When should's not good: a look into obligation and self-image

When should’s not good

Shoulds & self-image

In psychology, the “real self” and the “ideal self” are terms used to describe parts of your personality. The real self is who you actually are and incorporates how you think, feel, look and behave day to day, while your ideal self represents who you want to be. Your ideal self is an idealised image coming from the expectations of others, including family, community, culture and your own desires for yourself. While this is all normal and natural, issues can arise when the difference between who you are and who you want to be is too great.

It’s not unusual for shoulds to be accompanied by the belief that when you achieve something — a dream job, a weight-loss goal — the rest of life will automatically align to become “perfect”.

As a result, the path to becoming the self you would like to be can be fraught with the conflict between who you are now and who you would like to become. At the heart of this conflict is what Karen Horney, a neo-Freudian psychoanalyst, calls the “tyranny of should”.

To achieve the goal of becoming your ideal self, she suggests, you erect a system of “should”, a range of things that you should do to become that person. While these shoulds might include what you eat, what you wear, where you go, how you act or what you say, the difference between what you should do and what you actually do is the space where you judge yourself the most harshly.

Some of the shoulds you have in your life can serve as a great source of anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, self-loathing and anger when you don’t live up to them. This is because a should represents the way to a “perfect” life, a life where everything you want comes to you, where success is a given if you perform the shoulds you have decided will get you there.

Unfortunately, these beliefs aren’t necessarily based on reality or even the truth of your situation and are instead based on the ideas and principles of others, or a form of magical thinking created to hide the reality of life and living from you.

As such, shoulds are essentially inflexible, dictatorial rules for thinking, feeling and behaving that you subject yourself to at various levels of conscious awareness. While some of these ideas and beliefs can be vague and unfounded, others are very explicit. What they both do, however, is set an immutable standard for your behaviour, a standard that is usually impossible to live up to day after day, and may not get you the intended results, even if you adhere religiously to them.

When you are able to reframe your demands, to change shoulds into preferences, you improve not only your own wellbeing but your interactions with others as well.

Yet because these beliefs are so entrenched and linked to your sense of what’s right for your life, negative and destructive emotional states are usually triggered when you fall short of doing what you should or when a long sought-after goal is achieved without the follow-on results you hoped for. Indeed, it’s not unusual for shoulds to be accompanied by the belief that when you achieve something — a dream job, a weight-loss goal — the rest of life will automatically align to become “perfect”.

While shoulds aren’t all bad in that they can help you to change habits by counteracting “want” thinking — e.g., you might want to eat takeaway but know you should eat what is at home — they can be detrimental when you don’t assess your shoulds for how useful they are. Are these shoulds really going to help you get to where you want to be and is your idea of your ideal self based on your own preferences or external pressures instead? That is, is your ideal self about you achieving goals based on your beliefs, values and ambitions or is it a representation based more on what others think you should be or should achieve or a character you’ve created from traits you admire or desire in others?

When your idea of your ideal self is distorted or not founded on your own truths, the shoulds attached to it will be that much harder to meet. If you cannot achieve the shoulds you set for yourself, it may be time to analyse whether they are really serving you well. It may be time to reassess whether your real self is really not good enough, or whether your goals are simply unrealistic.

Shoulds & life

While shoulds are often attached to your sense of self, you can also attach shoulds to other parts of life, especially when your needs or expectations aren’t met by circumstance or events. When you add “should” to a situation you are already unhappy with, you end up with the same unhappy situation compounded by the distress of expectations not realised. That is, when you feel as though you’ve been cheated out of what you expected to get or experience from a situation, you lose twice — once from not noticing what could have come from the moment, and once from the distress of the specific loss you felt.

For example, being angry or upset because your weekend away was rainy instead of warm with the sunshine you anticipated, your energy and emotion is ill-spent raging at the weather and disengaging from what still could be a wonderful time.

Fighting with reality sets you up to lose each time. It also clouds the truth, leaving you in a state where solutions to address the sense of loss you feel cannot be found. This is because your shoulds permit you to live in a state of denial. While stating that you should have a better life or more money can create feelings of anxiety, despair or anger, it can also mask your role in the reality of your current life.

