Shoulds and Musts

This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

“I should be a nicer person.” “People shouldn’t treat me that way.” “The world should be fairer.” These kinds of statements are called imperatives. They are also called "should statements" by David Burns. Albert Ellis, who concentrated more on this thought-mistake than on any other, called it "musterbation". Ellis really hammered on this one, and for good reason. It is the source of a great deal of unnecessary negative emotion.

In an interview, Ellis explained how he gets himself out of an upset.

  1. First he says to himself, “I’m creating this.”
  2. Then he asks, “What am I telling myself?”
  3. Finally he looks for commands and demands: “Things should not be this way, the other person should not act that way, I should not feel this way, etc.”

Ellis focused on shoulds and musts because he found by long experience that these really get people in trouble. It’s a good virus definition to go after first. Ellis was not only an innovator and teacher, but he was using this stuff on his own therapy clients since the 1950s. His long wisdom and experience showed him he could go right to the heart of the matter by searching for shoulds and musts.

Once you recognize the shoulds and oughts and musts you use on yourself, and once you realize they are merely preferences, it takes away the intensity of your negative feelings and you are left with mild disappointment, simple frustration, or concern — rather than sadness, anger, or fear.

Ellis began by assuming right off the bat that if you’ve got a problem, the source of it is "musterbation." For example, you might present a problem in a therapy session that you are ashamed or embarrassed about something. His very first assumption is that the source of your distress is you are thinking either, “I must be loved by everyone,” or “I must achieve greatness,” or both. And he would probably be right. From either of those two underlying musts, you can easily become embarrassed or ashamed when someone doesn’t seem to think you’re wonderful, or when you did something that wasn’t great.

Ellis would then teach you that there is no reason to continue believing you must be loved or achieve greatness. Sure, it would be nice, but it isn’t necessary to existence, and thinking it's necessary makes you miserable.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.

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