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Do You Make Harmful Perfectionistic Demands?

The irrationality of "must" and "should" in making perfectionistic demands.

The late Albert Ellis, inventor of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the world’s first cognitive-behavior therapy, used to tell others not to “musturbate.” By this, he meant disturb themselves by making perfectionistic demands of themselves, others, and/or the world by using the term “must” or “should,” or a synonym. And this was the cornerstone of REBT, an approach to psychotherapy that has helped millions of people overcome self-defeating and unnecessary emotional and behavioral tendencies.

In my forthcoming self-help book, Making Peace with Imperfection: Discover Your Perfectionism Type, End the Cycle of Criticism, and Embrace Self-Acceptance, dedicated to Albert, I have identified 10 self-disturbing, perfectionistic types of “musts” and “shoulds" (Cohen, 2019). They are as follows:

10 Types of Perfectionism

Self-Regarding Perfectionism

1. Achievement Perfectionism: I must/should never make mistakes or fail at anything.

2. Approval Perfectionism: I must/should always get the approval of others.

3. Moral Perfectionism: I must/should always be perfectly moral.

4. Control Perfectionism: I must/should always be in control of everything at all times.

Other-Regarding Perfectionism

5. Expectation Perfectionism: Others must/should alway perform perfectly.

6. Ego-Centered Perfectionism: I must/should always be right.

7. Treatment Perfectionism: Others must/should never treat me badly.

World-Regarding Perfectionism:

8. Existential Perfectionism: Bad things must/should never happen.

9. Neatness Perfectionism: Everything must/should be perfectly neat and orderly.

10. Certainty Perfectionism: I must/should always be certain that bad things don’t happen.

As you can see, some types (1-4) involve making perfectionistic demands on yourself; some (5-7) on others; and some on the world (8-10).

Unfortunately, these different types of perfectionism appear to be quite popular. In a recent study I conducted of 2,186 individuals ranging in ages from late teens to over 65 years, 41 percent of males and 50 percent of females engaged in at least one or more of these types of Demanding Perfection (DP), or musturbation (Cohen, 2019). So, based on this study, if you are reading this blog, there is a good chance that you too are a musturbator!

How can you stop musturbating?

The first step in overcoming musturbation is realizing that you do it; the second is seeing exactly why it is irrational. Albert referred to the latter step as “disputation.” With an eye toward disputation, let’s take a look at these culprit terms, “must” and “should,” as they are used when you demand perfection.

Disputing Your Musts and Shoulds

Suppose you are an approval perfectionist, a perfectionist who tells himself that he must always get the approval of others. “I must get this approval,” you declare. “If I don’t get it, then there’s something wrong with me.” This is a common syndrome, the old Demanding Approval-Self-Damnation syndrome. Here the disputation is simple: If it were so that you must get this approval, then you would always get it. How so? Because to say that something must be means that it is necessary. And if it is necessary, then it would happen. But notice that you don’t always get the approval of others. So, you really already know that you are not necessarily going to get it. Yet, on the one hand, you tell yourself you must always get it; and on the other, you tell yourself that you won’t always get it. That’s a freaking contradiction. So proclaiming that you must get the approval of others leads to absurdity!

Well, suppose then that you soften your claim: “Well, maybe it’s not true that I must always get the approval of others, but I still should always get it.” But notice that this “should” is absolutist. It states unconditionally — no "ifs," "ands," or "buts" — that you should get the approval of others. This means that you think there is a compelling reason for always getting the approval of others, that is, a reason that can’t possibly be defeated or overridden by any other reason or consideration. So, what is this mysterious reason? Is it that the world would come to a screeching halt if you didn’t get this approval? Does it come down from on high? Is it carved in stone somewhere along with the Ten Commandments? Clearly not!

Most likely your reason is simply that you would prefer to get the approval of others. But preferring this approval is not a compelling reason for getting it, because others may prefer not to give it to you; and they have a right to approve of anyone they choose. Indeed, if preferring something meant that you had a compelling reason for getting it, then others who preferred not to give you their approval would also have a compelling reason for not giving it to you. But if others can have a compelling reason for not giving you their approval, then you cannot have a compelling reason for getting it! Again, you land on a contradiction!

So, you had better give up your perfectionistic “musts” and “shoulds,” because they have just been proven to be absurd!

Emotionally Appreciating the Absurdity of Musturbation

Of course, knowing that your perfectionism is absurd and emotionally appreciating it are not the same thing, so you can still be inclined to musturbate even when you know you are being irrational. For example, while you now can appreciate that it is irrational to demand approval from others, you may still feel unworthy when you don’t get another’s approval. This is why Albert called his approach Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy. It is because you also need to practice not demanding perfection in order to stop doing it.

Practicing Not Musturbating

REBT therefore gives you homework assignments to practice. For example, Albert would likely tell you to do a “shame-attacking” exercise. One of his favorites was to tell you to walk down a crowded city block pulling a banana on a string. That would be sure to get people thinking you were bananas. But you could also keep reminding yourself, as you pulled along your banana, how irrational it would be to musturbate about it. After all, does it really matter what these people are thinking about you? In the end, you could begin to prove to yourself, emotionally, that you really don’t need others’ approval in order to be a worthy person. Indeed, you could prove to yourself that you are quite capable of doing things without the approval of others, even things that arouse their disapproval.

It is important to have a set of systematic exercises, which you can regularly practice, in order to make progress in overcoming your demand for perfection (Cohen, 2019). Different types of perfectionism call for different sorts of exercises, but the goal is the same: namely, to become more secure about living in a world that is imperfect. Letting go of your perfectionistic “musts” and “shoulds” is the key. For example, I often recommend doing a form of meditation to practice letting go of these absurd musturbatory demands.

Do you musturbate? If so, then you can save yourself a whole lot of needless stress by working toward this goal!


Cohen, E.D. (June, 2019). Making Peace with Imperfection: Discover Your Perfectionism Type, End the Cycle of Criticism, and Embrace Self-Acceptance. Impact.

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