We all have ideas of what should and should not be done - by ourselves and others.
But is it possible that "shoulds" can inadvertently become something that's more harmful than helpful? Yes.
Let's discuss the concept of the tyranny of the shoulds.
Everyone has a set of standards or shoulds that govern their behaviours and interactions with others.
For example: "I should hold the door open when there's someone walking close behind me."
Or: "I should listen quietly while the instructor is talking."
Such shoulds facilitate social functioning and cohesion.
They help us abide by social norms that reflect what is or isn't appropriate in a situation. As such, they enable us to treat others with respect and consideration.
However, shoulds are not always healthy and constructive.
In fact, they can be quite detrimental.
"Shoulds" is one of the most common types of cognitive distortions based on Aaron Beck’s cognitive theory (1963), which was later developed by David Burns.
In this context, shoulds refer to limited, inflexible thought patterns that govern an individual's perception of how themselves and others should behave.
Simply put, shoulds are unrealistic expectations.
When we allow these unrealistic expectations to take control of our life, it's known as tyranny of the shoulds.
Tyranny of the Shoulds is a phrase coined by German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (1939).
Horney viewed shoulds as dividing our personalities into two selves: an ideal self and a real self.
In other words, we bounce between what we are, and what we believe we "should" be.
When we don’t live up to our ideal self, our inner critic comes out and oppresses us.
Why do shoulds create tyranny?
Well, when a person creates "shoulds", they feel compelled to, or compel others to act a certain way, but they fail to objectively ask if it really makes sense.
As a result, shoulds are just as hard on the individual as they are on other people.
When we direct should statements to others, it can lead to feelings of frustration, because our expectations may be too unrealistic for others to meet.
On the other hand, when we direct should statements at ourselves, it can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and self-loathing because our expectations may be too unrealistic for us to even meet ourselves!
It is the threat of a punitive self-hate that lurks behind shoulds, that truly makes them a regime of terror.
When the shoulds are reinforced by social pressure, they become even more unbearable. Under the burden of these expectations, one’s behaviour may become pressured, forced, and may take on an obsessive quality.
The result is a loss of personal agency, genuine creativity, and authenticity.
In essence, when one is controlled by the tyranny of the shoulds, one feels driven but never feels like the driver of his life.
Here are examples of should statements that may reflect unrealistic expectations:
Can you imagine how the above should statements could create issues?
The problem with shoulds is that they only reflect your version of reality.
And that version of reality may not be very realistic. For example:
"I should never be weak."
Notice the absolute: never.
(Shoulds frequently include absolute terms such as always or never, everyday/everyone).
As a human, never being weak is an impossible demand to meet.
Like a political tyranny in a police state, shoulds operate with a disregard for the person’s own mental or physical condition - for what he or she feels they can do at present.
In addition, shoulds don't take into consideration other people's reality.
The fact is that you cannot control others, so the more "shoulds" you have, the more you set yourself up for disappointment.
You might even start to find others intolerable.
That's certainly not a healthy way to live!
Here's another thing to consider about shoulds:
Certain demands on self may not be fantastic in themselves yet may show a complete disregard for the conditions under which they could be fulfilled.
Ok, let's take a step back from what we have discussed above.
As long as they don't become tyrannical, shoulds can be a good thing.
In fact, all of us have rules or shoulds to live by.
To not have something to strongly believe in would be psychologically unfit as well.
It is not the presence of these personal rules, but the distorted properties of the rules that are of concern.
So, how can we move from tyrannical shoulds to healthy, reasonable expectations and standards?
Here are a few ways:
Humans are complex and delicate creatures. To expect yourself to "always" do one thing or "never" do another is unrealistic. Accept that sometimes you will make mistakes. This involves letting go of one's idealized self-image.
You can still have high standards for yourself, just expect that sometimes things won't go as planned. When they don't, be ready to pick yourself up and continue doing your best.
To avoid the tyranny of the shoulds, we should be willing to allow others to be imperfect and different.
You can likely think of an instance when you felt crushed under the weight of another person's expectations. When this happens, it feels unfair, and it makes you wish the other person could see things from your perspective.
You make life easier for yourself and others when you accept that people will see life differently to you.
Another way to positively reframe a should statement is to transform it into an "I get to" statement.
For example, sometimes rather than saying "I should go to the gym", I say "I get to go to the gym."
Another example could be: "I get to go to school today", rather than "I should go to school today."
See the difference?
Realize that not everyone gets to do the things you do, view them as a privilege rather than an obligation.
Hopefully this post has helped you see some ways that should statements can appear in our lives and how we can avoid the tyranny of the shoulds.
In summary, shoulds are unyielding, rigid expectations that are devoid of compassion for our limitations and weaknesses.
When under the tyranny of shoulds, one is never able to relax because the pressure to be perfect is unrelenting.
Shoulds also blind us from seeing how beautiful life is, and the gift we have in the freedom of choice!
Each and every day we can make the choice to embrace conscious decision making and avoid being burdened by expectations that may not even be real.
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