This is the second of four posts on the nature and management of shoulds.
Ed Friedman (as noted in the previous post, Ed was one of my primary mentors) used to tell a story about how to catch crabs in the ocean; he claimed it was true, although I have never been able to verify it from independent sources (hints, yes, but verification, no). Anyway, imagine a big box, maybe 6’*6’*3′, with a chicken wire bottom and no top. Attach some ropes and a float. The fisherman rows it out to where he thinks there will be crabs, puts a lot of bait in it, and pushes it over the side to sit on the floor of the ocean in maybe 10-12’ depth of water; then he (or she) comes back the next day. Crabs smell the bait, climb in, and soon there are 20 or so crabs munching away. When the bait is all gone, they are trapped.
But how? There is no top, and they climbed in without difficulty, so why can they not simply climb back out. Because they will not let each other leave. Crabs are social animals. When they are in the box, they somehow recognize themselves as a group, and will not let others leave (on the ocean floor, there are normally no walls, and hence no confinement to leaving). If a crab attempts to leave, the others will pull it back into the box; if a crab insists on leaving, the others will kill it — they will tear off its claws. So when the fisherman comes back 24 hours later, here are 20 crabs, 2 dead, 18 alive. Off to market!
Human beings are social animals also. The word should, and its euphemisms, is our crab trap. And we will kill to protect this word, to keep others in line. You only need remember the wars of the 20th century to recognize how much we will kill!
We should so as to protect the rules. But what are the rules? Here it gets a bit crazy. There are essentially two major rules that we protect. The first is “Don’t think about the rules.” And the second is “Everybody has the same rules.” Weird.
We likely learn both rules before the age of three or four, in the stage of “Why, why, mummy/daddy, why.” Baby is attempting to understand the world, and its rule base. So when baby asks ‘why,’ and mummy/daddy are in good moods, they answer (baby of course then asks ‘why’ again!). Great; baby is happy.
However, when mummy/daddy are not in a good mood, baby will likely be criticized, sometimes severely, but at least with an answer like “because!” with a harsh voice tone. Baby know then that it is not safe to ask — and baby has a very high need for safety. So baby eventually stops asking. But baby also has a high need for energetic experience. This internal conflict between safety and experience eventually means that baby must repress the need to ask ‘why,’ especially when it is not safe (harsh voice tone) to the point of not even thinking about the rules (rule #1: Don’t think about the rules). Otherwise baby would ask about the rules.
But baby is now stuck — can’t ask about the rules, but must figure out the rules in order not to be criticized. The only way to do that is to guess the rule, and assume that everybody follows the same rules (rule #2). This is fine in the family, because likely everybody does follow the same rules, but when baby is older, and finds that perfect partner, the partner of course “has the same rules.” Maybe! But you can’t ask about the rules — that breaks rule #1.
As you can imagine, it gets complicated. Sometimes this is a source of major conflict in the new relationships. And sometimes it is very dangerous, because we will kill to protect the rules (note the frequency of family violations).
So, shoulds are heavy duty words!
Originally posted to Facebook, 20160610