Hi Website visitors,
I got an interesting email from a brilliant colleague, Rabbi Joel Zeff, who joined one of the Sunday hikes a year or so ago. He asked about the ethical implications of one of the ten cognitive distortions: Should Statements. This is a cool topic, and I hope you enjoy the exchange! Feel free to comment, too, as usual!
Dear Dr. Burns,
You might remember me from one of the Sunday morning walks. (I am the rabbi being trained by Leigh Harrington.) I am most pleased to report that I completed the TEAM-CBT Level One training in November. Leigh was absolutely marvelous and I look forward to continuing my training with this powerful approach towards healing.
Meanwhile I have returned to Israel and am completing my dissertation for the doctorate in pastoral counseling from the San Francisco Theological Seminary (Presbyterian), an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I recently posted the following inquiry, for my dissertation work, on the TEAM listserv and wonder if you would consider addressing it (many thanks!):
I am currently working on a doctoral dissertation in pastoral counseling. I am creating a source book for Jewish pastoral counseling which presents examples of cognitive re-framing found in the Jewish mystical thinking of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Israel during the “Pre-State” period of the British Mandate (died in 1935).
My point of reference is the wonderful TEAM training I received from Dr. Leigh Harrington (thank you so much Leigh!). As part of my writing, I want to address the interface of ethics and cognitive distortions. One gets the impression that cognitive distortions are not defined by ethical considerations. The primary criteria seems to me whether or not the cognition is firmly rooted in reality and to what extent it is helpful in living a relatively happy and productive life.
Do ethical considerations play a role in defining a “distortion” and/or impact on the course of therapy?
This question was particularly accentuated with regards to “Should Statements.” Ethics would posit that people “should,” for ethical reasons, behave in certain ways. Why should we not expect certain standards of conduct, on ethical grounds? I can understand why we might work on not becoming overly emotionally reactive, but that is not the same as saying “why should he/she behave otherwise?”.
I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this, as well, any references to writing on this particular issue that I could incorporate into the dissertation.
If you are able to address the issue, might I have permission to quote you referenced as “in private correspondence?”
Hi Rabbi Joel,
Good to hear from you! I still have vivid memories of the Sunday hike you joined not long ago!
In my writings (books, blogs, etc.) and teachings (workshops, podcasts) and therapy work, I have always emphasized that there are three valid uses of the word, “should”—the legal should, the laws of the universe should, and the moral / ethical should.
- Legal should: You should not drive at 100 miles per hour because you’ll get a ticket.
- Laws of universe should: If I drop this pen, it should fall to the floor due to the law of gravity.
- Moral / ethical should: “Thou shalt not kill,” which is straight from the Ten Commandments.
Other uses of the word, “should,” are generally not valid, and they can be painful, too. When you say something like this–“I should be a better teacher (or therapist, or Dad, etc.),” or “I shouldn’t be so screwed up,” or “I shouldn’t have made that investment,” or “I shouldn’t be so shy,”—these are not valid uses of the word, should.
Let’s say you have a fear of bridges, like a psychologist I once treated. She told herself that she “shouldn’t” have this fear, and therefore was “screwed up,” and “shouldn’t be screwed i[.” Is this a valid use of “should?”
Well, it is not illegal to be “screwed up,” or to have a fear of bridges. Also, having a fear of bridges does not violate any of the laws of the universe. Nor is it immoral or unethical to have a fear of bridges. For example, you don’t see , “Thou shalt not fear bridges,” listed in the Ten Commandments, or in any of the holy texts from any religion.
If you look up the word, “should” in one of those huge dictionaries, you will see that it’s origin traces back to the Anglo-Saxon word, “scolde.” So, essentially, you are scolding yourself for having some flaw or shortcoming when you use the word, “should.”
You can combat these painful types of self-criticisms in many ways, but one of the easiest is the Semantic Method—you simply substitute gentler language, such as “I would like to be a better teacher” (or therapist, or Dad, or whatever). Then you can focus on the specifics of what you are doing in your teaching, for example, that’s effective, or ineffective, and make a plan for improvement, if needed.
