"Shoulding" and "Musting"

by Monica Ross

On to the next unhelpful thinking style—“shoulding” and “musting.” This unhelpful thinking style comes into play when we put unreasonable demands or expectations on ourselves and other people. “Shoulding” and “musting” permeates our language. I hear it all the time “I should have called” or “He shouldn’t have cheated on his girlfriend” or “I have to/must get an A on this exam” or “I have to/must have a baby by the time I’m 35” or a whole host of other things we tell ourselves and other people.

Let’s break it down and take a look at what we’re really saying. “I should” or “She should have” is in a way placing a judgment. It has a bit of a moral tone to it as if the after effects of not accomplishing what we’re trying to accomplish or what we hope for others to accomplish would lead to feelings of guilt.

With “I must” it sounds a bit like we’re forcing ourselves into an outcome. In other words if I don’t do whatever the thing is that I am commanding myself to do then there really is no other alternative. Both statements stand on rocky ground.

Because we actually may not feel guilty if we go against what we feel on the surface to be the right thing in any given situation. We could even work on any feelings of guilt that might arise after the action or behavior has passed. Please don’t take this as a “do the wrong thing” endorsement. It’s not quite that.

It’s just that whether we set ourselves up into a forced outcome or behavior or not there are multiple variables we have no control over that could also come into play and affect our attitude about the situation once it has passed, whatever the “should” or “must” was about.

In fact, I can’t think of many situations that we may try to force ourselves into by saying this or that “must” happen where there aren’t a number of possible alternative things that could and in fact do happen instead.

Think in the case of chronic illness if a person were to say, “I have to beat this cancer.”   The person either will or they won’t. And sure one outcome leads to death, which has the appearance of finiteness.

But to set things up that way begs the question “Or what?” What happens?

What happens for instance when we reach the age of 35 and haven’t had children? What if we fail that exam? The world doesn’t end. Life goes on. The dreaded thing that we were trying to avoid all along passes, it always does. And maybe something else happens.

As humans we tend to want to avoid pain and suffering. So, I get it. But what if the dreaded thing were to happen and we could somehow separate from it the pain associated with it? In other words, this is the situation and these are our thoughts and feelings about the situation and they are separate.

What if we were to be on the brink of death, but have no fear in death?

I’ll avoid a discussion on morality here and attachments to suffering and just say that “right” or wrong” it is what it is. And that I have control over what I choose to think and feel about any given situation.

The thing that we didn’t want to have happen already happened or may not have happened yet, but possibly will. Regardless of whether it does or doesn’t it doesn’t have to be tied to an automatic negative thought or feeling.

We can always set an intent for future outcomes or behaviors, but we can’t now predict exactly how we or anyone else would act in that future moment. When we set an intent we’re saying more or less that we tend to feel better when we do certain things...when we aren’t smoking, when we’re eating healthy, when we take time to spend with our spouse or our children, when we are honest with our significant other.

Instead of focusing on what we’re not doing or on what others aren’t doing by using “should’s” it can be helpful instead to set an intent for what we want to have happen, not what has to happen but want we hope to have happen. Sometimes in setting that intent we set forces into play that manifest the very thing that we want.

And when we focus on the positive and doing the preferred things, in the end it helps us to feel better ourselves. We begin to accept reality instead of fighting against it while at the same time affirming what we feel to be important to us and manifesting what we hope to be the direction we want to head in.

So, instead of “I should” or “I must” maybe try “I like it when I” or “I always feel better after we” or “It’s important to me to try to x, y, z” or “If they had responded this way instead then maybe this outcome would have happened, but it did so let’s roll with it.” Am I making sense?

When we think in this way we can shed unnecessary guilt and disappointment and let go of frustration and anger. We can let go of these things because we’re moving towards acceptance of what is instead of butting our heads up against things and digging our heels in the ground and refusing to go with the flow.

I’ve said this elsewhere, if what we intend to have happen doesn’t happen, it’s not about beating ourselves up after the event. We don’t want to give up what is important to us or avoid goal setting or not try to do the “right” thing, but we do want to give ourselves room to simply be in the world and make mistakes. By the same token, it’s okay for others to make mistakes too.

It is possible to accept reality for what it is while at the same time striving to reach our goals, we just don’t want to be so strict on ourselves or other people that we don’t allow for freedom of movement, for failure. Mistakes will be made in life and that’s part of life.

These statements “should” and “must” they’re basically commands or orders. When we use commands against ourselves we are in an attempt to control our own behavior. When we use them against others, it’s an attempt arguably to control the behaviors of others.

Why the need for power and control?

When we as human beings operate from a place of fear and anxiety, which often fuels our attempts to gain power over ourselves or other people, we fall back on reptilian brain behaviors and we override our capacity to reason.

And there are more healthy ways from which to draw our sense of empowerment.