The Pain of the “Should” Trap (But what would you “expect?”)

The Pain of the “Should” Trap (But what would you “expect?”) post image

“Okay, so I experience panic attack symptoms and don’t handle stress well. Years ago a shrink even mentioned ‘bipolar disorder.’ But, come on now, I’m going on 50. I should be over it by now. At least that’s what I expect.”

Hmmm. Well, so much for expectations. I’m thinkin’ someone’s caught in the “should” trap. And whether or not s/he even realizes it, the pain just has to be intense (and totally unnecessary). I mean, think about how much angst, symptom-cycling, and stalled growth has been at play.

Dang, those “shoulds,” “expects,” and “musts!” They so deviously fly under the radar, don’t they?

Do you indulge? Have you ever monitored and tracked it? I dunno’, maybe it’s time – just sayin’.

Several months ago I posted Stop Depression & Anxiety | 15 Styles of Distorted Thinking. Well,  one of those 15 is “Shoulds,” with the following detail: “We have ironclad rules about how we – and others – ‘should’ act. And when these rules are broken we get angry (when we break them we feel guilty).” Are you living under unreasonable rules?

Albert Ellis was a great psychologist. In fact, in a 1982 professional survey of American and Canadian psychologists, he was considered the second most influential in history. By the way, #1? Carl Rogers. #3? Uncle Siggy (Freud).

Ellis developed one of my favorite healing strategies, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) – the predecessor of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Hey! If you’d like to learn more about REBT, I posted a two-part series several years ago. Take a peek: REBT Grandfathered CBT. OMG! Part 1  REBT Grandfathered CBT. OMG! Part 2.

Now, to say the very least, Ellis was a character. Interesting – he had an intense fear of public speaking, and was super-shy around the opposite sex as a teen. So what did he do about it? Well, at age 19 he forced himself to chat with 100 women in the Bronx Botanical Gardens over 30 days. I kid you not. Okay, so he didn’t score a date; however, he claimed the experience desensitized him to his fear of female rejection.

Risque warning! Ellis coined the term “musturbation,” in an effort to emphasize the utter meaninglessness of the “shoulds” and “musts” we beat ourselves up with day after day. According to him, “First we obsessively convince ourselves that we must live up to these ‘irrational’ demands – and then we harshly condemn ourselves (and others) when (inevitably) we (and they) don’t.”

More from Ellis. He’s such a quotation machine…

If human emotions largely result from thinking, then one may appreciably control one’s feelings by controlling one’s thoughts – or by changing the internalized sentences, or self-talk, with which one largely created the feeling in the first place.

There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.

You largely constructed your depression. It wasn’t given to you. Therefore you can deconstruct it.

Stop shoulding on yourself.

He was a character. Yes? Can you imagine having him as your therapist? I’m thinking he’d be demanding as heck – but compassionate – as he had his own dragons to slay. And that’s what gave/gives him the power to shoot arrows directly at a very nasty and harmful human habit.

As we come to the end here, I want to make sure you understand how important it is to side-step the “should” trap. I’m challenging you to monitor your use of the words “should,” “must,” and “expect” for the next seven days. And even if you aren’t repeating those exact words, monitor your use of the concept. Will you do that?

Upon examining your results, if you determine you’re consistently stepping in the trap, think about what you’re doing to yourself. Yes, deeply consider the self-inflicted pain and stalled growth. And then it’s on to strategies and techniques to help you knock-it-off. Heck, if you have a few now, include them in a comment.

The Close

Folks, I get it – panic attack symptoms, troubling stress, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and then some – who wouldn’t want to “should” it all away? But like the A.A. vet told me 30 years ago after I whined my fanny off about not being able to drink during the holidays – “Tough sh**, you can’t!”

Again, Albert Ellis…

First we obsessively convince ourselves that we must live up to these ‘irrational’ demands – and then we harshly condemn ourselves (and others) when (inevitably) we (and they) don’t.

The “should” trap – side-step the pain, k?


You know, I think you should (kidding) peruse some Chipur titles. Comin’ at ya’

  • Kyczy April 23, 2014, 11:26 am

    As we in the program say “I [must] quit “Shoulding” all over myself. Similar to MUST erbation… and publicly acceptable. The concept is the same. Particularly around events; holidays, birthday, anniversaries, graduations and so on there is a long list of self impose / societally endorsed expectations. Again, from the program (12 Step) we say “expectations are prepaid resentments” – whether we resent others or find it in the form of depression – a way to resent ourselves. Good article. The SHOULDS and MUSTS can be the original arrow of pain and suffering.

