‘Should’ This, ‘Should’ That: Learning to Embrace What Is

North star in early evening skyAs a therapist, I hear the word “should” often. Usually it appears just before a spike in anxiety, a precipitous drop in self-esteem, or a sudden crying jag: “I should be over this by now!”

What is it about “should” that has such a powerful impact on our feelings about ourselves and others? Can it be helpful? Why is it hurtful? In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll try to answer those questions. I’ll also try to uncover some of the thoughts and feelings that get hidden under all that “should”-ing.

‘Shoulds’ as Aspirations and Values

Psychology thinkers going back to Sigmund Freud (1914) have discussed a part of the personality, what Freud termed the “ego ideal,” that orients us toward our values and aspirations, the things we want for ourselves. As my teacher Jon Frederickson describes it, our ideals and aspirations are a kind of “north star”—we can sail our ship toward it, but never quite touch it.

This north star can be a useful guide to a meaningful life, as in, “I should go back to school so I can reach my goal of becoming a psychologist.” In this example from my own life, the “should” came from a place of self-love and represented a realistic possibility for me at that time. However, what if I had started should-ing myself about grad school in a harsh and critical way? What if I was should-ing myself about grad school, but at a time in my life when grad school was not a realistic option? What if those “shoulds” became a stick to beat myself with, rather than an aspirational system to motivate myself with?

‘Shoulds’ as Self-Punishments

“I should have known better!”

“I shouldn’t have done that!”

Our aspirations and values are misused in the service of self-punishment when we hold ourselves and others accountable for things that simply aren’t possible. How could you have known something you did not know? How could you have avoided doing something you did not know would hurt you?

When we “should” ourselves in this way, it’s like saying, “You should be able to touch your north star—if you had paddled hard enough, you’d be there by now!” This is the misuse of an ideal and guide in the service of self-punishment.

This kind of thinking seems to be especially common with people who would identify themselves as “perfectionists.” In perfectionism, we tend to embrace, for better and for worse, an underlying fantasy that we can somehow be united with our north star. We are no longer chasing an ideal; we are seeking to become ideal. Many perfectionistic people wind up coming in for therapy when their imperfections, which are just a symptom of their humanity, disrupt their fantasy of becoming one with their “ego ideal.” Sadly, self-criticism and varying levels of anxiety and depression usually ensue.

‘Shoulds’ in Relationships

“You should stand up for me!”

Our aspirations and values are misused in the service of self-punishment when we hold ourselves and others accountable for things that simply aren’t possible.

“You should know how I’m feeling!”

Just as we hold certain ideals and aspirations for ourselves, which we can both benefit from and misuse, we also hold ideals for the people in our lives, and images of how we wish them to be. When our relationships move toward these ideals it can feel wonderful, and we want to hold onto that forever.

However, just as we are much more complex and human than our ideal selves, our partners, friends, and family can turn out to be a lot more complicated than how we want them to be. When we refuse to accept that, we can try to force them to be closer to our ideal; however, “You should be more like …” essentially translates to, “You should not be you!” If you have tried this relationship strategy for getting your partner to be more like your ideal, you may have found, as I have, people don’t seem to like that.

What ‘Shoulds’ Can Distract Us From

So why all this should-ing? What is the function of “should” in our relationships with ourselves and others?

To me, “should” seems to be a kind of escape, what Anna Freud would call a “denial by fantasy” (Freud, 1936). When we “should” ourselves and others, we escape from the complicated feelings we have about our complicated lives into a fantasy of how things “should” be. Letting go of this fantasy of how things should be would mean we have to experience life on life’s terms and cope with how things are, which can stir up pain, anger, and other mixed emotions.

As painful as it can be to face the emotions and realities that “should” can obscure, there is a certain freedom in accepting what is, what exists in front of us. When we worship at the altar of “what should be,” we miss out on opportunities to interact with and learn from the events and emotions of the moment. We wind up chasing a star, rather than letting that star guide us safely to port.

If You Want Help with ‘Shoulds’

If you find your thinking dominated by “should,” try to figure out what aspect(s) of your reality you are avoiding by taking refuge (often false refuge) in a fantasy of how life “should” be. See if you can challenge yourself to accept and look honestly at the things you are trying to erase with “shoulds.”

Looking at the plain picture of yourself and your reality, without the distraction of the should-ing thoughts, may stir up strong and complicated emotions. See if you can listen to and learn from these. You may learn a lot from the thoughts and emotions about your present and past reality that you have learned to avoid through should-ing.

In the process of taking an honest look at yourself, your life, and your loved ones, you may encounter anxiety, which will tempt you to retreat back into “shoulds.” If anxiety and avoidance are interfering with your ability to get past your “shoulds,” I encourage you to work with a therapist who can help you face the thoughts and emotions getting stuck underneath all the should-ing. By facing this important challenge, you may develop more flexibility to deal with life on life’s terms, rather than dealing with yourself in terms of how you “should” be.

References:

  1. Frederickson, J. (2013, August 13). Perfectionism. Retrieved from http://istdpinstitute.com/2013/perfectionism/
  2. Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. New York: International Universities Press.
  3. Freud, S. (1914). On narcissism: an introduction. Standard Edition, 14: 73-102.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maury Joseph, PsyD, therapist in Washington, District of Columbia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lana

    May 4th, 2016 at 8:45 AM

    Is it a little too simplistic to state that what SHOULD be eventually WILL be? As in if it’s meant to be then it will happen?

  • NED

    May 4th, 2016 at 2:21 PM

    so tired of punishing myself when I know that I have done the right thing but sitting aorund letting someone else tell me what my move should have been. there’s that word again, yep I’m tired of letting that dominate my life.

  • Judy

    May 5th, 2016 at 7:13 AM

    Wonderful and right on brother! Let It Be John Lennon said. Let me be, I try to tell myself!

  • micah

    May 5th, 2016 at 9:57 AM

    Well there is no better starting point than right here right now. You can’t worry about yesterday because how are you ever going to change that anyway? Focus on putting one foot in front of the other and making a life resolution to start those changes that you wish to make today.

  • Harper

    May 7th, 2016 at 5:24 AM

    I see that many use the I shoulds as a form of punishment. But how about looking at them in another way, like as a way to motivate them to helping you reach a goal that has until now been very elusive to you?

  • Chad

    May 9th, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    In her own mind my wife has all of these things that she thinks that I automatically should be doing and truthfully I probably would do them if she would just tell me. But I can’t read her mind and I think that this is what she really expects me to be able to do.

  • Jon F

    May 10th, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    It’s good if we can stop shoulding all over ourselves:-)

  • LuCiLle

    May 10th, 2016 at 3:45 PM

    I have spent far too many days of my life wondering what I should do and trying to worry about what other people think that I should be doing. I think that it is just about time to stop thinking about those things and focus more on the things that I need to do for me.

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