'Should'-ing ourselves - how, why, and what to do

The word 'should' is one I so often hear used… and misused. Many of the things that cause us problems are the expectations and ‘shoulds’ we place upon ourselves, and which are placed upon us by others. By being OK with who we are, we are able to stop punishing ourselves for who we are not. In this article, I will look at how and why ‘shoulds’ can arise, the damage they can do, and how to tackle them.

‘Shoulds’ are based in our thinking patterns, and in 1950 psychoanalyst Karen Horney wrote about what she called “The Tyranny of The Shoulds”. She thought that we all have two views of ourselves - the 'real' self (who we really are) and the 'ideal' self (the perfect version of ourselves) and that distress came from comparing these two selves.

Perfectionism is when we insist we have to be that 'ideal' person and punishing ourselves when we are not. This perfectionism is based in our unconscious rules for life - inflexible rules we follow and expect others to follow automatically, e.g. “I must always be…” or "other people must never…”. Albert Ellis humorously named this way of thinking “musturbation”.

So where do ‘rules’ and ‘shoulds’ come from? We might learn some of them growing up - from parents, caregivers, teachers, authority figures, the media and our culture in general. Especially when we are very young, we can’t easily tell if the person giving us these ‘shoulds’ has their own issues or agenda. We swallow whole what they say and accept it as truth. Some of these ‘shoulds’ then root so deeply and become our ‘rules for life’ that we don’t even realise we have them until someone challenges them. It can be very uncomfortable to have what we see as an ‘obvious’ truth questioned in this way, so we are quite likely to get even more firm about it as a defence mechanism.

I see ‘shoulds’ as being of two types, the things we should (and shouldn’t) do and the things we should (and shouldn’t) be. ‘Shoulds’ can relate to any area of our lives - work, family, relationships, money, academic achievements, physical abilities, mental abilities, appearance etc. As Ellis might agree, the ‘shoulds’ are generally very black and white, definite and inflexible - and as Horney might agree, when we find we are unable to obey all these ‘shoulds’ we become distressed and feel worthless. Our punishment for not meeting what we might call our “Conditions of Worth” can be severe. We might put ourselves down and be very self-critical, or we might even punish ourselves physically by withholding food, or medical care - or by self-harming.

In the same way, we might try to control other people with the ‘shoulds’ we place on them. As well as being critical, we might try to take control of (and responsibility for) their actions. This can cause a lot of pain and distress, and seriously damage relationships. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with behaviour you find unacceptable - but remember someone will only change if they want to. You can’t ‘should’ them into being different, and it is alright to walk away.

So how can you combat the ‘shoulds’?

The first step is by noticing them. Pay attention to the language you use - how often do you say or think 'should', 'must', 'have to', 'ought to'? Ask yourself who made that rule and whether it helps you or hurts you (it might do both!). Try swapping these authoritarian statements with words like 'can', 'might', 'want to', 'choose to'. Do they sound different? Do they feel different?

Ask yourself what the consequences might be if you don’t obey the ‘shoulds’ and what actual evidence you have that those consequences are likely. Are you able to live with those consequences or not?  It might be that you are faced with choices where there is no particularly good outcome, which is horrible, but having some degree of choice in the matter can help you feel less stressed and more satisfied with your actions.

‘Shoulds’ are so normal and accepted that we often don’t realise we have them. That can be helpful because it means we can act in ways that help us to fit in without needing to use much time or energy thinking about it. However, the ‘shoulds’ can put so much pressure on us to be superhumanly perfect that our lives get worse. Identifying and challenging ‘shoulds’ can be a long and confusing process - so if you would like help to do this in a therapeutic environment, consider contacting a counsellor.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10
Written by Emma Thompson, Registered Member MBACP (Accred)
Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10

I am a qualified integrative counsellor and registered member MBACP (100054). I am available for short or long term counselling at my rooms in Sittingbourne in Kent. I have a particular professional interest in working with anxiety, lack of confidence, poor self-image and invisible disabilities.

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