When Imperative Thinking Has Emotional Consequences


First brought to light in the 1950’s, Karen Horney is known for her description of imperative thinking relating to emotional consequences.  She was a psychology writer who was known as a feminist before feminism.  Karen wrote on the topic of how humans see the “shoulds” and the “musts” in contradiction with the actual reality in the world around us and how this schism often causes emotional upheaval.


Frought with demanding terminology, imperative thinking and speaking can be one of the most destructive forces in intimate and interpersonal relationships.  While we all fall to this form internal and external dialogue every now and then, it’s those people around us that use imperative thinking all of the time that become conflict creators.  These people can also be leaders, bosses, and CEOs, so we mustn’t put everyone into the same category.


The top terms used within external and internal dialogue that indicate imperative thinking are phrases like “ought to”, “have to”, and “ entitled to”.  Sometimes questions can also indicate imperative thinking like “why?” and “how come?”.  These are all questions and phrases that are followed with a strong personal viewpoint that is often a definitive.  There is no flexibility for the person behind those viewpoints – their opinion is THE opinion, the only “right” way.


As you can see, this can cause quite the conflict in all sorts of situations.  When one or both parties involved in a conversation or an exchange become inflexible on their viewpoints, and neither are truly based in the actual reality of whatever they are speaking on, it can lead to conflict.  This generally stems from demands versus expectations.  When a demand is made it is generally more explicit, verbal, and stated clearly.  When an expectation is set it is often implicit, internal, and part of the inner dialogue, meaning it is rarely stated out loud.  The conflicts between these two ways of communication is clear and can lead to misunderstandings, anger, and disappointment.


If you’re finding yourself making demands or creating expectations, there are a few things you can do to work on changing your mindset.  Here are a set of questions that you should consider asking yourself before you pass a judgement, create imperial thoughts, or make a demand:

  • Will it bring out your best?
  • Will it bring out other’s best?
  • Will it help you with your long-term goals?
  • Will it make you the kind of person you want to be?
  • Is it morally and ethically sound?


Take these questions into account each and every time you find your mind and mouth wandering towards imperative thinking.  You’ll become a willing and flexible participant in constructive and open conversations with people you never thought possible.  Keep an open mind.