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Should and Must

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Famous psychotherapist Albert Ellis, known for having a salty vocabulary and for throwing F bombs with abandon, had some strong opinions about “should” and “must.” He advised against using the word “should,” as in the example, “I should exercise today.” When clients would use the word “should,” Dr. Ellis would note they were “shoulding” on themselves. Now, try saying “shoulding on” and see if it doesn’t sound like something quite a bit more rude! Dr. Ellis didn’t overlook “must,” either. He referred to the use of “must” as (can you guess?) “musterbation.”

So why was Dr. Ellis so down on “shoulds” and “musts?” (And before him, Karen Horney, another famous psychotherapist, talked about the “tyranny of the shoulds.”) The words “should” and “must” (and also “ought” and “have to”) all carry a judgmental, moral weight to them that can leave a person feeling down, guilty, or like a failure if they don’t follow through or accomplish the imperative. It can also feel like pressure or like you are bullying yourself. Compare “I should go exercise” with “It would be nice if I exercise.” The latter simply feels lighter and easier and later, if I choose not exercise, I have not failed in some deep, fundamental way that makes me less of a valuable human being. Other alternatives to “should” and its buddies ought, must, and have to is to say “I’d prefer” or “I wish” or “It would be quite satisfying if.”

This week, watch the way you talk to yourself. Are you shoulding on yourself? How can you change your inner dialogue to remove the pressure and judgment of should, must, and the other guilt-inducing imperatives?

Are you thinking about getting some counseling? I invite you to give me a call. We can meet for a free consultation so you have the assurance that you are comfortable with me before you schedule your first appointment. Call or text me at (816) 226-4678.

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