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Tyranny of the “Shoulds”: Living a Life of Self-Criticism

3 minute read

If you think that the human experience isn’t ruled by the word ‘should’, just look at the number of New Year resolutions that float around. That’s when people put into action the little voice that’s been saying “You should exercise more” or “You should stop smoking” or “You should call your parents more often.” And if you think that the human experience isn’t tyrannized by the word ‘should’ just look at how many of those resolutions fall apart over the course of the year — and how bad people feel about their lack of willpower.

And many of us scold ourselves not just for our actions (or lack thereof), but also about how we feel. We tell ourselves we should feel happy, not jealous that a friend got promoted, or that we shouldn’t get so angry at our spouse, or so critical of our child, or so irritable with our parents.

We are constantly setting standards for our own behavior, and like a displeased parent, punishing ourselves when we fall short. And we do fall short, again and again. It seems that no matter how hard we try, we’re always disappointing ourselves, failing to live up to our own standards. Perhaps we give up trying, resigning ourselves to the fact that we lack willpower or are just a Bad Person. (One perfectly pleasant client of mine described himself as having a ‘sewer of a personality’.) Or perhaps we keep trying, feeling that if we stop punishing ourselves for falling short that means everything will fall apart and we’ll become a walking morass of bad emotions and terrible behavior.

To make matters worse, when we’re constantly trying to live up to our standards and failing, we often judge not only ourselves, but others around us. We can become as critical and negative about other people as we are about ourselves. And we end up disliking others every bit as much as we dislike ourselves.

The attempt to force ourselves to conform to standards of behavior and emotion is like forcing a square peg into a round hole: It’s not going to work, and something is likely to break in the process.

A far more effective and positive approach is to take a step back from ourselves and get curious about what’s going on inside. We can examine ourselves without judgment or criticism, asking “So I’ve been trying hard to change, and I keep failing, I wonder what’s getting in the way of me changing?” Note the wording: Not “What’s wrong with me?” Rather, “What force is there, external to my conscious decision making, that is preventing me from doing what I really want to do?” This takes away the blame and judgment, recognizing that we’re doing our best to do the right thing, but something beyond our control is preventing that.

Of course, it’s easy to answer the question “What’s getting in the way of me changing?” with judgment: “I’m a bad person” or “There’s something wrong with me”. Those are simply excuses, and answer nothing. All human behavior and emotion has a reason and an explanation, and to call ourselves bad, broken, weak, selfish or evil is to stop looking for an explanation.

In the therapy room, I often see clients who don’t know how to look for that explanation, and who default to believing that they are indeed bad, broken, weak, selfish or evil. And certainly their behavior and their feelings, at first sight, are unattractive. However, when we explore what is making them that way, inevitably we find a good reason for it. And it’s a reason that makes me think “If I had your life and experiences, I would probably behave and feel exactly the way you do. You may do bad things, but that doesn’t make you a bad person.” Terence, a 2nd century BC playwright, said it even better: “We are all rather more human than otherwise.”

You might ask what good it does to understand why we do what we do. The answer is that when we truly understand ourselves, we have taken our motivations which were unconscious, and made them conscious — and in doing so, we gain power and control over them. No longer do we feel tormented by we “should” do this or “shouldn’t” feel that. Instead, we are often able to change, and at the very least, to accept ourselves without judgment or criticism.


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