Giving up certain fantasies about how the world works is hard. 

We like to think we’ll always be treated fairly. 

We like to think we’ll always be rewarded in proportion to the effort we put forth. 

We like to think if we haven’t done anything wrong, we’ll be immune to criticism or punishment. 

We like to think if our intensions are good, things will work out in the end. 

Unfortunately, these are largely just that: fantasies. 

Accepting that these are fantasies can be torturous to us adults who really do want to believe in a sense of justice and proportionality in the world. I’m one of those people— I like the idea of cosmic justice making everything come out more or less even or right. 

I’ve had to struggle with accepting that these are fantasies as much as anyone. 

There’s a technique of psychotherapy called Rational Emotive Therapy that theorizes that many of the emotional disturbances we face have to do with faulty belief systems. Chief among those faulty belief systems are strong beliefs that contain the word “should.” The famous psychologist Albert Ellis referred to it as “shoulding all over ourselves.” 

“Should”-centered beliefs suggest that the world SHOULD be a certain way— and if the world ISN’T the way we belief it SHOULD be, it’s basically UNBEARABLE. 

As it turns out, thinking and believing this way are pretty much superhighways to everyday depression and lack of motivation. 

The world simply doesn’t care about our “shoulds.” 

How do we learn to live with this fact? 

First thing’s first: we have to accept that, even though our “shoulds” are largely the stuff of fantasy, that doesn’t mean they’re worthless. 

When we say the world “should” be a certain way, what we’re really doing is making a statement of value. We’re communicating to ourselves and others what we find good and important. 

Even if there is no existential guarantee that the world will BE the way we envision it, our visions of a good world matter. 

We need to accept that, even though the world doesn’t care about our “shoulds,” that doesn’t mean WE shouldn’t care. 

To the contrary: the fact that there is no guarantee that the world will be as we think it SHOULD be, is all the more reason to gear up and work toward making the world more closely resemble what we think it SHOULD look like. 

Make no mistake: there are people out there with competing visions. 

Their “shoulds” are as important to them as our “shoulds” are to us. 

We see this clash of visions play out every year in elections. Competing versions of “shoulds”— that is, competing systems of value— vie for the hearts, minds, and votes of the populace. 

“Shoulds” can be motivating, inspirational, even. 

So why do they so often lead to depression and misery? 

Because we get insistent. 

We get it into our heads that our “shoulds” deserve to be MUSTS, not only for us, but for everyone around us. 

When we come up against “should” thinking, and when “should” thinking makes us as unhappy as it frequently does— when we start “shoulding all over ourselves,” to quote Dr. Ellis— we can fight back by asking one potent, simple question: “Why?” 

“People SHOULD have the same political beliefs as I do.” Why? 

“Because my political beliefs are more compassionate and logical then theirs.” Okay, but people have varying visions of what “compassion” looks like and what “logic” implies. 

“Well, people SHOULD accept MY vision!” Why? 

What it eventually comes down to is, we function better when we’re able to detach a bit from our “shoulds.” 

Not to become less passionate about them, mind you. But to keep our INSISTENCE that our shoulds be their shoulds as well in check. 

There is no reason why others SHOULD accept our vision of reality or morality. 

We have the opportunity— maybe even the obligation— to change their minds, to help them see our vision. 

But in the end, we function better when we’re reining in our insistence that WE be able to control others minds and behavior. 

It’d be NICE, maybe. But there’s no reason others MUST believe as we do and behave as we’d prefer. 

There’s no need to should all over ourselves.

Or others.


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