But in a clinical situation, other methods will almost always be needed, especially Paradoxical Agenda Setting techniques, along with empathy and all the rest of the TEAM-CBT treatment techniques. There are numerous techniques that can be used to combat these dysfunctional uses of “Should Statements.” For example, you can say, “It would be great if I could get over my fear of bridges,” and then you can use a variety of techniques to overcome your fear of bridges, if that is your goal. But that is radically different from beating up on yourself.
Should Statements will generally double your trouble. First, you have some flaw, and second, you are filled with self-hatred because you are telling yourself that you “should not” have that flaw. Then you may feel ashamed and defective, or inferior, or even hopeless.
Shoulds directed toward others cause anger, but are equally irrational. Other directed “shoulds” are usually combined with other-directed blame, and are sometimes difficult to combat. That’s because anger and blame usually make people feel morally superior to others—for example, the blame may be directed at certain religious, political, or ethnic groups, and you may enjoy feeling morally superior to the group or the person you are angry with.
The late Albert Ellis, PhD, humorously called this “shoulding on yourself” (or others.) He also called it the “shouldy” approach to life. He tried to show the “shoulding” patient why these statements are irrational, using the technique called Examine the Evidence. He often said things like, “Where is it written that you shouldn’t have this or that problem?” Or “where is it written that your spouse should be different from the way s/he is?” He often made these statements with considerable force and charisma. Those who remember seeing him when he was still alive will know exactly what I mean!
Some people could see his point, and bought it, while others simply could not “see” it, and got turned off by Ellis. That’s why I’ve developed motivational approaches, like Paradoxical Agenda Setting, that therapists can used before trying to modify the patient’s negative thoughts. You can use techniques like Paradoxical Cost-Benefit Analysis and Sitting with Open Hands, for example. This protects the therapist from having to “sell” something to a reluctant “customer,” and greatly boosts therapeutic effectiveness..
There is no conflict I have ever detected between any form of spirituality, religion, or ethics and good, effective therapy. In my experience, individuals who have resolved and recovered from depression, anxiety, relationship problems, or habits and addictions frequently become more spiritual, and have a deeper understanding of spiritual / mystical / theological / philosophical concepts at the moment of recovery, although that probably sounds vague and maybe goofy. That would have to be the topic of another conversation.
I wrote an article on Should Statements that I might publish on my website at some point.
Albert Ellis was one of the first individuals who taught about the problems with Should Statements, back in the 1950s. He pointed out the three valid uses of shoulds that I listed above. The idea that there are valid uses of shoulds, including Moral Shoulds, is an old and well established concept that is embedded in all of the cognitive therapies.
The feminist psychiatrist, Karen Horney, wrote about the “Tyranny of the Shoulds” in the 1950s as well. My mother was struggling with some depression then, and found the books of Karen Horney to be helpful. I was just a kid at the time. I’m still a kid, but more of an old kid now!
Good luck with your dissertation. I’m sure it will be thought provoking, and interesting to many people!
Hope you can come on a hike again one day!
Hello Dr. Burns,
Would you please consider doing a detailed podcast where you show how to crush “should statements” about oneself and others? I have found your books, articles, and podcasts so incredibly informative, moving, and empowering. I am so grateful for the work you and Fabrice Nye have done on the podcasts and look forward to more.
The “Shouldy Approach to Life” is one that has not yet been dealt with as much as I’d hoped. I do not mean extreme prejudice and religious zealotry. I mean should statements that sound innocent and upstanding like taking a responsible and bravely conscious approach to one’s life by improving one’s health, relationships, the environment, and/or being a positive, loving role model for one’s children. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. For me, I don’t believe moral superiority is the only motivator. I am often shocked, disappointed, and/or left feeling alienated and sad by what I consider unacceptable or irresponsible behavior—mine and others. For example, I find myself strongly disliking people who are known to make racist, sexist, or gay-bashing comments, however, I tell myself I should try to have empathy for them. In the end, any empathy cannot withstand my repulsion, so I have essentially “shoulded” both them and myself. I find myself fighting the urge to dislike a person and often wind up pitying them. What does that accomplish? I can guess that Paradoxical Agenda Setting could play a huge part with addressing this issue, but I feel lost at attempting to dispell the distorted statements.
Thanks so much for any consideration you might give.
