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To be happy, stop "musterbating" and "shoulding" yourself

Updated on September 23, 2012

Dr. Albert Ellis

Dr. Albert Ellis
Dr. Albert Ellis

Dr. Albert Ellis (1913-2007), the great behaviorist, created a few simple rules that can help anyone achieve peace in their daily lives.

Some of his favorite rules concerned “musterbating,” that is, saying, “I must be perfect,” “I must get that job,” or “I must have a child of my own to be happy.”

Ellis didn’t dispute the validity of wanting any of those things; he merely disputed the validity of making any single thing/event/achievement the linchpin of all happiness. Indeed, he believed doing so led only to unhappiness, if not outright craziness. He encouraged his clients to transform the imperative (the “I must”) into a preference. For example, he would suggest they say, “It would be nice, excellent even, if I got that job, but I can still live a fulfilling life if I don’t.” Or, “It would be quite satisfying to bear a child of my own, but if I don’t, I can still be happy. I can adopt, or I can nurture other children in my family, or even volunteer to help children.”

“Shoulding all over yourself” is another way to make yourself totally unhappy, and it’s totally unnecessary.

Examples of “shoulding”:

  1. I should want to have a child because otherwise there’s no one to carry on the family name.
  2. I should want to move up the corporate ladder to make more money and make my parents proud.
  3. I should not have spoken harshly to that woman who was bashing into others with her shopping cart as she talked on her cell phone.

When you find yourself shoulding all over yourself, ask whose voice is issuing the command. In the case of the person who “should” have a child (rather than wanting to have a child), the voice is almost certainly the person’s parent’s voice. And we all know what Ellis had to say about your parents.

Next, if you need a next step after discovering shoulds are externally generated, dispute the should. In the case of bearing a child for the sake of the family name, ask what the consequences of the name dying out might be. If your name is Smith, it will be around a long, long time anyway, with or without you. If your name is unusual, is it unique? Is it, for example, Magillagorilla? And even if it is, why should the name survive? Who’s to say it won’t die out in the next generation? And what’s in a name, anyway? Adolph Hitler would still have been a monster had his name been Joe Schmo.

What the shoulds are about in such a case are often such things as bloodline and inheritance. News flash: No bloodline on earth is purely anything, no matter what some may think. And money comes and money goes.

This was simply an example. Your own disputes with the fundamental illogic beneath any Must or Should may look far different. The key, however, is to find the illogic that underlies your must or your should. When you do, you can simply turn the idea into a preference, or even abandon it altogether.

For example, if you’d be happier in your current position that you truly enjoy and through which you feel you are both contributing and getting paid, forget the corporate ladder. Your parents (spouse, friend, dog) aren’t living your life; you are.

The same goes for any external expectation. And any idea of yours that has a should or a must in front of it is very likely to have a significant external component. You may have internalized it (especially with the musts), but looking at what you actually want ― which usually does not have a must or a should in front of it but rather a “sure would like to” or “wouldn’t it be great if I could…” ― should help you stop musterbating and shoulding all over yourself.

PS When you find the true desires beneath the must and should, be careful to maintain the idea of preference, not imperative, or it will turn into a must or should all over again.

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