I witness daily how believing circumstances should be different can negatively affect one’s life. I observe this dilemma not only in my work as a psychologist, but in my own life. Recently, I became stuck at a European airport on my way back to the United States. The delay was weather related, as the airplane we were scheduled to take could not get to us due to storms on the North American east coast. As I grumbled along, checking in and out of security while waiting at the airport for about 12 hours, I noticed I was becoming increasingly miserable. When I examined the situation, I realized my state of mind was not a result of being cold, starving, or mistreated. My misery was largely due to my expectation that the plane “should” be there to take me home; when it wasn’t, I was angry and irritable.
As it dawned on me how I was the source of my own misery, I remembered learning about Albert Ellis, who developed rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT). He would frequently tell others to stop “shoulding” on themselves. In essence, denying what actually is and feeling that a situation or person should be different to make our lives better is a cognitive distortion. When we feel that some other person or entity is the cause of our misery, we are in some ways acting entitled, as if the world should bend to our wishes and needs. As the situation at the airport unraveled—resulting in an overnight hotel stay, a 33-hour delay, and a different airline returning me to the U.S.—I observed firsthand how we create our own misery and often misattribute that suffering to someone or something else.
On the second day of waiting at the airport, a large group of passengers from my flight began to cling and complain together. As I approached the group and heard their remarks, I could feel the negativity radiating from them. I quickly decided to stand near another group of passengers I stood in line next to the night before. This group chatted and joked, shared about their lives, and had a much more positive attitude. As the hours rolled by, I noticed we were actually having a good time! We had fun spending our meal vouchers on junk food, learned about each other’s homes and families, and held places for each other in line to give each person a break to sit. We took the opportunity to connect with each other in a way that would not have been possible had the plane left on schedule the day before.
The more negative group, on the other hand, began to almost riot. Airport security was called to keep them in check, and the angry passengers threatened to call the mayor of the city, file claims of human rights violations, and basically made the situation awful. We were all in the same situation, yet one group decided to make it miserable, while others decided to make the best of it. This experience opened my eyes to just how much power and choice we often have in a situation, even when there are circumstances beyond our control.
It is not someone else’s responsibility to remove all obstacles and make a smooth path to our success and comfort. Thinking otherwise is just an unproductive illusion.
Now, I am not suggesting that anyone put up with abuse or mistreatment. While I do believe fair and humane treatment is a must, beyond those basic considerations, no one owes us anything. It is not someone else’s responsibility to remove all obstacles and make a smooth path to our success and comfort. Thinking otherwise is just an unproductive illusion. Next time you feel upset or irritated, consider what you might change, even if it is quite small, to improve the situation or your experience of the situation.
Tom Evans, one of my favorite guided meditation instructors, suggests that experiencing adversity is a sign that things could be done in an easier way, and acknowledging this is an opportunity to think or do something differently. Another way to undo a difficult situation is to consider what you are grateful for rather than what you dislike or hate. Focusing on what is not working is a way of not being grateful for what is working. When we are grateful for what is, rather than being angry with what isn’t, we move from a place of unrealistic expectations and entitlement to a calmer and more content way of being.
If you spend more time in the “should” trap than you would like, a therapist can help you find a productive way forward.
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