Will forward your excellent question to Fabrice, and see if we can do a podcast along these lines at some point, or possibly on one of my Sunday Live FB Broadcasts. david
How do you define ‘moral’ shoulds other than ‘Thou shalt not kill”? which you say is straight from the Ten Commandments. Not everything in the Ten Commandments is worth adhering too. How do you define morality? Furthermore, violating one’s own ethical rules can lead to depression and get in the way of “Feeling Good”. How do you address that?
Hey, BD, great questions! Sadly, I don’t get into defining these concepts. My role is a shrink who helps people at one moment of their lives. When that happens, they nearly always know the answers to all these philosophical questions! But on the abstract level, sadly, for me, it is like the medieval philosophers arguing about how my angels can dance on the head of a pin. If you’ve violated your own ethical rules I suspect you could do something about it if you want! Or if you just want to be upset, you can beat up on yourself for as long as you want. Beating up on yourself could be an expression of your core values, so maybe that’s something you wouldn’t want to change. Why would you want to stop beating up on yourself? Or to put it differently, you may be saying you don’t want to. Or perhaps your question is purely on the philosophical level, without relating to anything real or specific involving you. All the best, d
My point is anything can be moral. Take the non-moral example you give of “I should be a better teacher”. It can be a moral issue related to work ethics. Or take for example anger. It can be a moral issue in religions which advocate all non-violence, not just physical, or even those which advocate turning the other cheek. These are the very issues which you advocate not beating yourself up on, not ‘shoulding’ yourself, but on the other hand I hear you saying if it is a core value, don’t change beating up on yourself? Our Christian society is such that guilt over moral issues is seen as a good sign. In fact a psychopathic tendency is to show a lack of guilt. So it is confusing. Any thoughts on all of this?
Hi BD, Guilt can be a very positive force in your life, thank you for your thoughtful comments! I screw up often. Yesterday I did a podcast interview, and later thought that I was perhaps too critical of our wonderful guest. Now, I can say,”I shouldn’t have been so aggressive,” and then I’ll feel guilty, ashamed, and maybe even depressed. This won’t be helpful, and I clearly didn’t do anything immoral or unethical or illegal. Instead, I said, “Perhaps I was too aggressive, and a gentler approach might have made for a better show.” This is not so harsh! Gentle works better for me! At any rate, I shared my concerns with a colleague who thought the interview was great, which was a big relief. Thanks again, love your dialogue. Warmly, david
“Albert Ellis was one of the first individuals who taught about the problems with Should Statements, back in the 1950s. He pointed out the three valid uses of shoulds that I listed above. ”
Could you possibly explain why Albert Elis thinks the three valid uses of shoulds are valid, and provide the source where he explain this point, if convinient? I tried to google the source, but in vain.
And is there a corresponding emotion related to a valid should statement?
Thanks, great question. You can use the search function on my website to learn more about the three valid uses of the word, “should.” I am trying to encourage podcast fans to do this, and so many questions have already been answered.
Of course, on a more general level, you can use “shoulds” in any way you like. I am not a member of the word police—my role is simply to help folks who are struggling.
Karen Horney, the feminist psychiatrist born in the late 1800s, talked about shoulds before Ellis. She was an important super early cognitive therapist, but saw herself as a psychoanalyst who took a different path from Freud, seeing his work as male-focused. Ellis write a book, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy (https://www.amazon.com/Reason-Emotion-Psychotherapy-Albert-Ellis/dp/B003BL7148) which has a lot of historic references, as I recall. The whole “should” concept traces back to the Greek Stoic philosophers like Epictetus.
I heard he was the source of the three valid shoulds, but do not recall reading this. I heard it, in the early days of CBT. The emotions corresponding to Self-Directed Shoulds include guilt, inadequacy, shame, and depression. Thee emotions corresponding to Other-Directed Shoulds include anger and resentment and similar words. The main emotions corresponding to World-Directed Shoulds include frustration and anger. Thanks!
Thank you, Dr. Burns, for your detailed reply. The book Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy and your feeling good podcasts are very informative and thoughtful. As you replied, you heard from others about the 3 valid should statements. I wonder what’s your reasons for believing these should statements are valid?
In other words, in what sense, are these statements called “valid”?
Yesterday, I read a short handbook about some basic concepts about logic and argumentation. One of the concepts is the Validity of an argument. That is, if given that all the premises were true the conclusion was impossible to be false, then the argument is a VALID argument.
