A client once asked me, “Why can’t life just be easy?”
Of course, as a therapist, I must answer a question with a question (it’s in the manual), so I replied, “Who do you know whose life is ‘easy?’” With exasperation she answered, “Oprah!”
I’m pretty sure Oprah has had, and probably continues to have, her own traumas, worries, and hassles. This is life we are talking about, and it will always have stress. Still, we expect that we should be able to succeed in every situation, that nobody should inconvenience or mistreat us, and that life should be easy.
Dr. Albert Ellis, a cognitive psychologist from the ‘50’s, created a theory that goes right to the heart of these expectations. He believed that we all carry around certain “musts” about our life. Indeed, he identified three musts that are at the heart of our distress in most situations.
The first “must” is “I must…” You can fill in your own personal demands. I must do well. I must be successful. I must be well-liked. I must make a lot of money. I must keep everyone else happy. I must be perfect. I must have a beautiful home. I must keep my house perfectly clean. I must be thin. I must be attractive. I must be the perfect mom.
If I am not, I have failed; I am worthless.
Think about this for a minute. We load ourselves with some pretty heavy demands, and the punishment we deliver for failing to meet them can be pretty grim. If I fail to do well, I might be filled with shame, low self-esteem, personal criticism, even self-hatred. So the first “must” is about your expectations for yourself.
The second “must” is “You must ….” You must treat me well. You must recognize my importance. You must value my time. You must know what I want and give it to me. You must treasure my needs above yours. You must see how precious I am.
If you don’t, you have failed; you are worthless.
The focus of this second “must” is about your expectations for others. Usually we don’t get as worked up about how others treat us, except when it comes to family. We have some pretty high standards of how our spouses should cater to us, and of how our children should adore us. The children we can train, but a lot of trouble can come from those spouses. The punishment we hand out to them for failing to meet our expectations can be pretty grim, too.
The third “must”, according to Ellis, is, “Life must ….” Life must be easy, fair, hassle-free. The weather must cooperate with my plans. The roads must be free of traffic when I’m in a rush. The car must never require repairs. The house musn’t either. The church/school/government must accommodate my needs without me stating what those needs are. Computers must never crash. If I work hard, the compensation must be fair. If others receive compensation, they must work as hard as me. Life must be easy. Life must be fair. Life must be hassle-free.
This is where we really get in trouble. So much of our stress comes from an expectation that life should be smooth. When hassles arise, we are ill-prepared and too easily frustrated — even overwhelmed.
The interesting spin from Ellis is that our lives become more manageable and less stressful when we reduce these arbitrary demands. All we need to do is change that one word, “MUST”, to the word, “PREFER”. I prefer to do well. I prefer you treat me well, I prefer a life that is easy, fair, and hassle-free.
That one word influences our core beliefs about what we expect. If I “prefer” to do well, but then mess up, I can ride out the wave of disappointment with a “well that didn’t go like I’d hoped” instead of “I am a miserable failure!”
If we hope to find levity, to learn to laugh at ourselves, to find the humor in our stress, it might be wise to evaluate our own personal “musts” and practice changing them to “preferences.” I prefer NOT to trip up the stairs in front of the college president. I prefer you move your cart to one side of the grocery aisle or the other so I can pass. I prefer life had fewer thunderstorms and more days of sun.
Try it out for a few days. Examine your internal demands — your “musts”, and redefine them as preferences. Practice them aloud, even, to see if you can relieve some of that internal pressure. Your loved ones will thank me for it.