Shoulds are a list of inflexible rules that we have regarding a subject. Largely it’s about how people “should act” and behave. This type of thinking, when directed at others, usually results in us judging them negatively, finding fault, and if verbalized, making them really defensive. In this scenario, people fall short, they have unacceptable behaviors, traits and views that irk us and then we let them have it.
- Honey, you shouldn’t flatten the credit card every time you go out. (Guaranteed to cause a fight with your spouse.)
- You should be more with it and together. (Guaranteed to build low self esteem in your conversation partner.)
- That idiot shouldn’t have cut me off. (Road Rage in LA.)
- They should treat me better at school/work etc. (Establishing bitterness or anger at work.)
- You should dump him/her. (It might be true but your friend probably doesn’t want to hear this.)
When directed at ourselves it leads to a negative view of ourselves and our situation
- I should be happy. (More unhappiness will ensue)
- This situation shouldn’t be. (A phrase which will usually engender sadness.)
- I should never make mistakes. (Perfectionism)
- I should always be on top of things. (More perfectionism with an impossible perspective.)
- I should be able to handle anything that comes my way.
- I should be the perfect lover, parent, spouse, friend, employee.
- I should love all my children equally.
- I should be totally self reliant.
- I should always be on my game.
In our self talk this becomes a potentially dangerous error. It leads to guilt, anxiety and often depression. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney called it “the Tyranny of the Shoulds.” Should is also prevalent in anger. It’s the first step in getting angry.
The antidote for this is to change your should to the word “prefer.” Instead of saying to someone else, “You should do this.” Change it to “I would prefer if you do this.” In your self talk change, “They should treat me with more respect” to “I prefer that you treat me better.” In my group therapy session, and even individual sessions, it has become a running joke that “You’re shoulding all over yourself…” But the truth is that this is a particularly dangerous thinking error. And it’s one that we need to change. Change your should to “prefer” in your self talk. You’ll be amazed at the difference it causes.