Thinking Yourself Healthy: The Tyranny of the Should

Clifford N. Lazarus


Al could not understand why he had no close friends. He saw himself as honest and caring. What he did not realize was that he had so many shoulds, oughts and musts that it was impossible to be around him without being corrected or criticized.  “One thing I don’t need,” said an acquaintance, “is endless free advice.”


People who use too many shoulds, oughts, musts and have-tos are very demanding and unpleasant, and they make life miserable for themselves and others.  We see many people in our consulting rooms who make demands, who strongly insist on things.  They typically have a history of acrimonious divorce, no friends, and many problems on the job.

Known as “categorical imperatives,” shoulds, oughts and musts create anger and guilt. “You should have done X and not Y!” “He should have known better!” are expressions of anger. “I shouldn’t have said that!”  “Ishould have done XYZ!” are statements of guilt.

When people are able to drop their demands, to change their shoulds into preferences, amazing benefits often result.

• Try to catch yourself each time you lay a should, ought or must on someone.

Change the should into a request or a preference. Instead of angrily saying, “Youshouldhave introduced me to your cousin!” you can say, “I wishyou had introduced me to your cousin.”  Instead of insisting, “You mustnot smoke in the house!” you can say, “I’d preferthat you smoke outside.”

• Change should, ought, must into “I wish” or “I’d prefer” and see what happens.

We predict that the fewer shoulds, oughts and musts you use, the better off you, your loved ones and your associates will be.

It’s obviously not just the word “should” that creates the problem, it’s the demanding should. There’s nothing wrong with saying “You should remember to take the recycling bins to the curb if you want them to be collected.” That’s what we call a “soft should.” It differs from the demanding should, in that soft shoulds have an “if” statement following them that mentions a specific consequence. “You should have known better than to leave the dishes in the sink!”  Compare that to: “You should put your dish in the dishwasher if you want to help me clean up.”  Better yet, try to state the request without using the word “should” at all, such as, “Please try to remember to put your dishes in the dishwasher.”


Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus is a licensed psychologist, Co-founder and Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute. In addition to his general psychotherapy practice, Dr. Clifford Lazarus specializes in health and neuropsychology.

Dr. Clifford Lazarus received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University where he was a Henry Rutgers Research Scholar.  Seen here are excerpts from one of his books, The 60-Second Shrink – 101 Strategies For Staying Sane In a Crazy World, a book, he co-authored with his father “One of the ten most influential psychotherapists in America”  Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D.  For more details on Dr. Clifford Lazarus visit this link to The Lazarus Institute.  Or visit his page here on

Books available at Amazon by Arnold and Clifford Lazarus

Direct links to two highly recommended books by Dr. Clifford Lazarus & Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus:

The 60-Second Shrink: 101 Strategies for Staying Sane in a Crazy World 

Don’t Believe It for a Minute!: Forty Toxic Ideas That Are Driving You Crazy

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