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Tyranny of the “SHOULD” Inputs from Karen Horney’s Research

We all experience an inner compulsion on how we should be, how we should feel, how we should behave, what we should know—and taboos on how and what we SHOULD not be.

What is “should”?

It is a word/symbol that we use to indicate an image in our minds of something other than what is. E.g. I should lose weight… I should read more… I should not make mistakes… I should make perfect presentations… I should be organized… I should be assertive… I should be knowledgeable on all issues…

These demands on the self can be endless. Many of these demands, maybe even too much to expect to be fulfilled. However, such an intellectual realization usually does not change much.

Often our heads are full of “shoulds” that deny the reality of how we feel and what we are. We think “I shouldn’t feel this way.” “I shouldn’t behave this way.” Often we lose touch with what really feel or think. As the tyranny of the “Should” continues we end up angry, confused and helpless because we have not been allowed to be what we are.

Why are we consumed with Shoulds? 

In every society/workspace, certain behaviours and personal qualities are often promoted as desirable, while others are given very little importance e.g. taking charge, being articulate, appearing confident, being in control, seen as knowledgeable, being an extrovert etc is seen as desirable, however being introspective, confused, passive can be considered undesirable.

These constant inputs from our environment create an “ideal self” – an image that creates in our mind of what we should be like.

We want to be successful, be significant, to be liked, to be accepted. We take on many of rules of other people, and these become part of our own belief system on how we should be in order to be accepted by other people. These get converted into a rigid set of expectations that we have from ourselves and eventually from others.

When we hold on to these beliefs in an absolute, inflexible way, it increases our likelihood of feeling frustrated, angry or simply helpless, especially when these expectations are not met. We are let down by people at times and this is a universal reality. However if we have very strong shoulds about how people should behave, we may end up getting overly critical, impatient, and intolerant towards people for their actions.

The problem with being critical and impatient is that it makes us feel angry and frustrated. However, it doesn’t solve the problem.

In the end, it is a tremendous waste of energy. Even if other people are at fault, telling ourselves that they should not be this way doesn’t change the situation – it just makes us feel bad. And it makes other people believe that we are being unreasonable!

What then?

We can avoid getting upset in all sorts of situations by learning to think flexibly. This means learning to prefer things to be a certain way, but accepting those situations will not always be the way we would like them to be. Try it out – try and identify any shoulds that cause you to feel bad and change that should into a preference.

What would be the advantages of doing this? What would you need to say to yourself to do this? How might changing this should into a preference affect the way you feel?

It is worth giving a thought…

Feeling Angry or Guilty? Maybe it’s Time to Stop “Shoulds!”

People who use too many shoulds, the oughts, musts and have-to are very demanding and unpleasant, and they make life miserable for themselves and others. It is impossible to be around them without being corrected or criticized.

“One thing I don’t need is endless free advice.”

Known as “categorical imperatives,” shoulds, the oughts and musts, create a lot of anger and guilt.

“You should have done X and not Y!”

“He should have known better!”

“I shouldn’t have said that!”

“I should have done XYZ!”

When people are able to drop their demands, to change their shoulds into preferences, amazing benefits often result. Research validates that the fewer shoulds, the oughts and musts you use, the better off you and your associates will be.

  1. Try to catch yourself each time you lay a should, ought or must on someone.

  2. Replace should, ought, must into “I wish” or “I’d prefer” and see what happens.

  3. Recognize that you cannot always control how others will think or behave.

  4. Create more space for dialogue rather than judgment


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