The tyranny of the 'should'

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Throughout my IT career, I recollect long periods of time on projects where frustration abounded. In fact, every project I've been on has had so many things wrong with it, that anyone could justify chronic frustration. Every IT environment has one or more of the following issues: poor code coverage, badly designed code, heavy-handed bureaucracy, vague requirements, meaningless tasks, broken tools, co-workers who are lazy, misrepresent themselves, hog the spotlight, and so on.


I think I knew somewhere deep inside that I experienced far more frustration than seemingly most others around me, but I just assumed it was because people didn't grasp all of the problems that existed. When intense frustration exists because of issues like this in the work-place, it's because of a neurotic thought process. Karen Horney, an early pioneer of psychology, and student of Freud, described this process as "the tyranny of the should." In 1950, in _Neurosis and human growth: The Struggle toward self-realization_, Horney wrote:


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, I call them "the tyranny of the should."

What Horney describes is a situation where one is locked in the illusion of an ideal and cannot face the reality of this world we actually live within where things are far from perfect, with deeply flawed co-workers and organizations. Horney explains that the more the neurotic person chases their fantasy of perfection and idealism, the more intense the frustration grows (Olsen & Herganhahn).


A person builds up an idealized image of himself because he cannot tolerate himself as he actually is. The image apparently counteracts this calamity, but having placed himself on a pedestal, he can tolerate his real self still less and starts to rage against it, to despise himself and to chafe under the yoke of his own unattainable demands upon himself. He wavers then between self-adoration and self-contempt, between his idealized image and his despised image, with no solid middle ground to fall back on.

Horney describes how most people have successes and failures as well as dreams. The difference between the neurotic person and others is that the neurotic person experiences mostly failures since they can never live up to their ideals. They also experience much more frustration since their aims are less changeable than the aims of others (Olsen & Herganhahn).





Albert Ellis is the creator of Rational Emotive Therapy. He found that people find improvement with their situation when irrational beliefs are challenged and replaced. Horney found that the more that people held irrational beliefs, the more depressed and unsatisfied they were with their lives (Olsen & Herganhahn).


In the workplace this can result in an inability to accept the reality that no matter where one goes, there will be problems. They can either grow into immense frustrations as they do in the neurotic personality, or they can be accepted for what they are. Accepting the problems doesn't mean not trying to improve things, it just means that there will always be more things that can't be changed than can be changed. The neurotic thinker can find relief by learning to cultivate a willingness to let go of the idealized image of the workplace that they project onto the office space each day.


One way of doing this is by making a list of issues and creating a hierarchy of most frustrating to least frustrating. For example, a list might look like:


- Slow CI builds over 40 minutes

- Poor test coverage

- Vague requirements

- Wrong use of code patterns

- Using tabs instead of spaces

- Misspelled words in code


So now with this list, the goal will be to start with least frustrating issue on the list and begin to work on letting go of the idealizations and frustration. The next time a misspelled word appears in code, one could first recognize they are feeling frustrated, feel the tension in their muscles, and then take a few deep breaths and work on releasing the tension. One could try looking at the situation humorously and trying to say something like, "Oh, a misspelled word. I remember when I used to get so upset when I saw those in code."


Working on issues like this isn't easy, and there's typically many underlying issues that need addressed to solve the problem of neurotic idealization, but if you're suffering from "the tyranny of the should," you have to start somewhere. Recognizing "the should" is the first step. Doing some cognitive behavioral modification is the next step. Try some different techniques and see what you find effective. Start with the least frustrating things and work your way up the list. Any change takes a lot of diligence and commitment, but if you are having problems, then you should work... I mean, then you may want to consider how much unnecessary suffering you're putting yourself through and then consider exploring ways to make it better.


Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization


Tyranny of the Should References


Horney, K., Neurosis and human growth: The Struggle toward self-realization, 1950


Olson, M.H. & Hergenhahn, B. R., An Introduction to Theories of Personality, Eighth Edition, 2001

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