Is that what you are trying to convey when you classify some should statements as valid? Considering that I am not a native speaker, and the word”valid” has different meanings, have I misunderstood the meaning of the word “valid” in your text?
People can use language and words in any way they want. Should Statements are one of the ten distortions that can cause emotional pain and conflict with others. There are three uses of Should Statements that will not, for the most part, get you into emotional trouble: Laws of the Universe Shoulds, Moral Shoulds, and Legal Shoulds. That information can be useful / helpful for people who tell themselves things like, “I should be better than I am,” or “I should not have screwed up.”
The philosophy is not so much to set up a debate, but rather to free people from the emotional prisons created by the ten distortions. For a non-notive English speaker, your English is terrific!
As a Therapist who looks like a rabbi, I also deal with the moral issues that are thought to be inherent in should statements and the question of the moral vs psychotherapeutic interface. I think that your consistent reply that you don’t deal with the religious aspect is right on but I would like to add my two cents to that. Religion and therapy have very different goals. Part of the goal of religion is to teach morality. To tell people what behavior is acceptable or not. That does not correlate with mental health or happiness. We all do things that are not up to our values and that when measured against our moral standards we can say that we should not be like that. If we did not have those values we would not feel guilty or strive to improve. That is the basis of the positive reframing. The religion (or whatever is the source of those values) gives us the direction and boundaries while therapy will help us have the strength and fortitude to feel good throughout the struggle to respect those goals and boundaries.
Does that make sense?
Thanks, Richard, nicely done! I think that religion can be way more than rules, and that there is a mystical dimension. In therapy, at the moment of recovery, things can sometimes be viewed from a mystical / spiritual / religious perspective, too, especially if the patient is experiencing enlightenment, which is often the case. So I think at a deeper level, religion and therapy can kind of “converge.” Warmly, david
I found the comments clarifying. Ellis doesn’t advocate the use of moral shoulds. Perhaps you should edit your original comment and correct your mistake.so as not to leave a false impression about Ellis. E.g. see the website The Good News about Bad behavior for his views on morality. After all as your book says, moral shoulds are just stipulations that your society has agreed to abide by. Nothing more. The phrase ‘Valid should’ in these comments gives the impression that violating it should lead to guilt. But that is the very problem that patients with depression and anxiety are struggling with and need to avoid. However by ‘valid should’ you just mean those shoulds which won’t lead to emotional problems on violation, not those which should lead to guilt. And feeling guilt but not beating yourself up or doing it gently is the trick according to you with moral shoulds. I think you have it wrong. Ellis had it right.The moral ‘should’ is a moral want. Nothing more. With the risk that violating it could lead to retaliaton by other members of your society.
Also ‘thou shalt not kill’ is better placed under legal should
Thanks for your very thoughtful and clear note! I am a big fan of Ellis! And people are free to think about “shoulds” in any way you like. I am not trying to “correct” the world, so to speak, but simply to provide rapid and lasting change for those who ask for help.
I like to distinguish healthy remorse from neurotic guilt. Most human beings, and perhaps all, do things at times that hurt others, and healthy remorse is a good thing, motivating you to recognize and atone for your aggressive behavior, or whatever it was. Society does have legal and moral norms, and the moral norms can be expressed with “shoulds.” You are saying that for you, you don’t want to include healthy, moral shoulds, in your vocabulary or world-view. That’s okay! I do take pause with your strong statements that you are “right,” implying other views are “wrong.” To me, this sounds like you may be feeling frustrated, or even angry with me, but this is just speculation on my part. You can let me know!
All the best, david
Hi i have been trying to leave comments for a while but the website has not been accepting my comments. That is part of the frustration. That’s very perceptive of you to sense it. . Morality and guilt have been bugging me for ages. Psychologists don’t go far enough and reject moral shoulds except for Ellis. That’s my anger at the psychology profession. They are always worried i think that their patients will go on a killing rampage or something. Ellis liberated me with his paper on Morality and Therapy. I don’t need therapy anymore. He rejects the concept of ‘sin’ which i believe means a violation of moral rules, and the consequent condemnation and punishment of the ‘sinner’ and he only calls them wrongdoings, as in self or society defeating behaviors, with a view to not wanting to repeat it. He is my hero. You’re a close second with the rest of your book. Thanks
Thanks so much! Any time some says I’m a close second to Ellis, I’m highly flattered. I’ll take it! He was very honest, unlike most “gurus,” and I really admired that about him! Warmly, david
PS I am working right now on the “Should Statements” lessons in the Feeling Good App, so your timing was perfect and most unusual!
