Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Tyranny of the Shoulds

I was reading the New York Times, as usual, and stumbled across two articles I knew I should blog about. The first was Bruce Stutz's account of his withdrawal from Effexor, an antidepressant drug. Effexor is a very popular drug, especially among primary care physicians, and it can be very hard to get off. His story is, at points, gruesome. But it speaks for itself, and right now I have nothing to add. I will soon, though, so stay tuned.

The second story is much funnier and more enjoyable. It's an article in the Book Review, entitled, Why Not the Worst? In it, the author, Joe Queenan, writes about his love of bad books and compares himself to others who are obsessed with quality:

Most of us are familiar with people who make a fetish out of quality: They read only good books, they see only good movies, they listen only to good music, they discuss politics only with good people, and they’re not shy about letting you know it. They think this makes them smarter and better than everybody else, but it doesn’t. It makes them mean and overly judgmental and miserly, as if taking 15 minutes to flip through “The Da Vinci Code” is a crime so monstrous, an offense in such flagrant violation of the sacred laws of intellectual time-management, that they will be cast out into the darkness by the Keepers of the Cultural Flame.
Queenan goes on:
Some people would identify a passion for bad books as a guilty pleasure, but I prefer to think of it as a pleasure I do not feel guilty about, even though I probably should. Bad movies, bad hairdos, bad relationships and bad Supreme Court rulings merely make me chuckle. Bad books make me laugh. And if they ever stop writing books with lines like “Being a leader of the Huns is often a lonely job,” I want to stop breathing on the spot.
So, what does this have to do with psychology?

Queenan is attacking what Karen Horney (pronounced HORN-eye), an early neo-analyst, called "the tyranny of the shoulds." In this, Horney anticipated the cognitive-behavioral therapies of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck.

Horney recognized that we carry around many beliefs about what should or should not be. Some shoulds are about what happen to us. We believe, "I should be successful," or "My spouse should know what I want without my saying so." Unfortunately, that's just not realistic.

We have every reason and right to want things. But, "should-ing" is based on the unrealistic belief that the world must grant us what we want, just because we think we're right. When the world doesn't cooperate with that belief, we get angry or depressed.

Some shoulds address standards for our own behavior. For example, "I should read only good books." These shoulds make us rigid and rob us of our pleasures. Why not enjoy a bad book occasionally? Queenan's observation, "I prefer to think of it as a pleasure I do not feel guilty about," is a wonderful rejection of those shoulds.

When I hear a client bring up their shoulds, it is my job to attack those beliefs and replace them with more flexible beliefs. Some clinicians use Socratic questioning to attack peoples shoulds. For myself, I've found that far too often, Socratic questioning turns into the Possum Lodge Word Game. Instead, I like to hit people between the eyes with a one-liner.

Needless to say, I'm always on the lookout for a good one-liner. Now, I can't wait to say to a client, "Don't think of it as a guilty pleasure, think of it as a pleasure you don't feel guilty about."

1 comment:

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