Category Archives: Language Concepts

“You should,” Part 2 (The Crab Trap)

You indeed could! Or not.
You indeed could! Or not.

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.

CrabTrap

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

To be continued.

“You should,” Part 1

You indeed could! Or not.
You indeed could! Or not.

A few days ago, I received a request to write about the nature of the word should, must and have to. So . . .

I imagine that this is a very important topic for many people. However, it is such a huge topic that I will split my posting into several, so as to keep the length of each reasonable (likely there will be four posts).

First, the words should, must, and have to all mean roughly the same thing, with different degrees of insistence. They are basically the rules of social boundaries, and as such, are very important for group cohesion. They keep people bonded together. However, as human beings, we are very subject to the pressure of shoulds; they become words of tyranny.

My primary training as a therapist was in Gestalt Therapy, and it is still my basic philosophy. It is from Gestalt that I first was exposed to the concepts of Sailors (for those who do not know me, it is one of the metaphor-concepts that I commonly use — think of as ship where the sailors are in mutiny).

In Gestalt, shoulds are an aspect of the boundary between self and others. If we are to grow effectively as human beings, it is our responsibility to digest them (not just swallow them), so as to become authentic. In Gestalt, there were considered to be four primary disturbances of boundaries: introjection, projection, retroflection, and confluence. Introjection swallows the shoulds of others, but does not digest them — thus, Introjectors (those for whom introjection is the primary defence) live trapped by the rules of others. Projection displaces the shoulds; projectors shift their own internal conflicts onto others, and thus projectors are trapped unaware of their own internal conflicts. Retroflectors turn the rules against themselves, and divert the conflicts into themselves, usually as headaches, gut pain, muscle tension, etc. Those who use confluence fuzz the boundaries and thus are either silly, or somehow unreal, to themselves and others.

Murray Bowen, one of the founders of Family Systems Therapy, developed the concept of self-differentiation, the ability to maintain a sense of self in the presence of others (and thereby resist the pressure of shoulds). He developed a scale (0-100) for this ability, and believed that no individual was consistently able to score higher than 70%. Ed Friedman, one of my major mentors, was an early student of Murray’s; it is from Ed that I learned the concept of emotional triangles (the second metaphor-concept I commonly use — see the third post for triangles — very important in the issue of shoulds).

Originally posted to Facebook, 20160609

To be continued.