What is the distinction between healthy remorse and neurotic guilt. I don’t think patients know it.If remorse is as in the quote below, I am all for it. The quote is from the REBT website The Good News About Bad Behavior.
“Instead of focusing on yourself, focus on your actions. Ask yourself, “Can I undo the harm I have created? If so, how?” If you can’t undo the harm, ask yourself, “How can I avoid repeating those actions?”
Take responsibility for your actions. Instead of denying them, or blowing them out of all proportion, acknowledge that you acted wrongfully, but don’t beat yourself up over it.
Develop some rational coping statements:
I wish I had acted differently, but there is no law of the universe that says I must act differently.
My actions were wrong, but they were not awful.
I acted badly, but I am not a bad person.”
Looking forward to your app.
Thanks! You are a true philosopher, like Albert Ellis. Some experts believe that Ludwig Wittgenstein, who died in 1950, weas the greatest philosopher of all time. To me, that statement rings totally true. And he, like you and Ellis, wanted hi students to focus on doing real things in the world instead of ruminating about meaningless questions, like whether or not I’m a “good” or “bad” person, etc etc etc. All the best, david
PS You can sign up to beta test the app if interested, at feelinggoood.com/app. You will need an iPhone to participate in a beta test. One is staring shorty. david
Re philosopher, haha, I wish. . It’s not that he says not to ruminate on ‘meaningless’ questions like Am I a bad person but he says while one might be able to rate behavior, though that too changes from place to place, and from era to era., with a person having so many good, neutral and bad behaviors, past, present ad future, how do you weigh everything to come up with formula for a bad person. There is no such formula for a bad person. So you can’t rate a person as bad. I am not sure if the following is his thoughts but you ‘might’ be able to compare two people if all things are the same like genes, childhood environment, chemistry, past etc, but they are never the same, not even for identical twins, they perceive their mom from different angles, so comparison is just not possible, to be able to come up with the ‘worst’ persoin, and the following is Ellis’s thought given any behavior you can always think of a worse behavior (or person all things beiings the same)., so there’s no such thing as the worst person. He has some other arguments. And probably it’s better to dispute the worst person evaluation first and then the bad person.
P.S. I don’t have an iphone. would love to test the beta app. Will see if my husband will let me borrow his. Also Feeling Great is superb. A lot of CBT in such detail. WSill write a review on Amazon.
Thanks so much! Wittgenstein did not actually discuss these psychological issues, like distorted thoughts, but rather philosophical issues that are exact parallels. For example, he would not argue “for” or “against” the existence of “free will,” but wants to to see that it is a meaningless concept–language that is “out of gearm: so to speak–so you can let go of the obsession with that or any philosophical problem. He was very lonely and frustrated because it seemed like only a few people in the world could understand him, and yet he was trying to point out something that is SO simple and obvious. Even the so-called great philosophers of Europe couldn’t grasp what he was trying to say. He struggled with depression and loneliness and could not apply his brilliant mind to his own negative thoughts and feelings. He had several brothers who committed suicide, and he ended up quasi homeless. The book, “Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir,” is a short and inspiring story of his life, written by his favorite student, Norman Malcolm. It sits prouly on my bookshelf, with Wittgenstein’s picture on the cover, and every time I read it, it brings tears to my eyes. I wish I could have been alive to tell him,
“Hey, I got it, and your work made an incredible impression on my life, and I followed your advice, too, and gave up philosophy to do something more practical. Thanks so much!”
Do, perhaps to his depression, he never attempted tp publish anything when he was alive, and the books we have are mainly compilations of notes he had written for his weekly seminar at Oxford, or Cambridge, or wherever he ended up. He was regarded by many as the smartest man in Europe. He thought of philosophy as an “illness,” and was trying to create a “treatment” of sorts.
Can you please post my last comment?
