The Tyranny of the Should

Neurosis and Human Growth:


Dr. Karen Horney

From Chapter 3: The Tyranny of the Should – a paraphrase

Unlike Pygmalion, who tried to make another person into a creature fulfilling his concept of beauty, I set to work to mold myself into a supreme being of my own making. I hold before my soul my image of perfection and unconsciously tell myself: Forget about the disgraceful creature you actually are this is how you should be; and to be this idealized self is all that matters. You should be able to endure everything, to understand everything, to like everybody, to be always productive – to mention only a few of these inner dictates. Since they are inexorable, they are called “the tyranny of the should.” The inner dictates comprise all that I should be able to do, to be, to feel, to know – taboos on how and what we should not be.

I should be the utmost of honesty, generosity, considerateness, justice, dignity, courage, unselfishness. I should be the perfect lover, husband, wife, and teacher. I should be able to endure everything, should like everybody, should love my parents, my husband, my wife, my country: or. I should not be attached to anything or anybody, nothing should matter to me, I should never feel hurt, and I should always be serene and unruffled. I should always enjoy life: or, I should be above pleasure and enjoyment. I should be spontaneous; I should always control my feelings. I should know, understand, and foresee everything. I should be able to solve every problem of my own, or of others, in no time. I should be able to overcome every difficulty of mine as soon as I see it. I should never be tired or fall ill. I should always be able to find a job. I should be able to do things in one hour which can only be done in two to three hours. I should always be understanding, sympathetic, and helpful. I should be able to melt the heart of a criminal.

The peculiar characteristics of inner dictates all result from the necessity we feel to turn into our idealized self, and from the conviction that we can do so. They do not aim at real change but at immediate and absolute perfection. They aim at making the imperfection disappear, or at making it appear as if the particular perfection were attained. Only what is visible to others creates intense worries. The should, therefore lacks the moral seriousness of genuine ideals. The foremost element in conscious experience is self-criticism, a feeling of guilt for not being the supreme being.