I should write a blog post every single week.
In her fabulous book Change Your Thinking, Sarah Edelman talks about the “Tyranny of the Shoulds” (she says this term was first coined by an American psychologist, Karen Horney, in 1939). It resonates with me because it is so very alive in how so many of us operate. Consciously or not, we can run our life according to brutally strict dictates about how things should or shouldn’t be. Because they are phrased as absolutes, we are miserable because very little in life is always one way or another.
Edelman includes a long list of examples. Here are a few of them, plus a couple of my own. How many sound familiar?
- My life should be easy and hassle free.
- Real achievement should involve pain and struggle.
- I should always be productive.
- I should never make mistakes.
- Other people should always do the right thing.
- I should always be totally independent.
- I should be like other people.
- I should be different from the mainstream.
- I should have a harmonious, loving family.
- I should be sexy and libidinous.
- I shouldn’t be sexy or libidinous.
- Other people should always like me.
- I should have a high status job.
- I should make lots of money.
- I shouldn’t make too much money.
- I should be as smart as the cleverest people I know.
- I should always say yes to requests from others.
- I should never be afraid or insecure.
Here’s the thing. Life won’t live up to the “should”. So when we hold on to the “should” for dear life, we suffer.
Being more flexible allows us to meet life with more joy and less fear.
It doesn’t mean ditching your beliefs. If you reflect on a particular “should” and think “But actually, I do believe that” – no problemo. The key is to hold it as a preference. I’d prefer people to like me than not. And it’s pretty ok in my book to prefer people to do the right thing. But sometimes they won’t – and if that simple fact can send us into meltdown, it’s not helping anyone. You might prefer to hold a job that comes with lots of status. But life happens – layoffs happen, too. Much more useful to be able to say – and really believe – that while you’d far prefer to have kept the high status job, you know that setbacks happen. You’ll know it’s not a reflection on your worthiness as a human being. You’ll keep it in perspective- which is actually going to leave you better placed to get on and do something about it.
We could get stuck, submitting to our brutal shoulds. Or we could transcend them by thinking flexibly. Like Neo realizing he could bend out of the bullets’ path, life is suddenly a lot less of a struggle. Maybe even fun.
Practice noticing your thoughts and replacing the tyrannical shoulds with something more realistic. I’d like to write a blog post every week. But sometimes I won’t!
Found this useful or interesting? Given this a try? Make sure you let me know your thoughts and success stories! Post ‘em in the comments section or tweet me at @real_brilliance.