We have been talking about the model of REBT where demanding (shoulds, oughts, musts, etc.) are at the root of disturbance. I thought it might be a good occasion to reprise my concept of “disguised shoulds.”
I used to enjoy Greta Van Susteren when she was regular guest on Larry King giving legal analysis, which is, after all, her area of expertise. However, she has risen way beyond those “humble” beginnings to become a so called “news analyst” on Fox News, and although softer than many of the other analysts and guests, she nonetheless lends her voice to the chorus of relentless complaining, criticizing, and harping, seemingly designed more to inflame than inform. This post is not really about Greta, and it is hardly unique to Fox News. The so called mainstream media exhibits this same behavior, perhaps to a higher degree these days. The incident I am going to describe is not special. That is what makes it so worthy of reporting on. Quite the contrary, it is all too common, unfortunately; a typical toxic strategy, and hardly limited to the media. It is just that this is such an easy, juicy example that it becomes an excellent teaching point for REBT-CBT. However, keep in mind this is not a political discussion and not about the point Greta was trying to duplicitously make.
Very simply, as part of the ongoing attempt to degrade President Obama at every and all opportunity, speaking of recent terrorist attacks domestically and abroad, Greta posed the questions about President Obama,
|“Why doesn’t he call it terrorism?” and
“Why didn’t he do something about ISIL sooner?”
Then she went on t repeat the questions more than once, expressing her exasperation,
|“I don’t understand why . . .”|
The bold red in the above quotes and elsewhere are mine to indicate the disguised shoulds and or other specific cognitive distortions.
The important thing here is that the vast majority of people exposed to this toxic stuff never question it. At first blush, it sound like a perfectly reasonable, innocent question, doesn’t it? That is the way that people hear it, regard it and process it . . . unless they have some training in rhetoric, REBT and/or General Semantics. This “why?” question and “I don’t understand why . . .” are what I refer to as “disguised shoulds. I believe I am the one who coined the phrase. Once you are on to this, such toxic rhetoric is remarkable easy to spot, identify and decode into its real meaning in plain English. It’s easy! The translation of “why?” here in real English is: “President Obama SHOULD call it terrorism, and he SHOULD have done something sooner about the growing threat in Syria!” And then, although she did not say this in so many words, her exasperation and subsequent comments strongly imply “And it is TERRIBLE that President Obama didn’t do what he clearly SHOULD have done! While, admittedly, we cannot read Greta’s or anyone else’s mind, this awfulizing often leads to rating; he didn’t do what he SHOULD have done, therefore, he is a BAD PRESIDENT! Possibly a BAD PERSON, who therefore DESERVES to be punished! [Bold red, as always, indicates specific cognitive distortions.]
If this is a game, think of it as a high stakes game of emotional and mental health
So, what is the problem with Greta’s “why?” question tact?
First of all, it is inherently inflammatory. Remember that shoulds, et al directed outward toward others tend to provoke anger, often righteous indignation in the person who is shoulding. Directed inward, toward self, and they tend to provoke guilt. While guilt–experienced as objective regret and accepting responsibility for one’s behavior–can be constructive, and while anger tied to justice can sometimes be noble, for the most part, these emotions have little practical value in the modern world, and their possible occasional usefulness is overshadowed by its destructive capacity. So, while inflaming people or attempting to do so may sell papers and increase viewers, it is unhealthy, especially so for vast numbers of people who are completely naive to the nature of the process we are exploring here, and do not realize they are being manipulated. They do not understand the mechanisms of anger, and assume that they are angry because something “out there” made them angry. I also think there may be an unfortunate and unhealthy tendency for people to delude themselves into believing that being provoked and inflamed, passes for thinking deeply about an issue, displays how much they care, and is ultimately the same thing as actually doing something about a situation. However, this inflammation is no more constructive than any Saturday night bar room argument among friends. Fun, perhaps, but not very useful, and can and does lead to dangerous escalation.
Secondly, these disguised shoulds are dishonest. They attempt to pass off mere opinion as fact, and try to lend authenticity to the opinion by calling on some godlike abstract external principle. Who says you should? God? The Universe? The Supreme Court? The local sheriff? We don’t know exactly, but it points to some higher abstract principle without having to say so outright, and avoids taking personal responsibility for the opinion. Worse, I suppose, is that many remain convinced that when the invoke a should or an ought or a must, they are actually invoking a fact. It is much easier to become righteous about the facts than about an opinion.
If Greta simply says “I want President Obama to call it ‘terrorism,’ and I wanted him to act sooner regarding the crisis in Syria,” that puts the discussion on an entirely different level, doesn’t it? Then she has to take responsibility for and explain and defend her view. Then it affords us the opportunity to respond “I understand what you are saying, but I disagree. Here is what I think . . .” That’s a dialog, that’s a fair and open debate. But should stops any real sense of debate. If you buy into the should, consciously or unconsciously, you don’t get to have an opinion about should. Should is should, it is absolute and surely comes from some “higher authority.” It also deprives the shoulder of insight into their own thinking if they delude themselves into believing that they are advancing some “higher authority” rather than merely stating an opinion. Opinions expressed honestly–even passionately–are inherently neither right nor wrong. That may scare the hell out of some people who are more comfortable operating on the basis of some “moral authority,” rather than from what Gary Emery coined The Choice System vs. the Should System.
Please understand that even though, as I discussed behavioral science is evolving at lightning speed, this old stuff, this basic stuff is still a bombshell for many people, and for them may represent a paradigm shift comparable to the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics. So, tread lightly, and don’t necessarily expect to win too many debates over it, make many friends, or save too many souls! As one of my teachers used to say “Don’t spook the locals!”
Still, anybody who does “get” this, can begin working with it immediately. Once you begin noticing this distorted way of thinking and communicating, you being to see it all over the place; in conversations with friends and colleagues, on the news, in literature, TV and movies. Old fashioned The Days of Our Lives type soap operas are a rich source of distortions; the entire trajectory of the plot lines and the dramatic tension is (artificially) generated by having the characters relentlessly trying to persuade each other what the should or shouldn’t do. Fox News MSNBC and most news media are another obvious place to practice spotting and decoding, Sad to say, your dear friends and loved ones will probably also serve up an endless supply of shoulds and other material to decode and work on. Then, of course, there is the nutty thinking that comes out of your own dear, sweet noodle.
It can be the work of a lifetime learning to operate more from the Choice System and less from the Should System.
. . . So, get busy!
Always feel free to contact me with any questions or if there is anything I can do to be helpful.
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Originally posted 2014-10-01 06:33:55.
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