Shaking “the shoulds”

Do you have a bad case of “the shoulds”?

One of the most common questions I hear in the ministry and in counseling is, “How do I get (insert person’s name) to (insert activity or insight).”  For example, “How do I get my brother to start making better dating choices?”  Or, “How do I get my dad to get the help he needs?”  Or, “How do I get my teacher to see how hard I worked on this project?”  Or, “How do I get my mom to quit smoking?”

The short answer to all of these: You don’t.

The problem is that all of the things we want to get others to do come from our own judgment that whatever they are currently doing is insufficient.  They all have “shoulds under the hood.”  “My brother SHOULD make better dating choices.”  “My dad SHOULD get some help.”  “My teacher SHOULD see how hard I worked.”  My mom SHOULD quit smoking.”  When “the shoulds” determine our feelings and behaviors towards people, we will frequently find ourselves scheming to get them to do what they should do.  After all, we think, they SHOULD do what they should do.  And if they should, then why should we not figure out ways to get them to do it?

Shoulds are our expectations of how other people ought to think about the world and how they ought to act.  And of course our expectations are that everyone ought to think about the world like we think about it and act like we act.  This is not to say there is never any wisdom in our shoulds.  Perhaps your brother really would be better off if he made better dating choices.  Perhaps your father really does need some help.  Perhaps you really did work hard and your teacher isn’t seeing your effort.  And from a health perspective, there’s no question your mom would be better off if she quit smoking.

But Albert Ellis, founder of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) pointed out how people are often controlled by their shoulds, musts, and ought-to’s.  “I should be a better friend.”  “I must get an A.”  “I ought to go visit my mother.” The problem is that shoulds, musts, and oughts are judgments.  After all, if I should be a better friend, then I must be a worm for not already being.  If I must get an A, then I must be a terrible person if I do not.  If I ought to go visit my mother, then what kind of a person am I that I haven’t been there more often?  Rather than using shoulds, musts, and oughts (which are absolute, judgmental, and constricting), we need to think in terms of choices, which brings freedom.  “I would like to have a closer circle of friends, and I am going to start calling people more often.”  “I would like to get an A on this test, so I will study hard and do my best.”  “I want to love my mother appropriately and set a good example for my children, so I’m going to start visiting her more often.”  We do ourselves a great service when we start to shake the shoulds.

We do others a great service as well.  When we start to shake the shoulds that we impose upon others, we begin to free them from the burden of our expectations.  As we do this we also free ourselves from the need to change people and “get them” to do the things they “should” do.  This makes a sometimes subtle, but always pivotal, difference in how we think about other people.  As long as we are slaves to our shoulds, we will feel directly responsible for getting others in our sphere of influence to do what they “should” do.  After all, they SHOULD.  It’s a moral obligation.  It is a burden you are carrying for all of those who are not doing what they should do, and you cannot rest until everyone is doing what they should do and thinking what they should think and living how they should live.  That’s a pretty heavy burden to carry.

But once we shake the shoulds, new perspectives open up to us.  I reject the idea that my brother SHOULD start making better dating choices and embrace the simple idea that it might be nice for him if he did — but it is his choice not to do that.  I might think about all the ways his life might be better if he did, but when I abandon my “should,” I drop the judgments of him for having not already done so.  I am free to concentrate on him and his well-being, instead of taking the responsibility to get him to do what he “should” do.  Perhaps my dad really could use some help, but as long as it’s a “should,” I will feel 1) judgmental of him for not getting it; and 2) personally responsible for making him get the help he needs.  In the case of my teacher, there is no reason she “should” understand all my effort, but it would be nice if she did.  Thus I am free to think of a few ways to bring this to her attention without judging her (and experiencing the anger and disappointment that always comes with judgment) for not having already noticed.  And Mom’s smoking issue, ultimately, is mom’s issue.  It would be great if she quit smoking — great for her and you and everyone concerned.  But it is her choice.  If you can release her from your “shoulds” and the judgment that come with them, you will experience less guilt and be freer to enjoy your relationship with your mother regardless of whether she behaves the way you think she “should.”

Only by shaking the shoulds will we ever be free of our incessant need to control other people and “get them” to do things.  When we abandon the shoulds we will then be free to help, to assist, to come alongside — to be available to those around us in healthy ways, without taking on the burden for their issues and actions.

Of course it’s not that you SHOULD shake the shoulds, I’m just saying it would be nice for you.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • darryl silvestri

    spot on!

  • Jori

    Dang it!!!!