From “Would Like” to “Should” – The Unenforceable Rules

posted in: Recent, Stage 2, Stage 2: Step 5


  • Our core life outlook is programmed by every second of our life to the present moment.
  • Each person has infinitely unique perspective and feel there are basic ways we “should” live our lives.
  • When others (or ourselves) don’t meet our internal standards, we’ll often become critical and demanding.
  • When your wishes turn into demands, internally or externally, you have created “unenforceable rules.”
  • Remaining upset about situations you have no control over burns up your reserves, and you’ll develop unpleasant symptoms and/or become ill.
  • Understanding the problem allows solutions.


There are many reasons for resentment and one of them is the word, “should”. Dr. Fred Luskin in his book, Forgive for Good,1 presents a concept of the “unenforceable rules.” There are many situations that irritate us daily and a can consume a lot of energy. Many of the frustrations arise from situations that we have little or no control over, such as other’s behavior. Dr. Luskin points out that it’s fine to wish someone would behave differently, but when that wish becomes a demand in your mind then you are wasting your time, consuming energy, and destroying relationships. Thinking, “I wish my son had better manners” is much different than, “He has to act better and I am going to have a say about it.”

This type of thinking pervades almost every aspect of our lives and the closer the relationships the more intense the interaction. Make a list of behaviors of how others should act. What happens when they irritate you? Do you give advice, snap at them, nag, or give unasked-for advice?

If you’re critical, either openly or silently, of your other’s actions, you’ll foster resentment within you. The people you are critical of are not any happier about being criticized than you are when you feel judged. What makes all of this more ironic is that when you are judgmental, you are just projecting your own opinion of yourself onto others. As you can see, this is a tangled mess.



Where does it come from?

It arises from within us. We are programmed from birth to be what everyone around thinks we should be. Your parents are the earliest and most powerful influences, but everyone has an effect – friends, colleagues, employers, co-workers, society, and the marketing world. So, the word “should” becomes the guiding force of our lives. Other descriptions are “self-esteem”, “perfectionism”, and the “self-critical voice.” They are relentless and a major factor wearing us down and compromising the quality of our lives. Additionally, there is no way for humans to escape from their thoughts and consciousness. Stress in the form of “URT’s” (Unpleasant Repetitive Thoughts)2 causes a chronic stress state and may be the underlying driving force behind all mental and physical diseases.

So, we are also the target of our own “unenforceable rules” and then project them onto others. It is how human consciousness works. As dismal as this situation is and it is as disruptive as it sounds, it is a solvable problem. There are many ways to calm the nervous instead of trying to control it. The first step is understanding the nature of your self-critical voice, nurturing awareness of how it looks, and feeling its impact on you and others around you.

Suggestions for “should” to “would like”

First, everyone sees the world from their own perspective and it feels like the “correct” one. Work on suspending judgment and try only to listen.

Second, keep reminding yourself of the “unenforceable rules”. You have little control over most of the situations that irritate you. This is especially true when others are trying to control you. Train yourself not to react when you feel judged and become aware of when you are judging and making demands based on your “standards.”

Third, everyone’s perspective is valid – especially your children’s. Only listen to your children for a month (preferably indefinitely) without giving advice or being critical. Consider reading Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon.3 He was a child psychiatrist who presents remarkable insights into how your children are viewing your behavior and words. Often a child can see a situation more clearly than a parent who is upset.

Finally, just let go. Enjoy your day with whatever tools you have. All these patterns and reactions are almost infinite and have no endpoint. Quit trying to “talk it out” and realize that anytime you are anxious or angry, you’re in a survival reactive pattern that isn’t subject to rational interventions.”

All of these strategies center around awareness. It’s critical to see when you have transitioned from, “Would like” to “Should.” Then let go and move on.


I was putting up our Christmas tree one year and the strings of lights had become tightly tangled. As you well know, the solution is to loosen it all up and slowly unravel it. I got a little frustrated and started to yank on the wires and of course made it much worse. Understanding how you have become ensnared in your life outlook is a critical step in untangling it. Then look at how your views are projected onto others.

Ongoing self and other-directed “should” thinking erodes our enjoyment of life. Awareness is key to solving it. Are you being the person that you want others to be. If you are in a critical mode, is that attractive to people around you? Would you want to hang out with you? Awareness of how your actions and attitudes appear to others is humbling and also allows change. You’re your nervous system becomes more regulated and calmer, you’ll be the change you’d like to see and it is contagious.



Questions and Considerations

  1. By definition, each of us has self and world views that are unique and how we determine our place in life. It is challenging to see situations through another person’s eyes.
  2. So, we have a fairly fixed life lens and other’s actions validate or invalidate this view. We have an instinctive impulse to bring people around to what we think is right and become upset when they don’t respond.
  3. We can’t control other people, although we certainly all try. None of us like to be controlled; yet we still do it.
  4. Consider the actions in others that are upsetting to you, the amount of energy you are expending in this state, and how you might be trying to influence them to change.
  5. You might wish others would behave in a way that is more in line with your thinking, but when, “would be nice” turns to, “should be this way”, you are keeping your body in a threat state, expending needless energy, and detracting from the quality of your life and others. You may also become ill.
  6. Understanding how infinitely different each of us are is an important starting point. Be kind to others and to yourself.


  1. Luskin, Fred. Forgive for Good. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2003.
  2. Makovac E, et al. Can’t get it off my brain: Meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies on perseverative cognition. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging (2020); 295:111020.
  3. Gordon, Thomas. Parent Effectiveness Training. Crown Publishing, New York, NY, 2000.