The Tyranny of the Should

Tyranny of the Should Ingsoc Logo

I made this logo based on Ingsoc, the totalitarian political party from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

I started seeing a therapist for depression recently. (I’m loath to admit such a thing publicly, but I think it’s important that we tackle the stigma against mental illness.) Last week, I mentioned that I feel guilty sitting around playing Cities: Skylines instead of working on this blog. She asked me where I got it in my head that I should be working on my blog all the time. My therapist told me that, aside from biology and basic human decency, the word should is greatly overused, along with words and phrases like must, have to and ought to. She said I should drink water and eat right. I shouldn’t murder or steal. But other than those basics, most of the obligations in my life are self imposed.

The Tyranny of the Should

I’ve been reading about the “The Tyranny of the Should”. This is a concept proposed by German psychologist Karen Horney. She says that focusing on obligations can create a rift between your actual self and your ideal self. So while my idea self is lean and in shape, my actual self is overweight. This leads me to say “I should go work out”. Soon I have this obligation hanging over my head. Maybe I’ll do it; maybe I won’t. If I do work out, I’ll hate every moment. If I don’t, I’ll hate myself for slacking off. Either way, I will be miserable and depressed.

Wanting to Succeed

Instead of constantly telling myself that I have to write or I must work out, my therapist tells me to think about what I want. For example, I want to write and I want to create art. That is why I started this blog after all. So instead of saying I should work out, I should say that I want to work out. I want to be physically healthy, so working out is something I desire. The first time I worked out with my trainer, he said, “I can tell you want it.” I think of that phrase when I’m feeling the weight of self-imposed obligations. “I’m not doing this because I should. I’m doing it because I want to.”


What do you think about Horney’s theory? How many of the shoulds in your life are really optional? What do you value? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs regularly at

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3 Responses

  1. landpope says:

    “You should,” “you must” and “you have to” are commands. We’re conditioned to follow commands, so acting contrary to a command, well you get it …. . I think Horney is spot on.”

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