Friday, August 21, 2009

The Tyranny of the Shoulds

It’s not so much people or situations that make us happy, angry or sad but our thoughts about them. Whatever is causing pain/sadness are only thoughts. We can change our thoughts. And in turn change how we feel.

The problem we all face is not about feeling happy but about feeling everything but happiness. That is, our problem revolves around negative feelings like sad, unhappy, angry, upset, let down, etc. As our thought, so our feeling; as our feeling, so our action/response. So, all we need to do is trace it backwards. If we want to change our behaviour, we have to change how we feel and for that we need to change how we think.

I find that one of our greatest enemies is any thought that contains the word ‘should’ or ‘must’ or an equivalent of either. The moment we say ‘should’ or ‘must’ we are stating an expectation. Given the fact that we as human beings have a free will and the right to act as we deem fit and so also the fact that we have no control over external circumstances and other people, the use of should and must is bound to land us in ‘Upset-ville’. A ‘should’ is an expectation, a compulsion. What guarantee do we have that it will be fulfilled? And when it doesn’t get fulfilled what happens? We get upset. This is called ‘The Tyranny of the Shoulds’ or as Albert Ellis says ‘MUSTerbation’. I must, he must, she must… so many expectations for us and others to live up to, leaving no scope for free will. These shoulds and musts are nothing but irrational beliefs and perceptions. What actually affects us is not our behaviour or that of others, or the way the world treats us, but what actually affects us our false beliefs.

When these ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ are directed towards another, it usually results in anger and when directed towards ourself it usually ends up in guilt. ‘You should have asked me before deciding the picnic spot.’ And there! You are fuming. Or, ‘I should never have listened to her’ or ‘I must complete my project on time’. And there…you are upset again! Considering everyone has a free will, nobody is going to behave the way we want/expect them to, all the time. Well, we don’t always behave the way the world expects us to either. So if I have free will, so do others. Their actions may not be what we like or want or need, their actions may not even be right, nevertheless, they have every right to behave the way they do. They were not born to live according to our expectations. Just the way you and I aren’t born to fulfil everyone’s expectations.

People let us down very often. And it is but natural to feel annoyed or disappointed. But, if we have placed very strong shoulds/musts on them then we start blaming them and feel angry, frustrated and let down when things are not in line with our ‘should’. The problem with this is that it leaves us feeling negative and does nothing to make things better; on the contrary it only affects the relationships adversely.

So does that mean we should take everything that comes along without batting an eye lid? No, certainly not. But, instead of stating shoulds/musts we can convert them into preferences. And what does that mean? It means learning to be flexible in our thinking. It means learning to ‘prefer things to be a certain way’ but accepting the fact that things will not always be the way we would prefer. Try it and you will see that the emotion you feel is not as strong as earlier. The earlier statements could be converted into preferences thus, ‘I would have appreciated it if you checked with me before deciding the picnic spot’, ‘It would have been better if I had thought it over before listening to her’ or ‘I prefer finishing my project in time, but it’s not possible always’ and so on. For sure the ensuing emotion is not as strong as the one following the should/must statements.

What is the advantage of converting our shoulds/musts into preferences? First and foremost it spares us the onslaught of negative emotions like hurt, resentment, anger, depression, hatred, anxiety etc. It saves us from feeling upset. Secondly… do we really need a second reason? Isn’t that one reason good enough to attempt overthrowing the Tyranny of the shoulds and stop MUSTerbating all the time?

Go ahead. Try it. Identify your ‘shoulds’ and convert them into preferences. Well, I’m not saying that ‘you ‘should’ try it, all that I’m saying is it would be nice if you gave it a try! Trust me, it’ll be worth the try.

{PS – The concept of ‘The Tyranny of the Shoulds’ was first stated by Karen Horney (pronounced HORN-eye), a psychoanalyst.}


Andiepants said...

Thank you for your blog on the Tyranny of the Shoulds. I have just recently started to look within my own expectations and the expectations of others. Trying to accept who I am and stop the perfectionist voice in me.
Great insight and please continue blogging!

Anonymous said...

Indeed. Thoughts precede actions. Many times, our expectations if not met, lead to regrets and give rise to negative emotions such as anger, resentment, bitterness, depression, guilt etc. adversely affecting our health, our attitudes, our relationships, and much more. And, while we cannot control what happens, we can definitely control our reaction — we can either keep the pessimistic and negative thoughts and be miserable and unhappy or discard them and be happy and at peace with self and others by learning to more patient, more forgiving, and more loving.