Philip Graffunder,



The Tyranny of the Shoulds

To “Should” Or Not To “Should”


Philip S. Graffunder, LCSW

There are healthier and less healthy ways to use the word ‘should’. What do we mean when we use this word, and how does its use affect us? It’s important to realize that semantics, connotations, and automatic assumptions outside our conscious awareness can be pernicious forces when it comes to certain areas of our mental life. This word “should” often represents an underlying injunction, a demand that we place on ourselves, others, or the world that may be impractical and unrealistic, and therefore ‘should’ be examined before its implications are accepted or swallowed whole. This is because our sub-conscious minds and automatic thinking processes use it to create an image in our minds of something other than what is right here…something that does not exist, but we may decry that fact, insisting that things “ought” to be otherwise. The ramifications of this mindset create what famous German neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney termed, the tyranny of the shoulds”.1,2

Let's look at a routine example

We check the weather forecast and it says that it’s going to be bright and sunny tomorrow, so we ask our partner if they want to go on a picnic at a beautiful lake nearby. They say ‘yes’, and we are delighted. But then we remember that the pandemic isn’t over, which it really “should” be by now. We decide that we will go anyway, but keep our distance, wear a mask, and disinfect our hands while we are out. However, when we get to the lake it’s cool, misty, and it starts to rain. “Damn it” we say, “the sun should be shining, the birds should be singing, and it should be a pretty day. They said it would be!” We may take it further by having thoughts such as, “Things never work out for me! Why does this always happen?” We might even get mad at the weather itself, at the people who predict the weather, at COVID for making us so desperate to get out, or any other number of other targets for not being what they “should” be. This is a set-up for an unpleasant afternoon filled with frustration, irritation, and disappointment.

Now, let's look at the facts of the situation.

The pandemic isn’t entirely over yet. It is overcast, rainy, and cool. The ground is muddy. What else can you say about the situation? That’s what it is. No amount of insisting, demanding, or complaining about what “should” be can change that. These are simple, basic, easily observable facts, not opinions. It isn’t up for debate and needs no analysis. What is, actually is. All our regrets, wishes, frustration, or anger will not cause nature to change and bend to our will. However, our internal experience and our ability to enjoy the time we have set aside to spend with our loved one will be greatly affected by this type of mindset, but this can be changed..

Our heads are often programmed from a very early age with a litany of “shoulds” about what we “ought” to feel, what we “should” be doing, and where we “should” be on our life’s journey. When we have a painful emotional response, we may scold ourselves with comments like, “I shouldn’t feel this way!”, ”I have no right to feel upset about this, look how well that guy is handling it!”, or, “I ought to know better by now!” But the fact is that we do feel this way. What we feel at any given moment is a real part of what is happening inside us. Moreover, we usually don’t ask for specific feelings to arise, they simply do. They come and go as they please without asking our permission first, don’t they? Therefore it makes good sense not to spend too much time chastising ourselves for their existence. What we decide to do with them is ultimately much more important.

For most of us, ever since childhood, we have lived under a constant barrage of admonitions and coercion to feel differently than we do, or to be something other than what we are. “You ought to feel grateful that your father works so hard just to put food in your mouth!”, “What do you have to be depressed about!?”, “You have no right to feel so sad so just stop crying, or I’ll give you a reason to cry!”, “You shouldn’t be hungry yet.”, “You should just grow up, and stop being so childish.”

Even though there was usually (or hopefully) some positive intent behind words like these, they often felt harsh, invalidating, and wounding. The same is true today when we, as adults, repeat this type of commanding and finger-pointing at ourselves. The fact is, I am where I am, and I feel what I feel. This is not to say that I don’t have room to grow and learn – I certainly do – but self-castigation, harsh judgment, and dogmatic commands do nothing toward that end.

Fast-forward now into adulthood,

where we may often feel confused and hurt because we insist that what we feel makes us ‘weak’ or ‘wrong’, and therefore we should feel differently. We may believe that we are somehow insufficient, since we really “should” have done “enough” to manage our feelings better, or that we ‘should’ be somewhere else, somewhere farther along the path in life. Thus, we may become easy prey for automatic, overly critical, negative thoughts. These are often thought “re-runs” – repeats of other people’s thoughts and opinions about how we should act and feel – thoughts that we now unquestioningly accept as coming from us! So thought injunctions, such as, “You should (have), but you didn’t!”; “You have to…”; and “You ought to…” continue their tyranny of undermining your confidence, intuition, and common-sense.

