The words “should,” “ought to,” “must,” or “need” often send survivors of narcissist abuse into a tailspin. These are terms the narcissist often uses to mandate and control their victims’ actions, thoughts, and beliefs. When such phrases become ingrained in a victim’s mind, it becomes what psychologists call “imperative thinking.”  

Why do this verbiage and imperative thinking hurt so much? Famous psychologist Albert Ellis, who started the Albert Ellis Institute, once stated that demands with such words lie at the heart of emotional problems. When people use these rigid words or rules about how others should behave or treat them, they’re setting themselves up for major disappointment. It’s not reality. People are fallible human beings and may not see life the way others see it.

Survivors of narcissistic abuse in childhood or adulthood have difficulty navigating those internal thoughts of the should’ s, ought to’s, and needs. For example, my mother, a narcissist, taught me these should’s:

  • I should work for her approval because she is always right.
  • I should be skinny because no one will love me otherwise.
  • I should always look because it’s all about how it looks.
  • I should be smart because unintelligent people aren’t respected.

She also taught me that others:

  • People ought to like or love me, or I am a loser and must have something inherently wrong with me.
  • People should love me, no matter if I don’t love them back because if they don’t, it’s my fault.

We know that a narcissist’s standards are very high and typically unattainable.  Then, add the ever-changing criteria of a narcissist, and that combination grows into a recipe for disaster and low self-esteem.

If you are with a narcissist, you may notice that they typically mandate the following of those closest to them:

  1. Your beliefs. The narcissist’s message is that you must believe as they believe, whether that pertains to spiritual beliefs, political views, parenting skills, eating habits, exercise habits, and more. The number one belief you must adhere to is that the narcissist is always right.
  2. Your values. Your values must match that of the narcissist. The toxic person may even tell you that you should manage money like that person or treat and view intimacy as he or she does.
  3. Your actions. Narcissists like to control your actions, whether it’s who you hang out with or where you work. Narcissists believe their opinions are always correct, and you are the inferior person who needs some guidance on all you do, every minute of each day.
  4. Your friends. Narcissists care a lot about what others think. They often demand that you leave friendships or family members behind because they believe those people don’t you measure up to the narcissist. The narcissist doesn’t want to associate with anyone they feel is beneath them.
  5. Your body. Narcissists are often obsessed with their own bodies and yours. They care about appearance often more than anything else. Therefore, they may manipulate you into thinking your appearance isn’t acceptable so that you work harder to meet their impossible standard as it pertains to your looks.

The general ways we internalize this due to the narcissist are:

  • We must have approval.
  • We ought to be treated right.
  • We should not let others down.

It can be challenging to navigate a narcissist’s should’s, even after that person is out of your life. You can take some actions to change that mindset so you can grow and evolve as a human being, not a narcissist’s puppet.

First, listen to the language the narcissist uses. Does this person use the phrases “should,” “must,” “ought to”? Change that in your mind to words like could and might. Life with a narcissist is black and white. Do your best to see it as gray.

Secondly, understand that these phrases are part of a narcissist’s vocabulary because narcissists always need to be right, no matter the subject matter. They think they know everything about any subject.

Also, lower your expectations. Narcissists will seldom approve of anything you do. They believe you should’ve done it their way, no matter how well you execute a plan or action.

Finally, do what makes you feel good. Sometimes it is using non-committal phrases like, “I understand how you could feel that way” or “Interesting.” You aren’t saying yes or complying with their demands.  You do you.

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