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To Should? Or, Not To Should? Demand Thinking

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"One major problem with demand thinking is that it creates a great deal of unnecessary stress."
Angie expected that she “should never hurt people's feelings.” Obviously, this thinking is unrealistic because just in process of living we hurt other people's feelings. Without intention of hurting someone, we can still hurt their feelings by being better than them at something, or because we have something they don\'t, or because we can't do what they want. So this type of “should” is impossible to achieve which causes Angie to feel guilty because she\'s not able to meet her expectation.

Robert believes that he should be perfect in his work. Any error is unacceptable and means that he wasn't being diligent enough. He criticized himself endlessly even for tiny mistakes. Fear of making mistakes ruled his life to such a degree that he tended to take excessive time completing his work. Eventually he was fired because he wasn't as efficient as the other employees who actually make more mistakes. He saw this as “unfair” because he was the “best” employee they had. Certainly, according to his criteria, he may have been best but his employer was losing money due to his inefficiency.

Jerry believed that his wife should work her schedule around his. She could only visit with her family if he didn't have other plans. He even believed that she should have the same sleep schedule as his although she tended to be most productive at night rather than in the morning like him.

As you see from these examples, demand thinking is engaging in unnecessary or unrealistic expectations about behavior. When the demand thinking is focused on the present or the future, we refer to the thinking as “shoulds.” When it is focused on the past, it typically takes the form of blaming either yourself or others.

Demand thinking causes several problems. Foremost, such thinking tends to create or increase stress unnecessarily. In addition, it may contribute to perfectionism, compulsive time-consuming and inefficient behavior. Finally, when directed at others it tends to cause conflict in relationships or resentment towards others.


I often encourage my clients to either change the demand thinking into a desire or to get rid of it. For example, a person may have the belief “I should make my bed everyday.” Changing this belief to a desire becomes “I like to make my bed because I enjoy how my bedroom looks when it is made.”

Notice the difference in this thinking. Even just changing the wording tends to reduce the pressure or stress. However, the idea is not to just change the wording but to also change the intent. For example, “I prefer to make my bed everyday, but if I don't, that's okay.” this conveys a different approach than “If I don't make my bed everyday, I'm just lazy.” Notice that this example is combining a negative label (“lazy”) with the demand which often occurs with “shoulds” or “blaming.”

The other alternative is to eliminate the demand thinking. So instead of believing “I should make my bed everyday” the self-talk can become “I can make my bed if I want to, but if I don't it doesn't make me a lazy person. It is a personal choice and I don't need to stress myself about it.”

Sometimes clients will argue with me “But I should!” Frequently people believe this even with something as simple as making the bed. And, if that's the case, imagine all the other “shoulds” ruling the person's life.

When people argue about the shoulds, I try to help them put the should into perspective. For example, I might ask “When you die, are people going to say 'She made her bed everyday'?” This allows people to examine how important the belief is.

Demand thinking is not about morals, laws or ethics. In these cases, we don't try to change the thinking because it is necessary and realistic. So we should obey the laws, for example. However, many people will convince themselves that their should are based on morals or other demands of the world. For example, the adage “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is making a should into an issue of morality.


“When there is no desire, all things are at peace.” Tao Te Ching

One major problem with demand thinking is that it creates a great deal of unnecessary stress. For instance, if you believe “I should complete this work project by the end of the day” you will feel stressed if anything disrupts your plans. However, thinking “I will complete what I can to the best of my ability” you are not likely to feel as stressed if someone suddenly needs your time elsewhere.

The perfectionistic demands are particularly stressful because they are so impossible to achieve. We cannot be perfect, therefore we will always fall short of our expectation. The emotional stress of failure will be constantly present.

Even if we have the ability to be perfect, we always have limited resources. We only have so many hours in the day. We only have a certain amount of energy. We only have a certain amount of money. Other demands will use our resources. The bottom line is that we truly can only do the best we can with the resources we have.


Another aspect of demand thinking is when we focus it on other people. Blaming others is usually due to shoulds that we have for other people. “You should have remembered that appointment we had scheduled! Now you made me late.”

People who demand perfection in themselves are likely to demand it in others. Sometimes this is very subtle. A parent might say, “I don't expect my child to get perfect grades.” However, a look of disappointment may flash across their face when they look at the report card. This is an example of how non-verbal communication may be more powerful than what we actually say.


1) Recognize the Should. Try to be aware of your expectations. You can do this initially by listening to the words you use. However, not every “should” is really a “should.” So you also need to become aware of the intent. Is there an underlying demand to the should?

2) Eliminate the Should. Can you convince yourself that this expectation is unnecessary? In a situation when a wife expects her husband to know what she wants without having to ask, she could recognize that such a demand is unreasonable: “He really shouldn't have to know what I want without me telling him. I need to express my needs.”

3) Change Should to a Desire. Recognize that you might like to accomplish or achieve something but you don't have to. In other words, it would be nice if something occurred but it is not necessary. “I would like to finish this assignment today, but I still have time tomorrow.”

4) Challenge the Shoulds. The more repetition of the challenging thoughts, the more effective cognitive therapy is. Continue to remind yourself as frequently as possible that these are unreasonable demands and change the wording of how you talk to yourself.

5) Cognitive Diary. One way of working on this is using the cognitive diary tool to examine and challenge your thinking.

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