How do we begin changing and freeing ourselves from the overbearing commands of “should”, “must”, “ought to”, and “have to”? We can start by being more aware of our thoughts… feeling what we feel… and accepting ‘what is’, including what is going on inside us, with a bit more self-compassion and kindness. We can set a new intention that encourages us to be more curious and less judgmental of our feelings. We can look more closely at what is merely opinion masquerading as fact, in direct opposition to swallowing opinions as if they were facts. Here are a few quick illustrations that separate opinion from fact as they pertain to the clinical concept of ‘should’:

You’re angry, but you think you should be more understanding and compassionate.
The fact? You feel irritated and angry. The opinion? You “should” feel some other way. Additional fact: Isn’t it true that you can accept your angry feelings and that you don’t have to destructively act out a feeling in order to accept it?

You’re feeling hurt, but growing up you were repeatedly told that “you don’t deserve to be upset because others have it worse than you, so you are just being selfish, and you shouldn’t be so self-centered!”
Well, that part about “deserving” is an opinion, not a fact. You feel hurt, and you know that is true and a fact. It is also true that you can choose to accept hurt as a feeling that you are experiencing. In addition, the fact of the matter is that you are under no obligation to accept someone else’s “should” or “shouldn’t” that they decide to cast upon you, as in the above statement. If someone tells you that, “You are just being selfish, and you shouldn’t be so self-centered!”, are they not negatively judging and insulting you from the start? From a self-ascribed position of superiority they feel perfectly entitled to tell you how horrible you are and how deplorable your behavior is. But is this how someone who was truly ‘superior’ would treat other people? And again, their statement is an “opinion”, only an opinion, which as we all know, like other things, everybody has one.

You don’t know something you really need to know, and you think, “I should be able to figure this out on my own!”
The fact? You feel confused. You can shake your own parental finger-of-criticism at yourself, or you can accept the fact that confusion is a normal human feeling that you are now experiencing.

You’re depressed, sad and you feel like crying, but you’ve been told by others (and are now telling yourself) that you shouldn’t feel like this because it’s a sign of “weakness” and therefore totally unacceptable.
What is the truth here? You feel sad. That is a fact to which you can attest. Telling yourself you ‘shouldn’t’ feel the way you do, but realizing that you do anyway merely makes your depression feel that much worse. Furthermore, it’s not true that you “shouldn’t”. How do we know it’s not true? Because, if you absolutely “should” feel some other way, then you would. The universe would command it. Moreover, at this moment in time, every condition and circumstance that is required by a human being to feel what you feel is in place, and you are the living proof of it. To insist otherwise, that you “should” feel differently, does not accept or reflect current reality.

Scolding yourself with the internal criticism of endless “shoulds” does not create a healthy basis for change. It may however, create stress, anxiety, and anger which reduces a body’s ability to fight infection or heal from illness. This is not something anyone wants, especially now. Awareness and acceptance, on the other hand, does establish a framework from which healthy change can emerge.

Now, am I saying this is easy, as easy as it “should” be? No I am not. If you haven’t practiced open, honest, emotional acknowledgement and accepting your feelings with grace, if you haven’t practiced becoming aware of “the tyranny of the shoulds”, if you haven’t practiced separating fact from opinion…then being less self-critical and demanding may feel awkward, frightening and quite challenging, at first. But what are the options here? You can continue the self-undermining pattern of “You SHOULD feel…You SHOULDN’T feel…” (which only makes you hide, discount and avoid your feelings and therefore disown parts of yourself), or you can decide that it’s time to start to make a change in how you talk to and treat yourself.

Remember, the fact is that when you accept ‘what is’, including the way you feel at this moment, without damning yourself for feeling it, the change and growth you want becomes easier to obtain. You instantly become more honest with yourself, and consequently feel more inner congruence. On the other hand, “should” and all its derivatives (e.g., “ought to”, “must”, etc.) when consistently directed at the self or others, results invariably in the equivalent of damning the self and others, making growth harder to obtain.

“To should” or not “to should”, that is the question. How do you choose to answer?

1. Horney, Neurosis and human growth. Chaps. 1–5.
2. “Codependency Is About Your Relationship With Yourself”. 2017-09-13. Retrieved 2020-08-23.

If you would like to explore this further,


and perhaps discover other answers about yourself, feel free to contact me at 404-295-4852.

Philip S. Graffunder is the owner of
Positive Social Growth Counseling and Therapy Center.

He is a therapist, counselor, and clinical social worker with more than 20 years’ experience.