As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, April 12, 2007

No one likes to be told what they “should” be doing. In the best of circumstances, it is benevolent advice intended to change you from your bad ways. In more hostile circumstances, it is a contemptuous attack on your very being—as in, “you should get your lazy butt off that couch and do something with your life!” In either case, you are being given the not-so-subtle message that you are doing something wrong—and perhaps the message that you are the problem. That could lessen your motivation rather than get you going.

Imagine someone pressuring you, “You should exercise regularly.” You might respond with a barely listening mutter of “uh-huh, whatever you say.” Then again, you might wince as a guilty voice admits, “I know I should. I know.” Or, you might strike back with an indignant, “Who are you to be telling me what to do? You know nothing about my life.”

Those of us who frequently wrestle with the “shoulds” view ourselves as inadequate and believe that others judge us similarly. It is a struggle that physician and psychoanalyst Karen Horney first described decades ago as the “tyranny of the shoulds.” She explained that we flip between hating our inferior selves and trying (or pretending) to live up to an unreachable ideal of what we should be. She also astutely concluded that we cannot reach our greater potential while we are subject to this tyranny.

As I think of my clinical practice, where I am honored and saddened by others sharing their burdens with me, one common example comes to mind. Consider Jane Smith (a nice, safe name so that you know she is a creation of my mind). She grew up in a family that was less than perfect. To this day, her mother is a bit like a porcupine with a grudge—she is forever poking Jane with insults for just about everything. As an adult, Jane has finally learned how to talk with her mother without regressing into an angry child looking for approval from an unlikely source. However, she wrestles with feeling more obligation than love. She cringes as she suffers the guilt and shame of not being the loving daughter she should be. No matter how devoted she is to her mother, she cannot escape these feelings. Jane’s problem illustrates the emotional pain that “shoulds” often cause us all—to a greater or lesser extent.

“Shoulds”, like daggers at your back, move you along by poking you with their sharp points. Keeping ahead of their steady demands sometimes feels good, but mostly out of relief. Even if you feel that sense of accomplishment, it is tainted with the fear of not keeping up with continuing demands. For example, most people I know who eat healthy diets will at least sometimes take a foray into the wild side. When victimized by the “shoulds,” they feel like failures after such indulgences.

So, what can you do when face-to-face with a “should”? Outwit it by getting off the playing field of expectations imposed from outside. Instead of focusing on what “should” be, think about what you want (for example, to feel healthier and more energetic). Then figure out what you need to do to reach your goal (maintain a healthy diet) and whether your goal is viable (yes, but only if such a diet includes enjoying occasional treats). With this approach, you are being motivated in a positive way. This is a sharp contrast to seeing yourself as needing to make up for character deficiencies laid out by a “should”.

To make the shift from “should” to focusing on what you want, pay attention to when you use the word. Then respond with “how come?” Continue to question yourself until you come to a full understanding of your motivation.

Let’s walk through a common example together: I should exercise regularly. How come? Because then I would have more energy and could lose weight. And exercise can help you with this? Yes. I know I would have more energy and could lose weight if I exercise. So, I really want to start an exercise routine. (No shoulds. No guilt. No shame.)

Now let’s imagine Jane following this logic. Her situation is a bit more complicated: I should feel more love toward my mother. How come? Because she is my mother. So all daughters should love their mothers no matter what the mothers have done to them? Well, no. So, then mothers need to nurture a loving relationship with their daughters for their daughters to feel love? Well, yes, I think so. I know the way my mother has treated me creates distance in our relationship, and I’m sad about that. I wish our relationship could be different. (Note how her issue is no longer about guilt and shame. She has to accept the sadness, but not that there is something wrong with her.)

As you can see, there is no panacea in shifting your perspective from what you “should” be doing to what you want. You are still left with needing to make difficult changes or accept challenging situations. However, the more positive, inwardly motivated approach validates you. It creates a solid foundation that gently encourages you to pursue what you want or to accept a difficult situation. And that feels much better, doesn’t it? — It should.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