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Feeling Angry or Guilty? Maybe it's Time to Stop "Shoulding!"

Are You "Shoulding" or "Musturbating" Yourself Into Unhappiness?

Al could not understand why he had no close friends. He saw himself as honest and caring. What he did not realize was that he had so many shoulds, oughts and musts that it was impossible to be around him without being corrected or criticized. "One thing I don't need," said an acquaintance, "is endless free advice."

People who use too many shoulds, oughts, musts and have-tos are very demanding and unpleasant, and they make life miserable for themselves and others. We see many people in our consulting rooms who make demands, who strongly insist on things. They typically have a history of acrimonious divorce, no friends, and many problems on the job.

Known as "categorical imperatives," shoulds, oughts and musts create anger and guilt. "You should have done X and not Y!" "He should have known better!" are expressions of anger. "I shouldn't have said that!" "I should have done XYZ!" are statements of guilt.

When people are able to drop their demands, to change their shoulds into preferences, amazing benefits often result.

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

Change the should into a request or a preference. Instead of angrily saying, "You should have introduced me to your cousin!" you can say, "I wish you had introduced me to your cousin." Instead of insisting, "You must not smoke in the house!" you can say, "I'd prefer that you smoke outside."

• Change should, ought, must into "I wish" or "I'd prefer" and see what happens.

We predict that the fewer shoulds, oughts and musts you use, the better off you, your loved ones and your associates will be.

It's obviously not just the word "should" that creates the problem, it's the demanding should. There's nothing wrong with saying "You should remember to take the recycling bins to the curb if you want them to be collected." That's what we call a "soft should." It differs from the demanding should, in that soft shoulds have an "if" statement following them that mentions a specific consequence. "You should have known better than to leave the dishes in the sink!" Compare that to: "You should put your dish in the dishwasher if you want to help me clean up." Better yet, try to state the request without using the word "should" at all, such as, "Please try to remember to put your dishes in the dishwasher."

To further illustrate these ideas consider the case of Norman:

Norman, a twice-divorced thirty-six-year-old lawyer, came for therapy. He often ran into interpersonal problems, but recently he had lost three close friendships, had a serious falling out with his parents, and his fiancée had broken off their engagement. No wonder! Norman had more rules and regulations than the Army, Navy and Air Force combined.

The enslaving power of personal rules was first recognized by the world-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Karen Horney, who wrote about "the tyranny of the should," a theme later expanded by Dr. Albert Ellis, of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City, who coined the terms "shoulding" and "musturbating" to emphasize the psychologically destructive power of categorical imperatives like shoulds and musts. Dr. Ellis advises that

• people stop "shoulding" on others and themselves, and avoid "musturbating" as much as possible.

Norman's excessive shoulds and musts led him to break off contact with his brother for making investments that Norman regarded as ill-advised, and he was irate about a whole slew of things. His life changed for the better when he managed to exorcise his shoulds.

At the end of his therapy, Norman wrote the following note, which we encourage you to adopt for your own life:

• "I have decided to abrogate responsibility for other people's lives. I let others decide what should and shouldn't apply to them."

Norman continued: "This has lifted an enormous burden from my shoulders. I don't take life as seriously as I did, and I let God decide what should and shouldn't be. All I know is what I like, what I dislike and what I wish for."

Six months later, on a follow-up questionnaire, he wrote:

"For the first time in my life I believe that I would be called ‘popular.' I don't know how anybody put up with me before."

Unlike Norman, many people are unwilling or unable to drop their shoulds and musts. "You should have known better!" "You must stop doing that!" "I should have behaved differently." "I must win the tennis game!"

• Catch your own shoulds and musts, change them into preferences or wishes:

"I'd like to win the tennis game." "I wish you'd stop doing that." Try out this technique and see how much better you feel.

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

Remember, think well, act well, feel well, be well!

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