The Tyranny of the Shoulds

by Jeff Bentley
Published: Last Updated on

The language we use can have a powerful effect on us, and few words cause as much grief as ‘should’. Much of the distress in our lives stems from beliefs about how things, including us and others, should be. This leads to us experiencing the ‘Tyranny of the Shoulds.’

Some of our ‘shoulds’ focus on our own behaviour and performance, while others focus on the way we believe other people ought to behave. This can lead to the development of beliefs that become inflexible. The following is just a small sample of the ‘shoulds’ that often form part of this process:

I should always do a perfect job

I should never make mistakes

I should be slim, youthful and attractive

I should be married or in a committed relationship

I should be witty, interesting and fun to be with

I should always say yes to requests from others

I should always be liked and approved of by other people

These ‘shoulds’ can make us miserable because what we experience in life does not always match them. The more strongly I believe my ‘shoulds’ the more I believe that I’m doing something wrong and the more my self-esteem will be negatively affected.

A couple of examples:

‘I should not make a mistake or do something badly.’ If I do, then I am a failure, an idiot, and a bad person. This leads to poor self-esteem, frustration, and depression. The truth is that I can make mistakes, as can everyone else. Making a mistake does not make me a failure.

The belief that ‘other people should always like and approve of me’ can create problems when I come across someone who does not like me. The reality is that at some point, someone will disapprove of me. This does not make me wrong.

Framing our shoulds as preferences such as ‘I could do or be this or that’ can reduce the impact of my thinking and make it easier to work with. It is important to note that simply eliminating the use of the word ‘should’ (or ‘must’) from my vocabulary is not sufficient. It is the things I believe; it is my thoughts that matter. By monitoring and tuning into the thoughts that make me feel bad, it is possible to build in some flexibility and challenge my thoughts.

For example, I can:

Write them down and note where I was, and what triggered them.

Identify the beliefs associated with them.

Challenge these beliefs. Ask myself if I am being kind and patient with myself?

Then make them into kinder statements about myself; more realistic and positive. My ‘shoulds’ can then become simple possibilities instead of failed unreasonable expectations.

As the New Year begins, my suggestion is that it is time to stop the tyranny of our ‘shoulds’ and instead use more positive, kinder and accepting language towards ourselves. Try it, and see what freedom from your ‘shoulds’ can feel like.

Jeff Bentley
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