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From "Would Like" to "Should": The Unenforceable Rules

Demanding others to act in the manner you want disrupts your quality of life.

Key points

  • Each person has an infinitely unique perspective and feels there are ways we “should” live our lives–and we project it onto others.
  • 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 consumes reserves; you’ll develop unpleasant symptoms and/or become ill.


There are many reasons for resentment, and one of them is the word, “should”. In his book, Forgive for Good,1 Dr. Fred Luskin presents the concept of “unenforceable rules.” There are many situations that irritate us daily and can consume a lot of our energy. Many of the frustrations arise from situations that we have little or no control over, such as others' behavior. Dr. Luskin points out that it’s fine to wish that someone would behave differently, but when that wish becomes a demand in your mind, 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.”

Eric Isselée/AdobeStock
Source: Eric Isselée/AdobeStock

This type of thinking pervades almost every aspect of our lives, and the closer the relationship 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 simply 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, coworkers, 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 we project them onto others. It is how human consciousness works. As dismal as this situation is and as disruptive as it sounds, it is a solvable problem. There are many ways to calm the nervous system instead of trying to control it. The first step is to understand the nature of your self-critical voice, nurture awareness of the many ways it plays out and 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 focus on listening.

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.


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 enjoyment of life. Awareness is key to solving it. Are you being the person that you want others to be? Would you want to hang out with you? If you are in a critical mode, how attractive are you to others? Awareness of how your actions and attitudes appear to others is humbling and also allows change. As 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 they are how we determine our place in life. It is challenging to see the situations through another person’s eyes.

2. We have a fairly fixed life lens, and others’ actions validate or invalidate this view. We have an instinctive impulse to bring people around to what we think is right and we 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 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 is 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.

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