Thinking Yourself Healthy: More about Shoulds & Musts

Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus


Norman, a twice-divorced thirty-six-year-old lawyer, came for therapy.  He often ran into interpersonal problems, but recently he had lost three close friendships, had a serious falling out with his parents, and his fiancée had broken off their engagement.  No wonder! Norman had more rules and regulations than the Army, Navy and Air Force combined.


The enslaving power of personal rules was first recognized by the world-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Karen Horney, who wrote about “the tyranny of the should,” a theme later expanded by Dr. Albert Ellis, President of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City, who coined the terms “shoulding” and “musturbating” to emphasize the psychologically destructive power of categorical imperatives like shoulds and musts. Dr. Ellis advises that

• people stop “shoulding” on others and themselves, and avoid “musturbating” as much as possible.

Norman’s excessive shoulds and musts led him to break off contact with his brother for making investments that Norman regarded as ill-advised, and he was irate about a whole slew of things. His life changed for the better when he managed to exorcise his shoulds.

At the end of his therapy, Norman wrote the following note, which we encourage you to adopt for your own life:

• “I have decided to abrogate responsibility for other people’s lives.  I let others decide what should and shouldn’t apply to them.”

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Norman continued: “This has lifted an enormous burden from my shoulders.  I don’t take life as seriously as I did, and I let God decide what should and shouldn’t be.  All I know is what I like, what I dislike and what I wish for.”  Six months later, on a follow-up questionnaire, he wrote: “For the first time in my life I believe that I would be called ‘popular.’ I don’t know how anybody put up with me before.”

Unlike Norman, many people are unwilling or unable to drop their shoulds and musts.  “You should have known better!” “You must stop doing that!”  “I should have behaved differently.”  “I must win the tennis game!”

• Catch your own shoulds and musts, change them into preferences or wishes:

“I’d like to win the tennis game.”  “I wish you’d stop doing that.”  Try out this technique and see how much better you feel.


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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