MUSTerbation and SHOULDing on yourself: Ain’t nobody got time for that.

I wish I could say that I coined these brilliant terms, but alas, it was Albert Ellis, the grandfather of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT). 

REBT says that an incident occurs (a), and then we have a belief about that incident (b), and based on that belief, we experience an emotional consequence (c). For example:

a)  You accidentally throw away your preschooler ‘s homework. (incident)

b) “My four-year old MUST turn in his homework!!” (belief)

c) Despair and self-loathing.  (emotional consequence.)

There is a reason that I used this as an example, and it’s not just because I just disposed of my kid’s letter-tracing project.  Commonly, the “belief” which leads to an upsetting emotional experience is in the form of a “must” or a “should.”  And as soon as that belief is challenged and dismissed as mere hogwarsh, a person can avoid a whole lot of unnecessary upset.

Hence, therapists everywhere go around admonishing patients to “stop musterbating” and displaying clever little plaques like this:



Musterbation can be about other people, ourselves, or circumstances in general.  When it comes to other people and life situations, there are no “shoulds.” There are actions that are unhealthy and destructive, but there is no “code” of living that says everyone “should” act a certain way.  And the more you expect that other people will start abiding by such a code, the more you drive yourself batty. When it comes to your own behaviors, you have the ability to chose which “shoulds” make sense for you to abide by in a particular situation. But, of course, that decision is subject to change based on the variables in each situation, further making true that there are no “shoulds” in life.

Our society, religion, parents, or culture in general may inadvertently urge us to subscribe to certain “shoulds.” You may consider some “shoulds”  to be helpful and beneficial:  “Whenever possible, you should wash your hands after going to the bathroom,” “You should take your insulin (in the case of an insulin-dependent diabetic).” Other “shoulds” are not necessarily beneficial, and even contrary to a person’s well-being. For example, “You shouldn’t express your anger,” “You should always respect your parents.” “You should give your uncle a hug. (in the case where a child is not comfortable doing-so)” “You should always do things for other people.”


Assess your “shoulds” In each specific situation when you tell yourself something SHOULD or SHOULDN’T be, decide for yourself if it makes sense before you automatically subscribe to a problematic belief.  If the answer to any of the following questions is “yes,” then it probably makes sense to abandon the “should,” since it is inflexible, invalidating, and/or unrealistic.

1)  Is the “should” rigid and inflexible, leaving no room for special circumstances?  This is true in cases where the words “always” or “never” are used, such as “You should always feel respect toward your parents.”  I have worked with many abuse victims who felt even worse after others urged them to remain pleasant and present in their abuser’s life in the name of “respecting your family/parents/elders.”

2)  Does abiding by the “should” prevent you from acknowledging or  honoring your needs and feelings? For example, “You should be happy to be self-sacrificing in relationships.” Remember, all feelings are healthy, and even negative feelings serve to indicate that one of our needs is not being met.  It is not possible to avoid feeling something simply by telling yourself you “shouldn’t” feel a certain way, and to do so would be to dishonor and invalidate an authentic part of you, and possibly deny you of an unmet emotional need.  

3)  Is the “should” consistent with reality? (Especially when it comes to other people and circumstances outside of your control.) You can say all you want that your wife SHOULD jump your bones every night, but the reality is, sexy time would not occur to her unless you initiated. You can say all you want that your husband SHOULD offer to do the dishes, but the truth remains that the man you married needs you to directly ask for help before he puts down the remote and joins you in the kitchen.

What are some “shoulds” that you subscribe-to?  Ask yourself if each “should” is valid or useless (see the questions above).

1)  I/he/she/it should___________________________________. Valid or Useless?

2)  I/he/she/it should___________________________________.  Valid or Useless?

3)  I/he/she/it should___________________________________. Valid or Useless?


I am told that I “should” always be loving toward my sister.  Verdict = USELESS, because it does not acknowledge and honor  my need for validation and my feelings.

I feel that I “should” try to cut down on my smoking.  Verdict = VALID, since it is not rigid, and I believe I can accomplish it while considering my needs and feelings. Verdi

I feel that my husband “should” always remember our anniversary. Verdict = USELESS, since, unless I tattoo MAY 14 on his forehead, this expectation is unrealistic.


What can we do to make it easier to stop the habit of shoulding on ourselves?  In order to abandon a “should,” it is important to first figure out why you were trying to abide by the “should” in the first place.  What need were you trying to meet?  Where did the “should” originally come from?  

For example:

1) Other people should be cooperative and respectful.

When people disrespect me, it threatens my need to feel accepted and valuable. Also, when others are unreliable, loose-cannons my sense of control and security in my life is compromised.  I am especially sensitive to threats to my self-worth and sense of control, partly because of my genetics, but partly because I never had unconditional approval and security growing up.

2)  I should never make a mistake.

I am trying to meet my need to feel competent and worthy.  I tell myself this because I am afraid that if I make a mistake, I will be inferior and inadequate.  Abiding by this “should” is not in my best interest though, because the truth is, I do make mistakes just like everyone else, and I can’t keep telling myself that there is something inferior or inadequate about me for doing so.

3)  I should always act in a way that allows people to like me.

I am trying to meet my need to feel accepted and approved-of.  I have always been a “good girl,” like my parents and pastor want me to be, and making people happy is part of that image.  I also don’t like people to think badly of me because it makes me feel not-good-enough.  Abiding by this “should” is not realistic, however.  If I am going to be true to who I am, I am going to make some people dissatisfied once in a while.


Once you have that figured out, actually remind yourself (Yes, do it outloud.  Or Write it in a journal.  Or put it on a post-it note.  Or tell your husband.  Or tell your therapist.  Or tell your travel agent while she has you on hold as she searches for flights): “I don’t need this “should” in order to meet my need to feel        (For example, worthy and secure)      .  I am good enough AND I can tolerate not being in control all the time without this ridiculous should.”

Then, after you have done all of that, you’re are emotionally free to stop engaging in the musterbation and shoulding on yourself.

Well, that’s all the ridding-the-world-of-nasty-thinking-habits for today!  Best of luck with quitting musterbation!  Albert Ellis and I agree that your “emotional consequence”s will be better for it!

– Angelica Shiels Psy.D.


Remember, if you have any specific questions on this subject or any other subject related to couples, kids, or psychology, please feel free to contact me, and I will answer your question while keeping your information anonymous.

                          Also, don’t forget to check out my new facebook page!

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