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Lisburn and surrounding areas

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  • Tina

Should Must Oughts - your internal rule book


Should, Must and Ought’s are the rules we set ourselves. I hear these rules being applied all around me, especially at Christmas time. I MUST get the children the toy they want, I SHOULD have relatives’ round at Christmas, though this year I would like to do something different. I OUGHT to order some extra food in case people come around I am not expecting.


This is one of the most difficult thinking styles I have to explain to people because these words are part of our language and often what we should, must and ought to do is actually right. You may well be right in saying I ought to get some extra food in, people may pop in you are not expecting and you, like me, would like to be a good host and be able to ensure we are able to offer some nibbles and a wee drink.


‘Should must and ought’s’ become a problem when they start to dictate how we live our lives, they become rules through which we control ourselves. These words, in increasing strength (ought, must, should) represent duty, necessity and moral obligations.

As a therapist I recognise these types of statements can cause anxiety, they start to become a negative view of life. These statements can, in some situations, cause fear and worry, which are major factors in developing stress and other mental health conditions.

I had (note had) a fear of flying, it was getting worse and worse and resulted in me avoiding holidays with flights. This was problematic for me, as I travel sometimes with my work, and for my family (no holidays to hot climates, well not with me joining them). I became quite upset over this thinking “I should be able to do this I am an adult !!!’, ‘I must be able to get over this fear!!!’, “I ought to be able to accept the evidence which shows this is a safe form of transport !!!’. Over times these self-talk statements made the situation worse and I put huge amounts of pressure on myself and impractical demands. Quite simply I would not be able to overcome my fear of flying through ‘thinking positively’, although at one point HH did suggest I should do.



I overcame my fear of flying through going to see a therapist. As I sat there explaining the problem to her and my recollection must have been littered with ‘should must and ought’s’, at the end she simply said, ‘wow you put a lot of pressure on yourself’. The penny started to drop. She went on to say ‘look you have a fear of flying, other people also have the same fear, you are here trying to do your best to overcome it, it will take some time and in the meantime can we contract you will accept where you are and take some pressure off yourself’. Simply put, but impactive. I was expecting perfection but setting myself up to fail, yet there was reality in the situation I was facing namely I did have a fear of flying.


The therapist and I did some basic understanding of panic and anxiety, inked to the CBT model. I could see what was happening and able to see how I was misinterpreting the symptoms I was experiencing. Here is a good example of the should must ought thinking I experienced.

  • The plane is on the runway, my heart rate starts to take off long before the plane did. The safety briefing was diligently watched by me (unlike many of my fellow passengers) this became a ritual for me. After that the plane would head off and the various different noises, normal for flying, would happen. The bleep would go to release the flight attendants to carry on, in my head this bleep was the ‘emergency signal’ to the attendants the plane was in distress and they needed to make sure they started plans for the crash. 'They should be running around', 'I ought to assume the brace position'.  My heart rate would go through the roof, I would start to cry, panic would raise in me, I believed I was going to die. All the time should must and ought thinking going on, 'I must get my life jacket out, where is it sorted again?' Etc.

The therapist got me to start writing down these fears and putting it into a more realistic statement:

  • That bleep means we are going to die

  • to…

  • That bleep is releasing the flight staff to serve food

Over time and with practice the ‘should must and ought’ statements faded away and now I am able to fly without the panic and anxiety I previously experienced. My family has even been on holiday with me.



However, ‘should must and ought’ statements can also come from others, not just from inside our head. These negative influencers can also contribute to poor emotional and mental health. As a therapist I may regard this as a ‘toxic relationship’. Let’s use the following example:


  1. You get all dressed up to go out for the evening with your partner. You get to the event where and your partners says, ‘look we SHOULD go home there are a lot of people here, you might not be safe’. You leave.

  2. Your friend says you OUGHT to wear to certain type of clothing as that ‘suits’ you better. You change your clothes.

  3. Your friend say’s you MUST go out Saturday night the gang will be there what will they think of you if you do not go. You go out, ignoring a commitment you had made to your mum.

In all the above situations you are having some sort of negative implication given to you, albeit subconsciously. In example one = ‘you are in danger, I will save you’, in two = ‘you are not good enough’, option three = ‘people will think badly of you’.


No one is prefect, including yourself. If you can begin by being compassionate with yourself, as I was, accept the things you would like to change and celebrate your own strength then the ‘should must and ought’s’ will be consigned to the unhelpful bin, except when they can come out at Christmas time !!




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