Imperative language is more valuable than you may realize. Let’s look at what the “I shoulds” and “you musts” may indicate and why they are valuable feedback mechanisms to lead you towards a more authentic life.
What is imperative language and how does it relate to your internal dialogue?
If you look back over the past few days, you might recall having an internal dialogue with yourself that includes the words, “I should have done”, “I ought to be doing”, “I’m supposed to have done”, “I have to do,” or something similar along those lines. This is referred to as imperative language. Imperatives are internal dialogues that we have with ourselves – not from ourselves but from authorities we have given power to who are talking to us inside our head.
Let me elaborate further by explaining how imperatives come about, what they mean, and how you could potentially handle them.
I talk a lot about values and our hierarchy of values. I’d like you to imagine a ladder with seven rungs on it. At the very top of the ladder is your highest value – your top priority and what is most important to you. As you go down the ladder, you have things that are less valuable, less of a priority and less important to you.
This hierarchy of values or value structure that you live with is unique. In fact, it’s fingerprint specific. Nobody has the same set of values as you, which means that you will be surrounded in life by people with a very different set of values to you. Some of those people with similar values are likely to be more supportive and may even become a friend. Other people with very different values may be more challenging to get along with and may even be perceived as an enemy.
In your life, you are likely to find that you gravitate towards and open up more to people who are supportive of your values. You might also admire them and put them on a pedestal, maybe even going into shame mode or developing a juvenile dependency on them because you don’t want to lose them. This could be a friend that you perceive to be more attractive, more wealthy, more popular or more intelligent – or even a colleague that you perceive to be better at their job or more successful than you.
What’s key here is that the minute you put someone on a pedestal, you tend to minimize yourself in comparison. The result is that you may attempt to inject their values into your own life. Think of a time when you were in a new relationship and highly infatuated with someone – you probably did things in the first days, weeks or month that weren’t high on your list of values or that weren’t normal for you to do. You might even have tried to fit in with their priorities and begun to inject their values into your own life because you feared losing them or not being appreciated by them. This tends to be when imperative language is stronger in your internal dialogue as you start hearing words in your head like “I should”, “I ought to” and “I must.”
Every time you hear those words, know that it’s not you that is talking. Instead, it’s the authority that you’ve infatuated with who is talking through you. In other words, you’re experiencing internal conflict between what you really want (you are the expert on your own highest values) and what you think you should be doing.
How would this relate to someone who challenges you because they have a very different list of values?
In this case, you might resent or despise them or begin to exaggerate yourself and minimize them. You are also likely to project your values onto the people that are challenging you and perhaps even become precocious, independent and proud. You may even start talking down to them because you look down on them. When that happens, your language often changes to become “you should”, “you ought to” and “you must” – in other words, “you need to do what I tell you to do because now I’m projecting my values onto you.”
So, any time you hear yourself saying “I should”, it’s likely to be when you’re playing underdog and minimizing yourself to an outer authority. Any time you hear yourself saying, “you should”, it’s likely to be when you’re exaggerating yourself and projecting onto them as the authority.
So, imperative language is actually valuable feedback?
Yes, imperative language is there to let you know that you’re not living authentically according to your highest priorities and highest values. They are there to let you know that you’re skewed in your perspective, and that maybe it’s time to find the downside of this person that you’ve haven’t been aware of or the upside of this person that you’ve minimized.
The moment they’re perfectly leveled and you’re not above them or below them – they’re equal to you – the two imperative sides disappear. And all of a sudden, you’re just living with your own clarity of your own highest value and your own mission in life, instead of trying to change others to live in your values or change yourself to live in someone else’s values. It’s futile. Both of those are futile.
You can’t live in other people’s values and you can’t get other people to live in your values.
Instead, it would be wise to use the feedback that imperative language provides to become objective, balanced, centered and neutral by living according to what you choose and what you would love to do in life.