The Secrets of the “Shoulds” – Part 1


In last week’s post, I explained that the “shoulds” can cause you to comply with rules imposed on you by others without your awareness beyond a general sense of dis-ease. Today, I’d like to explain more about that. The reason the “shoulds” are so hard to detect is because, in your psyche, some things exist in time capsules as if they are frozen there from your childhood experiences.

The phrase “I feel like a kid again” refers to activities that bring positive reminiscence as when a memory is relived and enjoyed. Think of the last time the smell of a familiar childhood favorite food brought back vivid memories of your childhood home. The memory will bring other sensations that were part of the same experience. I referred to this in my original post: “A Single Floating Feather.” A happy childhood memory is a positive example of experiences stored in time capsules. Some of those frozen-in-time moments are also made up of unpleasant memories, however.

During your growing up years, whatever the circumstances were, your caregivers had patterns of behavior and specific rules that were imposed upon you over and over again. Some of their behaviors and rules were not good for you, but made things easy or more convenient for them. Examples of these rules and behaviors include insisting that children must be “seen and not heard”, children must obey their parents without resistance upon their first request, or it is okay to hit, yell at, shame or otherwise abuse a child who is not adhering to the rules as desired by the adult in question. Especially when your caretaker imposed punishment that was harmful to your emotional well being, you developed a sense of guilt and fear associated with the rule itself.

So, for example, if staying out past curfew resulted in beatings during adolescence, you would be hesitant and anxious about breaking curfew even years later, as an independent adult. This is true even if you did not break curfew, but witnessed dire consequences when your siblings did so. As an adult, you may not be consciously aware that you are “breaking curfew” and experiencing anxiety as a result; you simply feel a vague uneasiness that you don’t really understand.

That anxiety will lead to compulsive behavior, which in this case may be leaving a dinner party early. Imagine, for example that you are attending such a party with a date. If, suddenly you are so uncomfortable that you must go home to soothe your anxiety, but your date is not ready to leave, there arises a conflict of needs and more anxiety! In this case, rather than insisting that your need to go home be met, you would be better served to examine the compulsion.

Ask yourself some questions. Where does the compulsion to leave early come from? Is it your own grown up desire or an archaic rule from your childhood that no longer works? These are questions you must ask yourself to break free from childhood constrictions. When you recognize that the anxiety arises from the imposition of outdated childhood rules, you can then choose to abandon an outdated rule in the service of grownup choices. So, at the dinner party, once you realize where your anxiety is coming from, you can say something to yourself like: “It’s okay for me to stay out late now. I’m an adult. It’s good for me to have fun and to decide for myself when to go home.”


For victims of domestic violence/abuse, the “shoulds” represent the “hooks” used by your abuser to keep you from leaving. Your abuser knows your “shoulds” well and will use them to control you – especially to keep you from leaving after an episode of violence. This is why it is especially important for you to begin to ask yourself which of the outdated childhood rules are still acting in your life today. Which ones are being used to control you without your conscious consent?


Click here to listen to this podcast episode to hear one empowered woman empower her children to speak up against the abuse of their father.


© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.

In cooperation with 2bsisters, Tamara is in the process of making her recovery curriculum for domestic violence survivors available via a protected online format. This curriculum is for victims who have not yet been able to escape, those who have recently escaped and those who have been independent for a time but still need to strengthen themselves as survivors.


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