You must breathe and eat. You should not harm others. End of list.
Any blog or article telling you “things you should do to keep your relationship interesting” or “things you should not have in your house after age 30” is feeding into a natural human instinct to create rules for us to follow.
In psychology, it’s a type of problem thinking called “shoulds and musts.”
Each person has their own list based on the way they were raised and the things they’ve picked up from around them as adults. Examples include “the house should always be tidy,” “I have to have kids by the time I’m 35” and “My boss should like me, I must work harder.”
We also have rules about other people, like “they should wash up their own dishes.” These rules can be helpful, but they can also be harmful. Shoulds and musts contribue to anxiety and depression, because no one can live up to the impossibly strict standard we set for ourselves and others.
If you learn to recognise these shoulds and musts, and replace them with “coulds” and “it would be nice,” you may find it easier to be kind to yourself and others.
So here are some things you could do with articles that tell you what you should do.
1. It would be nice to recognise these lists are someone else’s set of rules, and you are under no obligation to follow them.
2. You could reword the shoulds and musts, and take the lists as friendly advice (with a grain of salt).
3. Another option is to think about the lists that interest you, and do some self-reflection. What is it about this list that drew you in? Are these rules you hold close to your heart? Where did they come from? How accurate are they?
4. If you wanted to, you could also consider the lists that evoke less pleasant emotions, such as feeling judged or inadequate, and ask yourself the same questions as above.
5. If you felt like it, it might be helpful to identify some rules (from yourself or from the lists) and break them, deliberately, and test whether the world falls apart.
6. You could remind yourself that not all rules are bad. A good rule of thumb (sic) is to ask whether the should/must/have to is helpful to you. Does it lead to helpful action or does it make it less likely for you to grow?
6. A further suggestion is to spend the five minutes you would have spent reading the list to have a moment of mindfulness.
A common response when learning about shoulds and musts is that “there are some rules you have to follow, like the law.” This is a “have to” that can leave people feeling that they don’t have any agency in their own lives, that they are at the mercy of “bigger” rules. However, there is always a choice.
You don’t have to follow the law—technically you could do whatever you wanted. However, there are always consequences. If you don’t follow the law, you may hurt someone or be arrested.
Just because it seems like there’s only one good option, it doesn’t mean you’re choiceless. You’re just weighing up what matters to you, and you deserve credit for acting in a way that’s consistent with your values. Some examples:
1. “I have to get up, the baby is crying.” You don’t have to—you choose to because your baby’s well being is important to you.
2. “I should go to the gym today.” That’s optional, but your health and fitness are important to you.
3. “I need to do more volunteer work.” It’s not something you need, but perhaps feeling that you’re contributing to your community is important to you.
So, when you come across a list of rules, it might be helpful to consider whether each rule fits with what’s important for you, and act accordingly. If you want to.
Author: Megan Godbee
Editor: Catherine Monkman