And this is my review on Amazon
“Feeling Good was great for me but I read it after middle age. I thought it wasn’t good if you still have a lot to accomplish in Life and were a high achieving child. Dare to be Average was not a message I would want you to receive . There are a lot of benefits to being not average and a perfectionist. Feeling Great addresses such reservations about the techniques in that book with what it call Positive Reframing and gives you the choice of and control over how much you want to cling to these habits if they are causing more anxiety or depression than you are comfortable with, using the Magic Dial. Very innovative!
Furthermore, the section on crushing distorted, negative thoughts is more organized and detailed, so if you have a particular negative thought you want to crush, you know exactly where to go in the book to get help in crushing it. Also i found the tables outlining the kind of thoughts which go with feelings very helpful since according to CBT to alter the feeling causing distress, you need to alter the thoughts which go with it.
All in all, a great book. Another one out of the park, Dr Burns! “
Thanks so much for the kind words! david
hello dr. Burn. I have read your book. It`s interesting, but it also brings out some question I could not answer. So let`s go to problematic situation. I have 3 friends with whom we hang out together a lot. So once we we sitting together, my friend sarcastically insulted another friend. I was furious inside, but instead laughed as well, even I though it was not good. After this I pondered how it was better to respond in such situation. According to the explanation about self-worth – there is no self-worth and morality is also seems like ubiquitous, so I should not have need to respond. But as I read your comments here, it seems like you apply the principles of morality or ethics. Or you use ethics plus stoicism in your pattern – anger is not useful emotion at all what we do, but we have to respond to cases, where morality is broken. So how I could respond in that situation in best case scenario?
Also another question – anger has been showing me more than often in many interpersonal cases, that something might be broken as I become angry. But reading stoicism and your books, now I consider -what could be another guiding principle inside instead of anger, when someone around me breaks moral rules?
Hi John, instead of a theoretical discussion about philosophical and moral issues, perhaps you could focus on how one might respond in such a situation, using the Five Secrets. You can learn more about my thinking in my books, like The Feeling Good Handbook, that contrasts healthy with unhealthy anger, or Feeling Good Together, which teaches the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. Thanks for your interest, and warm regards! david
My husband recently became upset when I stated “I should have spent about six hours today working on my presentation – but I’m glad I didn’t as we had such a nice day.” He felt I was making a moral statement against myself, “shoulding” on myself and him while I simply felt I was telling a rather practical truth (I don’t have many days to work on this and it will cause some sacrifices of other time with him that I took today off). I don’t wish I had worked for six hours,
and I did not feel negative emotion about a playful day … how else do instruct people to talk about obligations (if only to the self) they have not fulfilled?
You’ll find all the answers and more in my book, Feeling Good Together! All the brest, david
Hi,Dr Burns, I am wondering to what considerations you think moral shoulds are valid? You always emphasize them, but you didn’t exactly tell us why. I think I understand that “If I drop my pen, it should fall on the floor” is valid, because there’s no way to expect a different result that is against laws of universe. And I can partially understand that ” If you drive too fast, you’ll get a ticket” is valid, because if we break laws then we’ll get punished by nation power.Howerver, I don’t get the idea of moral should.
In addition, there seems to be a problem when one’s moral shoulds conflicts with laws. Imagine that you are an african american in a state that has apartheid laws and policies, but you think that apartheid is unfair. So you’ll have to decide to abey the laws, or follow your moral principles. How would you solve this conflict?
Great question. If a patient came to me for help with that question, I would not pretend to “know” the correct answer, but would use the TEAM model, step by step. At the M = Methods level, I might utilize the Decision Making Tool. ON my website, at the bottom of the homepage, you can download two unpublished chapters from my Book Feeling Great, and read about the DMT.
Moral shoulds are stipulations based on cultural norms and expectations. They are not scientific laws. They are norms that we agree upon–for the most part but not always as you point out–as a society. A society without moral guidelines or laws would be incredibly disorganized, and likely dangerous, too. You can’t “prove” that murder is both illegal and immoral. As a society or culture, we create our moral laws and legal laws.
Hope this helps. You might be looking for absolute certainty where none exists, but I do admire your philosophical mind and inquiries! I often think about similar issues in philosophy!
All the best, david