““There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.””
— Albert Ellis, Ph.D.
“Musterbation” is a term coined by famed psychologist Albert Ellis to describe the phenomenon whereby people live by a set of absolute and unrealistic demands that they place on themselves, others and the world. For most of us, these rules come out in a series of should statements that we repeat to ourselves over and over again. These “should” and “shouldn’t” statements leave us feeling bad about ourselves because they set up standards that we cannot realistically meet. They also leave us feeling frustrated and hurt by others when they inevitably fail to fulfill our expectations. Recognizing this habit to set rules for yourself, others and the world gives you the opportunity to relieve some of the stress these messages cause. When dealing with “should” statements, it is important to keep in mind that while it may be nice to reach your goals and be treated the way you want all the time, we are human and live in an imperfect world. Therefore, the pressure to be anything all the time is more likely to cause harm than good.
Identifying “Should” Statements
Sometimes “should” statements make themselves very obvious and at other times discovering them is going to take some digging. The first clue that you may have a “should” statement on your hands is that you are feeling bad. At times when you begin to feel sad, anxious, depressed or worried, stop and see if there are some “should” statements floating around. Here are some examples of times when “shoulding” may be a problem:
1. You feel bad about yourself. You see yourself as lazy or you struggle with procrastination and feelings of guilt. Common Examples: I should be working out/eating better. I should be working harder. I should be thinner/prettier/in better shape. I should be more successful. I shouldn’t eat ice cream. I must get a better job/partner/life.
2. You are feeling resentful or disappointed in someone else. You feel self-righteous. Common Examples: S/He should be doing more. That group should be held to a higher standard. A good friend would never forget to call me back. A boss should always notice when I do a good job. A good friend always calls on your birthday.
3. You begin to see the world or a particular organization as always unfair or uncaring. Common Examples: Things should be fair. A good job always pays well. They ought to pay me more/treat me better/promote me. I should be happy.
A good hint is to look for the following words: must, never, should, need to, ought to, can’t, shouldn’t, and have to. Again, it is important to note that some of these statements or desires would absolutely be nice to have but is unlikely that they will all come true for you all of the time. The damage that is being done to how you feel while striving for these absolutes is getting in your way of having the energy to do what you want and need to do to bring about the change you want to see in your life.
Combating Should Statements
There are some simple ways to begin to overcome musterbation.
1. Ask yourself whether this should statement can be an absolute truth.
For example, if you look at the statement “I shouldn’t eat ice cream” you want to think about whether that needs to be true 100% of the time. The statement suggests yes; but, what would it be like if you changed that to “I will save ice cream for special occasions.” In this case, you have given up the absolute statement for one that is more likely to be followed and does not draw a harsh criticism from you when, once in a while, you enjoy your favorite treat.
2. Ask yourself if you would tell your best friend the same thing.
You may find that when you look at these absolute statements you as if your friend was saying them about themselves you will find that your harsh judgment disappear and you give them a break that you may not give to yourself. For example, if your friend suggested that a “good friend always calls on your birthday,” your might remind your friend of all of the times that you forgot to call someone you love and how that didn’t really indicate anything about how you felt but more about your overall level of stress and distraction. So why not give yourself the same break? You might change the statement to “A good friend eventually calls to wish you a happy birthday.” This statement leaves some room for a friend to make a mistake and leaves you feeling less resentful, hurt and angry when you get the phone call in the day or two after your birthday.
3. Look at the facts and only the facts.
It can be difficult to see the facts of a situation when your thoughts are being filtered through difficult emotions. Writing down your thoughts and then focusing on only the facts can be a great tool. Think about the statement, “My spouse never does anything.” The “should” statement that is implied is that your spouse should help more. Looking at the facts is likely to reveal that you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. Therefore, you are filtering everything your spouse is doing (or not doing) through those feelings. It is likely that your spouse does have things s/he takes care of. You may discover that you have more on your plate then can be done in a given week or you are feeling stressed due to a new task that you need to complete. Taking the time to discover this information can help you have a conversation and could ask for more help with particular tasks. You and your spouse could also decide that something on your list can wait until this temporary stressor is over. It could also be that the two of you need to renegotiate your task list. In this example, the facts can help you to have a more productive conversation and get the help that you need. This is a much better option than stomping around the house feeling upset, angry and alone.
4. Phrase the statement as a wish or desire.
For example, if you thought about the statement “I should be more successful” as if your friend was saying it about themselves it is likely that you would jump in and note their successes and all the ways that they are moving forward in their life. You can identify the desire for something different but without the harsh criticism that we often deliver to ourselves. You might help them change that statement to, “I want a promotion” or “I would like a new job that pays more.” Changing the statement shows you what to go after and allows room for change instead of creating the desire to avoid and procrastinate because of harsh statements.
Identifying and challenging should statements can make a big difference in how you feel. “Shoulding” often leaves you feeling less confident, sad and anxious. By focusing time on changing these thoughts, you can free up the energy and time you need to begin to make changes under a lot less pressure. If you find that you continue to struggle with musterbation, a trained cognitive-behavioral therapist can be a great resource for teaching you to change this pattern of thinking.
Dr. Stephanie Davidson is a licensed, clinical health psychologist and co-founder of the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine specializing in the use of cognitive-behavioral, humanistic and existential approaches to treat patients with a range of medical and mental health challenges. She has a strong interest in acceptance and commitment therapy and other mindfulness-based interventions to heal the body and mind. Her focus is on collaboration with the goal of assisting patients in adjusting to difficult experiences and achieving a greater sense of well-being, balance and peace in their lives.