By Barry John Johnson
Stop “musterbating” and “should-ing” all over yourself. I wish I could lay claim to these terms. They
are the progeny of Albert Ellis, one of the early developers of cognitive
behavioral therapy (which is a lot like mindfulness). I find these terms to be
hilarious as well as an effective reminder to monitor the internal dialogue
that often times goes on inside our psyches utilizing and energizing the words
“must” and “should”.
When we utilize “musts” and “shoulds” we set up all or nothing scenarios
that will generally lead to unhappiness and generate anxiety. Such mental chatter can result from trying to satisfy other people’s expectations and it tends to be the default language of perfectionists. If these terms dominate our internal guidance
systems, our fight or flight mode may be almost permanently affixed in the “ON”
On the smaller scale, this dynamic may start with thoughts
in the psyche like: “I must/should get an “A” on this upcoming test”; or “I
must/should perform this presentation well and receive positive feedback from
others”. On a grander scale, we could have directives like: “I must/should
always be liked and accepted by others”.
So after we allow language like this (not usually
consciously) to permeate the mental scene, it gets translated by our survival
oriented fight or flight systems as: “If I am not succeeding in meeting these
absolutes I am then, in fact, under threat or I am not surviving”.
Our fight or flight network can be said to be an outdated
system from pre-historic days that served well
when real life or death threats were common, but now it’s just kind of
looking for stuff to do. Anything viewed as not succeeding can become “I am not
surviving”. The gates are lowered and the
hounds of anxiety are released.
The dynamic can be powerful and the consequences can be
huge, even keeping people off their true path or calling. Societal expectations
may dictate: “ I must/should be married with children by now”; or “ I
must/should have a reliable profession with a nice benefits package”. Yet,
following one’s true calling doesn’t always jibe with such common
norms and expectations. The anxiety provoking dynamics can kick in.
The key issue for people in this boat is then: Varying from one’s
true path and varying from social norms both result in anxiety. The key task is
then to discern between the two, with the caveat that the two are not always
What helps with this discernment, of course, is removing the
“musts” and “should” from our internal dialogue stream. You might inventory
whatever might be causing you stress at
any one time. You then may try to determine whether a “must” or “should” is involved in placing some
kind of excessive demand on yourself (perfectionism) or trying to get you to match the expectations of someone else or society in general.
From there, you simply change the semantics. “ I would like
an “A” on that test, but it’s not going to kill me if I don’t”; “It would be
nice if I meet the right person and get married, but I certainly can enjoy life
in the meantime”.
Sounds easy, but it is a little harder than that. Removing
“musts” and “ shoulds” takes serious
exploration and diligence. Meditation
will help calm the mind to more easily track your thoughts. Journaling may help with the exploration of
any big “musts” or “shoulds” in your life.
Start with simple awareness.
In the end, we can see that too many “musts” and “shoulds” do not serve us. It’s okay if some people don’t like you. It’s okay to get a “B” on that test. It’s definitely okay to go against the grain and pursue your dreams. We can relax more and be our true selves when we stop “musterbating” and “shoulding” all over our selves.