When you don’t challenge shoulds, when you don’t challenge the reality of them, you cannot see a way forward, or if one is even possible. For example, challenging the notion that you should have more money might uncover the fact that your choice of career will never allow that, or that your spending habits are anathema to saving.

Shoulds & others

It isn’t just the shoulds we place on ourselves, though, or the state of our lives or experiences in situations, that are damaging. When you demand that others must behave in certain ways, it creates additional issues for your personal and professional relationships and wellbeing. The shoulds you have about others may reflect some of the shoulds you have for yourself, but they can also be dichotomous. That is, the shoulds you expect from others you may not apply to yourself.

When you use too many shoulds, you create a set of behaviours for others that are as non-negotiable as the ones you set for yourself. In doing so you can set others up for failure and yourself for disappointment, frustration and anger. Whether it’s anger at being cut off while changing lanes in traffic or distress because your partner doesn’t “get” your mood, shoulds imply a perfection of behaviour that is unrealistic in yourself and in others.

It also leaves no room for reality and the reasons that someone may be behaving the way they are. For example, being angry at your partner because they should be paying you more attention does not leave room for understanding or acknowledging that they may be experiencing a personal or professional issue that’s distracting or distressing them.

When you communicate with others, the word should needs to be carefully used. Certainly, there are times when the word is benign or “soft”, like “you should set the alarm if you want to make sure you wake up in time”, but often we use the word as a demand that must be met or a rebuke for something not done, or not done right. When you are able to reframe your demands, to change shoulds into preferences, you improve not only your own wellbeing but your interactions with others as well.

Three most common shoulds

Research into the kinds of shoulds we often place on ourselves highlights, especially in the work of Albert Ellis, three main areas of distress. When you acknowledge these and, as mentioned, change them into preferences rather than demands, you can begin to reduce the emotional and psychological pressure you feel each day.

  1. I should do well and win the approval of others

The shoulds you put in place around your perceived expectations of what others will think of you can be some of the most damaging. Shoulds that are externally driven are not only more difficult to live up to but they also lead you away from your values and your opportunities to become your best self.

To counteract these external shoulds, you need to challenge your should thinking and determine the motivation behind it. For example, do you think you should lose weight for your own wellbeing or because you think other people will like you more, love you more or think better of you? Is the reason you think you should be on a higher income that it would demonstrate your success or that it would mean others would think more of you and improve your social status?

  1. Other people should always do “the right thing” and deserve to be punished if they don’t

This kind of should alienates you from empathy and compassion and creates a reality of perfection that no one is able to live up to. It also distracts you from your responses and reactions, allowing you to justify harsh judgements, biases, prejudices and your own bad behaviour as you respond to these “slights” or breaches of law or morality.

To counteract this type of should, you can change your thinking from what people must do to what you would like them to do. This is not only about reframing your thinking, but also about the way you respond verbally and non-verbally to behaviour you find less desirable in others.

For example, instead of feeling rage at being cut off in traffic, you can simply shake your head and wish they’d looked or been more considerate. It may even be helpful to imagine good reasons as to why someone might drive that way — an emergency situation perhaps? When you stop raging at the things people should do but don’t, you become less distressed and more able to accept that you cannot control the behaviour of others.

  1. Life must be easy, without distress or inconvenience

Shoulds around what you deserve in life can be dangerous in that they can fuel a sense of entitlement. Realistically, life is hard work and things will not always go your way. To achieve what you want — what you think you deserve — requires effort, productive choices, learning from mistakes, flexibility of mind and persistence. Shoulds can make you blind to your role in not having the life you want and lazy about making the necessary changes.

To counteract these shoulds, you need to rethink in terms of not what you deserve but how to get what you want and the steps you need to take to achieve this. It’s also about being realistic, about goal setting and about understanding that challenges are opportunities rather than absolute blocks to achievement.

Nikki Davies

Nikki Davies

Nikki Davies is a freelance writer and teacher. She has a background in psychology and is currently working in education in the wellbeing sector.

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