Have you ever considered how our shoulds can work against us?  Those thoughts running through our heads in the form of “_______ should _______” reflect our values and rules for living.   Such thoughts compare the way we are to the way we think we ought to be.  Yet they work against us when they are rigid, not critically examined by us, or unrealistic.  Maybe I’m 5’8” and big-boned.  If my rule for living tells me that I should weigh 120 pounds, I will be judged inadequate or defective if I weigh 138 – even if my doctor tells me I’m healthy.

In Self-Esteem, McKay and Fanning (2000) observe that “this is the tyranny of the shoulds: the absolute nature of belief, unbending sense of right and wrong.  If you don’t live up to your should, you judge yourself to be a bad and unworthy person” (p. 111, emphasis added).  Maybe this explains why some of us get our emotional chains jerked by common and troublesome rules of living like these:

  • I should maintain a 4.0 GPA.
  • I should never feel anger.
  • I should have it all together.
  • I should be perfect at _______.

Yet surely not all shoulds or rules for living are unhealthy.   So how do we tell the difference between those rules spinning through our heads?  Mckay and Fanning (2000) suggest a test with 4 criteria:

  1. Is the suggested rule flexible?  Do I allow for exceptions? Maybe not if my rule includes words like never, always, perfectly….  Flexible rules permit some failure to meet the ideal standard.
  2. Is the rule owned by me? Have I critically examined it? Does it make sense to me?  If not, I may have unquestioningly accepted someone else’s rule.  It’s like buying a house without a walk-through, or buying shoes without trying them on for fit.
  3. Is the rule realistic?  Is it based on a test of positive and negative consequences?  Unrealistic rules demand that I act on principle regardless of the pain my action brings myself or others.
  4. Does the rule enhance my life rather than restrict it? A healthy rule encourages me to do what is supportive and nourishing – except when long-term consequences would be painful to myself or others.

So why does my title suggest that our shoulds or rules for living have insidious power?  Unhealthy rules for living can stealthily attack our self-esteem in two ways.   First we may judge ourselves by rules that do not truly fit us.  Maybe I grew up believing that I should be self-sufficient.  That rule may promote some academic achievement, but my self-esteem may take a hit if I become unemployed and have no job prospects.  Second, our rules may attach moral judgments to essentially non-moral tastes, behaviors, and situations.  Maybe our families gave us “an impossible dilemma: ‘Follow the rules we’ve created about how you should look or act or be condemned as worthless and bad’” (p. 122).   In childhood, my small faith community articulated specific rules for living, and some people applied moral judgments to my favorite recreational activities: swimming, tennis, and going to G-rated movies.   My self-esteem took a hit because my tastes and recreational preferences differed from those of my grandmother’s religious peers.

I think it’s important to determine if our shoulds or rules for living are healthy. 


Mckay, M., & Fanning, P.  (2000).  Self-esteem.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.