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The “Tyranny of the Shoulds”

The “Tyranny of the Shoulds” September 26, 2021

Hi Terry,

I’ve always been a worrier and at age 25 was diagnosed with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder). My worries tend to be excessive and I  ruminate about all of the things that might go wrong in life. All of this anxiety makes it difficult for me to sleep some nights and I often wake up a couple of hours early and have trouble going back to sleep.

Most of the time, I blame myself when something goes wrong and I tend to predict the worst case scenario in any given situation that comes up. For example, we just bought a house and when there were problems with the inspection, I told myself that I should have known better than to buy an older home. I felt really blue for several days after this and even lost a few pounds from feeling down on myself.

My husband, John, age 34, and I were married last year and he gets a bit weary of what he calls my negative attitude. I’m 32 years old, have a good job as a college administrator, and would like to start a family soon. What can I do to cut down on my worrisome attitude since I’m concerned that John might leave me if I don’t stop? I also don’t want to have kids if I might pass my anxiety disorder onto them if I don’t change my negative attitude.

Sincerely,

Nina

Dear Nina,

When you believe that you must or should do something, the demands imply a set of expectations, and it’s common to set unrealistic standards for yourself. We all do this at times. In contrast, it’s a lot more helpful to think that you (or your partner) probably do the best you can and that you can learn from errors in judgment or unwise decisions. After all, no one is without flaws and listening to your critical inner voice is only making you more anxious and depressed. It’s a good idea to pay attention to your “shoulds.”

According to Michael Schreiner, “shoulds” are inflexible, authoritarian, and joyless rules for thinking, feeling, and behaving that people subject themselves to that are not always well formulated. And these rules can lead to high standards that are impossible to live up to.

The term “Tyranny of the Shoulds” was coined by psychologist Karen Horney in the early 1900’s to explain a tendency that some people have to have a split between their ideal self and their real self, and the difficulty they have reconciling the two.

If you’re able to pay attention to your “shoulds” and stop yourself from believing them, you won’t be as disappointed, nor quite as upset. As you review this list of “shoulds” try to add some of your own to the list and discuss these with your partner over your favorite beverage.

List of Five Common “Shoulds”

  1. My marriage should run smoothly because my partner and I love each other.
  2. People should love and respect me because I treat them respectfully.
  3. I should feel calm and happy most of the time and when I don’t, there is something wrong with me.
  4. My husband should (or must) pitch in and share responsibilities and chores.
  5. If my love for my partner is strong enough, outside forces, such as relatives will never come between us.

Once you explore your “shoulds” and realize that many of them are cognitive distortions or thinking mistakes, you will be better able to deal with the stress and storms of life. After you explore your “Shoulds,” begin to look at ways to reframe your negative judgments of yourself as well as your unrealistic expectations. For instance, instead of telling yourself “My marriage should run smoothly,” your self-talk might be something like “All marriages have ups and downs and we are learning coping skills.”

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.

Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.

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