, because people aren’t acting in accordance with his values.
Option B: ‘Gosh, it would be nice if people cleaned up after themselves.’
That preference will reduce the intensity of his dismay because he isn’t demanding other people to behave in the way he expects. He is acknowledging that other people have not violated an obvious, sacrosanct set of rules; instead, they simply don’t share his values. So, rather than feel angry and dismayed, Bob will merely feel disappointed.
Someone speaks to Bob rudely. He has two options on how to respond.
Option A: ‘You must speak to me respectfully.’
Option B: ‘Speak to me respectfully.’
Option B is the better option because Option A is not true. There is no ‘must’. So, instead of demanding and expecting the other person to be respectful, and leaving himself open to having his demands ignored, Bob is focusing on telling the person his preference.
Adding the word ‘please’ might help too, because it acknowledges that the other person has a say in the matter. The word ‘must’ doesn’t.
‘The other person might still refuse to comply with Bob’s request.’
Yes, but Bob can cope better with the refusal, knowing that he stuck up for himself, and knowing there is no immutable 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 things important.’
Option C: ‘I would like to see you saving your money for things important.’
Option B is a big improvement and C is even better, because Bob is forcing himself to relinquish the ‘rightness’ of his opinion. As a result 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, changing the sentence to a suggestion or a preference means Bob will become less frustrated and less resentful. That’s because he is less attached to his belief of how things ought to be. By being more accepting of the way other people think and behave, he will be more relaxed in life, more easygoing, and therefore, less anxious.
Further, if we don’t expect people to behave in a certain way, we will waste less time and energy trying to change them. That can strengthen a relationship.
Q. ‘Your ‘preference idea’ sounds weak. I’d much rather tell someone they must stop treating me badly than telling them I’d prefer it.’
Ditch both words. Simply say, ‘Stop treating me badly.’ It’s not an expectation, it’s a preference framed as a direction.
Q. My sister Susan expects her grotty housemate to help keep their place tidy. If she dumped her ‘should’ and made it just a preference, she would end up living in a grotty, cluttered household. She wouldn’t want that.’
Rephrasing our sentences is not giving in, it’s a way to feel better about a situation. If Susan were to remind herself that her housemate has different values to her own, and that her own expectations of life are just that: expectations, then her life would become easier. When her housemate clutters the place she will feel less frustration and resentment. And, when she speaks to her housemate about how she feels, she will be calm and clear minded.
‘That doesn’t mean her problem will get solved.’
But she will feel better about the situation. Besides, she will have a better chance of solving the problem calm and clearheaded, and courteous, than if she were 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, increase our chances of solving the problem.
In short, drop the imperatives from your language. Make the conscious choice to drop the ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ from your life when they’re based on values. You will become more accepting, more flexible, and more easygoing. And as a result, more resilient.
If you forget and find yourself saying ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘must’, retract the word and rephrase your sentence. Do that often enough and it will become a habit. Then you’ll notice just how easygoing you have become.
We have just looked at our expectatons of the world. Try the chapter: The Tyranny of the Should – Our expectations of ourselves.
Rephrase the following sentences to get rid of the imperatives.
‘He should get a job.’
‘She ought to visit her mother.’
‘He must do the honourable thing.’
‘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.’
We are unaware of most of our shoulds, oughts and musts. How many of these shoulds have you adopted?
‘People should clean up after themselves.’
‘People should be considerate of one another.’
‘People should be courteous.’
‘Life should have some fun in it.’
‘People should not make noise if it’s late at night.’
‘My friends should show an interest in what I do.’
Can you think of other shoulds, oughts and musts that apply to you?