“Should” and “Ought” – two words I distrust

“I think that word “should” in our internal narratives is very toxic—this notion of, ‘what should I be doing?’ and it’s always pegged to some sort of expectation, whether it’s self-imposed or external or a combination of the two. It’s hard to balance those expectations of what you should be doing with what you want to be doing. I feel very fortunate in that to a large extent what I do is exactly what I want to be doing for myself, and I still write for an audience of one. I read things that stimulate me and inspire me and help me figure out how to live and then I write about them. The fact that there are other people who enjoy it is nice, but it’s just a byproduct.” – Maria Popova in an interview with Jocelyn K. Glei

gamespeopleDuring the 1960s and 1970s when Eric Berne, Thomas Harris and others were popularizing the role of psychological games in our lives while suggesting transactional analysis as a way to escape them, the words “should” and “ought” were singled out as parental words. That is, they appeared in the daily string of DOs and DON’Ts we heard from our parents, teachers and other authority figures when we were young.

These parental injunctions, as they were called, were often heard time and time again by children until the rules within them became–for better or worse–so much a part of our view of the world, they were hard to separate from facts. Simplistically, this happened because we were too young to know the difference between fact and opinion and–as some said–became brainwashed into believing things that weren’t totally true and/or didn’t need to become a long term mantra for our lives.

Berne, when he took his theory of games into script theory, told us that combinations of “shoulds” and “oughts” and attitudes and coping mechanisms would often become engraved in stone as scripted ways of approaching various situations (or life itself) that worked more like canned computer programs rather than dynamic and authentic behavior.

Human Relations Training

When I wrote training materials in corporate settings in those days, transactional analysis was adapted by many as viable model in human relations and supervision/management courses, resulting in seminars, courses and newsletters. My exposure to all this–as a writer and not as a psychologist–influenced my view of human interactions.

IOKYOKConsequently, I am sensitized to any rule, prescription or sermon that sounds like a parental injunction being imparted to others who are supposed to accept it without question because it comes from an authority figure (parent, grandparent, doctor, minister, boss, “expert,” givernment agency). I automatically want to know why SHOULD I do ABC or why OUHGT I believe XYZ.

Sometimes, the SHOULDs and OUGHTs are correct. “You should look both ways before crossing a street.” “You ought to avoid bullying other people with fists or words.” “You should not put metal in a microwave or sugar in a gas tanke or text with your cell phone while driving.”

Since we can think of so many good examples of such rules, we often assume all of the SHOULDs and OUGHTs we hear are valid. That’s where the danger lies. A lot of our prejudices arise this way. So do a lot of our assumptions about what we can do or become in our lives.

Yes, I Always Question Authority

I would rather question what some say should never be questioned than blindly accept every SHOULD and OUGHT as gospel. My training in journalism trained me to check and double-check facts. My creating of supervisory and management courses using game and script theory concepts trained me to look carefully at everything every authority figure says.

Perhaps I’ve over-thought a lot that could have been accepted without question. Likewise, being wary of the SHOULDs and OUGHTs also frees up the imagination and unchains ones thinking when it comes to their ongoing life experience.

  • You can learn more about Eric Berne and transactional analysis here.
  • The International Transactional Analysis Association has a website here.
































Author: Malcolm R. Campbell

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of "Sarabande," "The Sun Singer," "At Sea," "Conjure Woman's Cat," "Eulalie and Washerwoman," and "Lena."

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