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The Tyranny of Musts and Shoulds

Learning to fight against our irrational beliefs.

The insights of renowned psychologist Albert Ellis can be useful when dealing with certain marital problems. A key element of his therapeutic technique, Rational Emotive Therapy, is that some of the things we believe are irrational, and irrational beliefs interfere with our ability to cope with effectively with many situations. You know a belief is irrational when it doesn’t conform to the rules of logic, is inconsistent with our general experience, and is inconsistent with our personal goals. As an extreme example to illustrate the point, even though conceptually we know that people make mistakes, sometimes we’ll get upset with our partner when they do. If we get upset, it might be because we hold a belief that our partner should not make a mistake. This is irrational because it is illogical if one understands human nature, it is inconsistent with our experiences because we all make mistakes, and it interferes with attaining our goals because by becoming upset when mistakes happen, we’re unable to focus on a solution to the problem.

The essence of irrationality is to think of our relationships in terms of absolute conditions and demands. That’s precisely what we do when we use the words should or must in the context of how our partners are to think and act. People can be oppositional, prefer to think and choose on their own, and can never be absolutely controlled. In other words, most people don’t think they should or must do anything.

When we believe our must or should do something, the demands they imply set expectations, and we might set standards that are unrealistic. When these expectations aren’t met, we can experience frustration, anger, and disappointment, and these get in the way of solving problems. Instead, it is much more helpful to think in terms of the possibility that our partners will do what they choose to do, regardless of our suggestions. When we make provisions for the possibility of outcomes other than what we desire, we manage our expectations so that they’re more in line with reality. In that way we’re not disappointed, nor are we quite as upset when our partner won’t do what we want them to.

Ellis had a distinctive way of pointing out the irrational thinking these words imply. He referred to our insisting that things be what we want them to be instead of what they are as musterbating and shoulding. When his patients would demand that something must or should happen in a certain way, Dr. Ellis would tell them that they were musterbating or shoulding on themselves. These particular plays on words help to emphasize the negative and self-destructive aspects of irrational thinking. When we musterbate and should on ourselves, we spend all of our time focusing on the negative events and we do not spend time to figure out what we can or cannot do about these negative events.

Many of us waste valuable time, effort, and resources trying to control the uncontrollable. Or we allow ourselves to become impatient and frustrated because things that are beyond our control are not cooperating with our desires. People who rant and rave while sitting in traffic only manage to ruin their mood and raise their blood pressure, not to mention the stress level of those riding along with them. In certain situations, some may let their frustration build up until they find themselves falling into depression, ill-health, or a chronic bad mood.

When it comes to our partners, you must accept the reality that what you see is what you get. If they have traits that you don’t like, you can either accept them with their faults and keep them in your life, or stay continually disappointed with them. They can change their thinking patterns and behaviors if they want to, but we can’t turn them into something different unless they want to do it themselves. Acknowledging this fact may lead you away from trying to change them, and that can help you avoid frustration and other negative emotions. You can then spend time and effort trying to change things that can be changed, and that means you might discover other ways to improve your relationship.

When we say accepting our partners for who they are we mean the recognition of reality. Acceptance does not mean that we approve, desire, or have any positive feeling toward what we are accepting. It’s simply an acknowledgement that something exists. Lack of acceptance, on the other hand, is very often the denial of reality. As its most damaging feature, it leaves people unprepared to deal with problems, and unattended problems usually don’t get better by themselves; they usually get much worse.

It is important to point out that acceptance is an active process, not a passive one. Sometimes we might not acknowledge that a problem exists because we’re just not aware of it. We might notice that periodically there is tension or uneasiness in our relationship, but we think that it just happens and it’s nothing to worry about. Well, sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it’s not. In fact, true acceptance can require a good deal of effort. Often the things we need to accept are offensive and unpleasant to us, or we think they’re beyond our control, and this makes their acceptance difficult. While there will certainly be some things we may never completely accept, we can become better at it by dealing with the irrational beliefs that cause us to deny what we need to accept. On the other hand, when we refuse to accept situations that are difficult or can’t be controlled, such as rejection by someone we love, we will find that not only have we wasted our time, we’re no closer to a solution and as a result no happier. The more we accept the things we cannot change, the better are the chances that we can cope with those situations.

Acceptance also includes taking responsibility for our emotions and behaviors. Responsibility is the recognition of the connection between what we do and what happens as a result of what we do. There is nothing inherently good or bad about responsibility. We can have good or bad outcomes from our choices, but responsibility in and of itself is simply a rational thinking process in which we admit to ourselves that what we say and do produces outcomes.

A key point regarding responsibility is acknowledging that both partners have a role in how their relationship functions at any given point in time. When partners recognize ownership is shared, they’re more likely to work as a team to solve them, so they’re likely to have an easier time coming to solutions. Partners are also less likely to blame each other for problems. After all, it’s hard to blame someone else if you realize you’re just as much at fault. We should point out that, while responsibility is a positive thing, blame is not. When we blame ourselves or our partner, we imply the need for punishment and retribution. In that way blame produces negative emotions, and these interfere with rational thinking and make it hard to fix a problem.

Blame also produces guilt in most people. Guilt, like physical pain, can have a positive function. It warns us that there is something that needs our attention. It’s also a sign of a well-developed conscience. However, at its extreme, guilt can be debilitating. When we feel guilty, we focus all of our attention on ourselves, but not in a good way. The emphasis is on how terrible we feel and how awful we are, and on how we should be punished and treated with disdain. Such thoughts not only lead to a good deal of needless suffering, they’re also counter-productive. Just as with blame, guilt inhibits rational thinking and makes it more difficult to focus on making changes that would eliminate the source of our guilt. When we stop blaming, we stop the guilt, and we and our partner have an easier time focusing on the problem at hand rather than how we feel about it.

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