    • chipur April 23, 2014, 6:41 pm

      Thanks for your visit and comment, Kyczy. Always good to have you here. I appreciate your insight, obviously a result of a lot of experience and hard work. Those “arrows of pain and suffering” – many, to be sure. But I’m with you on “shoulds” and “musts” – and what they express – are at the very foundation….


  • Cathy | Treatment Talk April 24, 2014, 12:08 pm

    From a young age, expectations are often imposed on us and as adults subconsciously we revert back to this behavior that creates emotional havoc. Great reminder to give ourselves a needed break from the guilt and angst when we don’t follow the “shoulds,” “expects,” and “musts!” I agree with Kyczy, these expectations are the source of so much of our pain. Thanks Bill!

    • chipur April 24, 2014, 3:29 pm

      Hey, you’re welcome, Cathy. Good of you to visit and comment.

      You know, the “shoulds,” “musts,” “expects” are bad enough. But even worse is living in the midst of them and not even catching it. We humans do that. And that’s why I issued the monitoring challenge. How could we ever hope to change thought/behavior if we’re not aware of what’s going on? This stuff is deeply engrained!

      Thanks again, Cathy. Please come back…


  • Beth Wilson April 25, 2014, 11:35 am

    Yep, yep, yep and amen, amen, amen! I’ve long wondered who said, “Stop shoulding on yourself,” Bill, so thanks for that. Thanks too for the validation that once again, I’m not the only one who overuses all the “OU” words that a therapist from long ago suggested I eliminate: should, would, could and ought.

    You write the coolest, stuff!

    • chipur April 25, 2014, 12:29 pm

      Glad you find my stuff cool, Beth. I think it’s pretty cool that you frequently stop-by and comment – and I appreciate it. Ellis was quite a guy – one of my favorites, actually. Take care of yourself, k?

  • Dr. Herby Bell April 25, 2014, 12:56 pm


    I’m reminded again of my good friend’s definition of “great wealth”– never having to do what you don’t want to do. This shoulding all over existence including the woods, thing…SUCH a painful trap–you’re so right and I guess the trick is to hook up with some practices to actually know what those things are. Chipur is such a great resource for just that.

    And I love learning about yet another gifted, prolific psychologist who offered so much because he was a beautiful freak, just like the rest of us. Great article, Bill. Thank you.

    • chipur April 25, 2014, 5:58 pm

      Hey, thanks for popping-in and commenting, Herby – glad you enjoyed the article. No doubt, Ellis was a “beautiful freak,” just like the rest of us. In addition to his stuff in adolescence, he was a very sickly child. So here’s a guy that was run through the mill and decided to make a very natural contribution. Gotta’ like that.

      Looking forward to reading and commenting on your newest piece. Always good to know you’ve been here, Herby…


  • Lisa Frederiksen | BreakingThe April 26, 2014, 4:58 pm

    You had me at the title, Bill, and thank you for another of your insightful, engaging posts! (I once wrote a poem during my secondhand drinking recovery journey, Woulda Coulda Shoulda because it seemed those words were the lead in to most of my thoughts at the time.) Boy does Ellis sound like he would have been so interesting to know and work with. I’m going to go back to your Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) post, as I found CBT incredibly helpful to my recovery, so want to learn more about that one… There is no one size fits all when it comes to all this – THANK GOODNESS!

    • chipur April 26, 2014, 8:24 pm

      Well, hey, Lisa. You always warm things up here when you visit and comment. Glad you’re going to brush up on REBT – CBTs predecessor. As a clinician and user, I find it so simple and easy to implement. It’s just good common sense. Actually something we can jot down and carry with us. Thanks for your contributions…


  • Leslie Ferris May 2, 2014, 9:10 am

    Oh man, have you stuck a cord here Bill. It is only in the last few years that I have come to understand what you are saying here – so wish I had read your article(s) when I was much younger. Coulda saved me a bunch of unncessesary agony!! The ‘shoulds’ in order to keep everybody happy at my own expense. The one word that sums that up the most – Self-Destructive….. Great article Bill. Thank you!

    • chipur May 2, 2014, 10:31 am

      Well, better late than never, right? Good having you back, Leslie. Amazing how much we’ll sacrifice of self to keep everyone else happy, huh?! Glad you found the piece meaningful. Keep coming back. Thanks…