The Tyranny of the Should
Rabbi Dov Heller, LMFT
Everyone lives with “shoulds.” One might say, Judaism is a way of life built on should: one should love others, one should keep kosher, one should give charity, and so on. For many, their shoulds are experienced as positive and fulfilling. Meeting one’s moral obligations is a great source of pleasure. When we do the right thing, we feel good about ourselves and feel that life has meaning and purpose.
But there are others who do not experience shoulds in a positive way. They feel pressured and strangled by them. For such people, their inner shoulds sources of great emotional suffering. Dr. Karen Horney named this experience, the “tyranny of the should.”
Here are some examples of shoulds that can become problematic:
- I should always feel happy.
- I should not dislike anyone.
- I should feel strong and in control.
- I should have perfect clarity.
- I should always be giving.
- I should not make mistakes.
- I should never get angry.
- I should never waste time.
- I should always feel productive.
- I should be great.
(I invite you to make your own list of shoulds.)
Shoulds become tyrannical when they are experienced as making overwhelming demands that are impossible to meet. “You should never be weak,” is an impossible demand to meet. It demands that you be perfect, and therefore feels like an order given by an oppressive dictator who ruthlessly demands perfection and nothing less. Shoulds are rigid, unyielding, and devoid of compassion for one’s limitations and weaknesses. One is never able to relax because the pressure to be perfect is unrelenting.
When the shoulds are reinforced by social pressure, they become even more unbearable. Under the burden of these dictates, one’s behavior may become pressured, forced, and may take on an obsessive quality. The hallmark of the experience of one controlled by the tyranny of the should is that one feels driven and never feels like the driver of his life. There is a loss of personal agency, genuine creativity, and authenticity.
If this isn’t enough, shoulds are also experienced as punitive. Every should carries an implicit message that, “If you don’t do it perfectly, you are a bad person.” Thus, feeling like a failure, one inevitably falls prey to self-hate and shame. A person who loathes himself, feels depressed, hopeless, and feels like giving-up. One’s vitality is sapped.
One area of life that the “tyranny of the should” can be particularly devastating is in the realm of Jewish observance. Instead of the mitzvos being experienced as empowering and uplifting moral ideals to strive towards, they become experienced as rigid and oppressive orders and demands. When this happens, instead of the Torah being a source of light and life, it becomes a source of darkness and suffering.
Thankfully there is hope. The key lies in understanding the transforming power of truth which I will now explain.
The first step is to become aware of your shoulds. Did you make your list? It is important to note that when you begin to become aware of them, you will discover just how many there are, some obvious and others quite subtle – so listen very carefully!
The second step is to recognize that shoulds are essentially lies. For example, I might hear myself say that I should always feel happy. Is this true or false? It is certainly a lie, because it is not humanly possible to be happy all the time and never be in a bad mood.
The third step is to identify the truth. In this example, the truth would be, “It is okay to feel unhappy and be in a bad mood from time to time. No one is happy all the time.” Upon embracing the truth, you will feel a perceptible shift; a sense of liberation and a feeling of lightness. Embracing the truth is transforming. As a great rabbi once said, “A little light dispels much darkness.”
The fourth step is to recognize the truth that you are not a bad person. Just because I am not happy all the time doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, that something is wrong with me, or I have a psychological problem; to think so is a falsehood.
The fifth step is to accept yourself as a good person who is imperfect and limited. No longer needing to be perfect, one can begin to discover and embrace the truth about oneself. Someone who has been living with the need to be perfect may not find this so easy to do. Living as an imperfect, limited, and messy human being requires letting go of one’s idealized self-image. Embracing reality is often painful.
Becoming more grounded in ones own true feelings and perceptions is a primary indication that one has begun to free himself from the “tyranny of the should.” As the grip of this reign of terror loosens, one begins to feel more alive. In short, one begins to take back his life and become the driver of his life and no longer the driven one. One is on the path towards living a more authentic life.