ACA Blog

Natosha Monroe
Jul 20, 2012

Those Pesky-Yet-Powerful “Shoulds”

How much time is spent being distracted, annoyed, angry, frustrated, or hurt by one’s own personal “shoulds?” Interpersonal strife and personal unhappiness often revolve around conflicting shoulds held sacred by different people. Such as the resentful wife whose husband should, according to her, be more romantic. Or the lonely man reeling from pain of a mother who should have shielded him from the abusive father who should have been kind and loving. What about the disgruntled employee who feels he should have received a promotion? And just consider the world-wide conflicts over differing political and religious shoulds. Are shoulds causing you or your clients discomfort?

How are shoulds created? Why does one think, “Men should be the breadwinner of the family” or “Everyone should have the same religious believes as I have” or “I should have my education and health care paid for by the government” or “People should be quiet in the movie theater” or “My spouse should know by now I don’t like that” or “Respectable adults should not be hanging out at bars until 2a.m.” Regarding the shoulds that are etched into our minds, how did they get there?

As with most things, there is no “magic bullet” to first of all explain and then to control the influence of someone’s personal shoulds. People obviously have different backgrounds, different life experiences, different demands, different cultural influences, and different familial dynamics which in turn create and mold their shoulds. A very normal should to one person is not important to the next person and completely absurd to the person after that. So this has to make one stop and think, “How do my own personal shoulds influence my emotions and behaviors?” and “How much power am I willing to give my shoulds?”

First of all, I want to point out that I am in no way meaning to imply that some shoulds are not valid, justified, realistic, and/or true. Because they often are. What I am suggesting is that we give them some thought so we can better understand them and handle them appropriately to better benefit our emotional/psychological well-being. How do we do that?

A first step is identifying the shoulds that are contributing to stress or negatively affecting one’s well-being in a given situation. Another is to ask questions and look at them a bit closer in order to develop a better understanding or perspective of the emotions, reactions, or issues at hand. Finally we can determine whether or not we can use this understanding to address the situation in a healthier manner and determine how to do so. This blog is by no means all-inclusive, but will offer up some ideas to ponder and some general suggestions for addressing concerns through the examination of one’s personal shoulds.

Think about some shoulds that you or your clients hold near and dear. Think about a given situation and how a should might have contributed or is still contributing to that situation further. To reveal this, it might be helpful to think about the last time there was interpersonal conflict or when you felt annoyed or frustrated. Maybe you recall feeling stressed while driving to work this morning. You remember you were running late and became annoyed at a driver so you honked your horn at them. Why did that annoy you? Why did you honk? You didn’t hear other cars honking. “The speed limit was 45 and he was creeping along going 25 and no one could pass.” Where is the should and how might it have contributed to you being annoyed? The response might be, “Well…people should go the speed limit or move over so people can pass.” Ah ha! There is the should.

Once the should is identified, take it a step further by asking things like “So what?” “Why do you care?” “What does that matter?” which can offer more insight or offer a new perspective or sense of control. For the above example, taking it further might point out that perhaps the driver of the slow car was having mechanical issues or was not aware of the speed limit. Also revealed is the point that it is not the other driver’s fault you were running late, nor was he aware of it. So your should caused you stress, not actually the other driver.

After considering why that "should" is important, go beyond that to add "If not, then...." at the end of the statement/explanation. This might help to reveal what else contributes to the emotion/reaction. When facilitating this, it is best to use very blunt language and to write the statements down. This clarifies and may even make it easier to seem that should are silly or illogical (or very serious).

Example: Your client says, “I’m miserable at work, I can’t stand it.” After prompting from you, he adds, “My team lead is awful and makes every day horrible.” After more prompting as to how this makes his day horrible, “She constantly points out mistakes on my reports, makes me re-do them, and she is really bossy to me.” This sounds pretty normal to you, a supervisor having a subordinate correct errors he’s made and telling a subordinate what to do at work. So why is the client so upset? Looking for the should in this situation might be helpful, among other things. After helping your client reflect, search for the shoulds and to consider the reasons behind the should, the following is revealed: The client is feeling upset because of his deeply held beliefs that, "People should say something nice to me each time they they critique me. If not, then this must mean they are disrespecting me." Also, “I should be smart enough to write the report without making mistakes. When my team lead points this out I feel stupid and embarrassed.”

Once the shoulds and the deeper meanings behind the shoulds are revealed and clarified, you can then go a step further. Now it’s time to consider how realistic and/or serious these should are. Ask, “Is this really the case?” In the example above, the supervisor might not disrespect your client at all—perhaps she is just very busy, or lacks interpersonal skills. Discuss these possibilities. What about a more serious situation, such as the man I mentioned in the first paragraph who had an abusive father growing up? His should might be more serious and more realistic, “A father should be loving and kind to his children.” Let’s say the son still wishes he could have an enjoyable relationship with his father but his father is no longer living. Now what? How can looking at one’s shoulds help?

Perhaps assisting your client in exploring a should will help to make peace with things. Perhaps his father had a drug addiction. This might mean it was difficult for him to be loving because he was self-loathing or because he had headaches which made him irritable or perhaps he was abusive while under the influence of drugs. Perhaps the client can recognize that it wasn’t his fault the father didn’t love him, it was due to the drugs; or perhaps the client might conclude that while on drugs, the father had no chance of being loving and caring. This does not justify actions or behavior, but might help the client to see things in a different perspective that will allow him to come to terms with his shoulds in a way that might grant him more peace in one area or another.

How much stress might be reduced if "shoulds" were eliminated from the mind? How much influence do you or your clients allow shoulds to have? Do shoulds dictate mood or action in your life? Even if they are valid and true, might there be a way to handle the shoulds so we can react better, make peace with things out of our control, or have a more enjoyable, stress-free day?

Chances are, most people don’t think about the influence of their own personal shoulds very often. They instead think in terms of what or who “made” them angry or caused them to yell, with little to no thought given to the deeper causes of that emotion or action. They are content to simply think the other person is rude or is an idiot rather than to think about how their own personal shoulds influence the situation or the reaction. And guess what? Perhaps that person truly was rude and inconsiderate. But how much of our emotions and reactions and ultimately our well-being is influenced by our shoulds?

The act of examining one’s personal shoulds has the potential to be very powerful. Asking questions such those mentioned above might take that session to the next level or help to better control one’s emotions and actions. When appropriate, the facilitation of the recognition, understanding, and ultimately control of one’s personal shoulds might make all the difference in a situation. This effort can offer insight into a situation, create a different perspective, challenge a deeply held belief, shed new light onto a stubborn old issue, or even provide empowerment where it could not otherwise exist.



Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.

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