"Pathological Shoulds" II

I have been thinking more about "shoulds" over the past few days. It does seem to me if a "pathological should" is lurking in your psyche it's simply an unintended consequence of a normal healthy upbringing.


When we are young, our mothers (or other primary carers) drill into us all kinds of norms, boundaries, and expectations. We should wash our hands after using the toilet. We should clean our teeth twice a day. We should not hit, yell at, call names to or generally abuse other people. We should listen when others speak. We should take turns. As we grow older other expectations are drilled into us: to cooperate with our teachers, to look after our things, to do our homework, to get a job, to pay our taxes. These kinds of expectations are necessary for our well-being and for the good of society. A child brought up with weak or chaotic boundaries is likely to turn into a sociopath. It is as if we need a certain amount of "law" internalized and translated into good habits in order to be a fully functional member of society.


So when is a "should" pathological? Perhaps when circumstances change? (e.g. I feel compelled to vacuum and clean the bathroom and wash the floors every day... but now I'm working full time and I'm exhausted and crazy trying to do it all). Perhaps when it's a compulsion? (I can never, ever, relax about this). Perhaps when we have very unrealistic "shoulds" driving us to feel like a failure, because we cannot keep up with the harsh taskmaster in our heads? Perhaps when our stress levels are spiraling out of control?


I'm not a psychologist so I don't feel I know "the answers"... I just have questions. What is a "pathological should"? What does a healthy expectation of ourselves look like?


Pat Greig said…
A "should" could be described as pathological when we experience significant stress/distress when we fail to live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others. These "shoulds" or irrational self talk have the capacity to activate our fight/flight response and so increase emotional arousal through the release of stress/fear hormones. Too much of this and individuals can become candidates for depression and/or anxiety.Prefernces even strong preferences are OK and even important for a well ordered life but there are certainly times when we need to cut ourselves some slack and give ourselves permission to not be perfect. Its called "being human". Pat Greig -Counselling Psychologist
Janet Woodlock said…
Thanks for sharing your expertise Pat... I'm trying to get my head around what's a normal / necessary expectation of oneself to stay vaguely functional, and what's an unhealthy level of expectation can drive to a person into stress, distress and depression. It seems to be around moderation and flexibility... like most things in life I guess!!!
Janet said…
I suspect it is pathological when the negative consequences outweigh he positive, but we still do it
Janet Woodlock said…
It's funny having two Janets on this blog... it's not a common name. The only other Janet I've known is the sister of the current treasurer and the CEO of World Vision... they used to live near us and I used to botch a lift to Uni with her.

But I digress... I agree Janet; if it's more negative than positive the sensible thing to do is have a good hard look at ourselves, evaluate the behaviour, attempt to train ourselves to think differently, and seek a professional to work with us if our own efforts fail.

If only we were that logical! I'm aware there's a bit of me that avoids change, alas, unless things get REALLY uncomfortable...

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