1/ I MUST NOT BE ANXIOUS
This apparently reasonable rule is one of the worst rules of all since it is in fact a guarantee of anxiety. If I wasn’t anxious then I wouldn’t be saying “such-and-such must not happen” but if I am anxious then this is of course exactly what I will be saying. Making a task of ‘not being anxious’ is an absolute guarantee of anxiety – it will work every time. If I am anxious then any sort of a task is liable to make me anxious, even simple ones, but the task of not allowing anxiety to happen is no simple, everyday solvable task – on the contrary, the task of forcing myself not to be anxious is a utterly impossible one. It is impossible because the motivation of wanting to get rid of anxiety is itself an anxious motivation; in other words, I only want to get rid of anxiety because I am anxious about it. This creates a loop from which there is no escape. To put this another way – giving myself the task of not being anxious simply makes me anxious about my anxiety, it makes me doubly anxious. Far from helping matters, therefore, this rule just adds more fuel to the fire.
2/ I MUST NOT BE AFRAID
This is another classic counterproductive rule. If I say that ‘I must not be afraid’ then the only reason I say this is because I am afraid. I am afraid of being afraid. If I wasn’t afraid then I would have such a rule. This rule doesn’t get rid of fear therefore, it is fear. As soon as I think that I mustn’t be afraid then I am afraid. The attempt to overcome (or escape) fear is itself fear. “I must not be afraid” is a fearful rule in the same way that “I must not be anxious” is an anxious rule. If I never had the rule in the first place then I wouldn’t be afraid. The one way not to be afraid is not to have a rule that says I must not be afraid. This is a negative’ sort of thing – it’s not what I do (contrary to everything we are told) it’s what I don’t do.
3/ I MUST ALWAYS BE IN CONTROL
This is a very basic counterproductive rule. The point about being in control is that when we are successfully in control then ‘the bad thing’ can’t happen. If I am in control then I won’t let it happen. The problem with this rule is that it creates its own enemy – an enemy that wasn’t there before I made it be there with my rule. If I say that “I must always be in control” then straightaway I have made not being in control into ‘the bad thing’. So when I have this rule I am always threatened by the prospect of losing control and I am unable to see that it is only because I am trying to stay in control that I have made ‘not being in control’ into an enemy. Actually being in control of everything is impossible and when I try to realize this impossible goal I simply become more and more anxious of losing control. Life becomes more and more serious, more and more neurotic, and less and less fun. If I think that life is all about control then I have made a very bad mistake indeed. If I think life is all about control then what this means is that I think the best thing to do is to avoid all risks, but if I were to think about it a bit more deeply I would soon see that risk-avoidance is a recipe for wretchedness rather than happiness.
4/ I MUST NOT APPEAR TO BE FOOLISH
This is the Number One ‘social rule’. The other way of expressing this rule is to say “I must look cool”. The only problem with this rule is that people who are constantly trying to look cool are actually totally uncool! What could be less cool than to be constantly dominated, constantly driven, by the need to look cool, or to be approved of by the people around me? If I am trying to be accepted then this means that I am insecure – I am not secure enough to be myself and so I try to be something that I am not in order to be accepted. But what could be more foolish than spending all your time being something you are not in order to be accepted? If it becomes obvious that this is what I am doing then straightaway I have made a fool of myself and if I succeed, then the person who is being accepted is not who I actually am anyway and so the joke is still on me!
5/ I MUST NOT LOOK WEIRD
A person who is trying very hard not to look weird is guaranteed to look weird. This is in fact one of the best ways to look weird! This is also true for embarrassment – the very best way for me to increase my embarrassment or awkwardness is to try not to be embarrassed or awkward. This works every time.
6/ I MUST BE HAPPY
This is the rule that ensures that we will never be happy. To go around trying to be happy (or trying to avoid being unhappy, which is the same thing) is a sure way to be miserable. Really, this is just a reverse form of neuroticism. Neurotic suffering is caused by the perennial attempt to avoid pain or discomfort whatever the long-term cost might be, and if attempt to ensure that I will be happy, or that I will continue to feel good, then this is going to have exactly the same long-term cost as avoiding discomfort – I am going to have a thoroughly miserable time. Happiness comes from relinquishing control over ourselves and what is happening around us – from letting things be what they are. If I am going to be happy then I am going to be happy, and if I am going to be sad then I am going to be sad. This has nothing to do with control and it has everything to do with being in touch with oneself. When I try to take control of my own happiness then this effectively wipes out any chance that I might actually ever be happy.
7/ I MUST BE STRONG
This sounds sensible enough on the face of it – like all of these rules – but actually it is entirely absurd. If I have to be strong, then that means that I am totally rejecting the possibility of not being strong, and the reason for this is of course because I am afraid of not being strong. I only say that I have to be strong because I am not strong – I am not strong enough to cope with being weak. If, on the other hand, I didn’t mind being weak, if I wasn’t afraid to be weak, then actually this would mean that I was strong!
8/ I MUST NOT BE IN PAIN
This is the rule behind all neuroticism and it is a truly deadly rule. If I avoid pain or discomfort that doesn’t mean that it conveniently goes away, it just means that I am postponing it. I am delaying the moment when I have to face it. The thing about repressing pain, or otherwise postponing it, is that the pain we avoid always comes back a bit later on with interest added onto it. What’s more, the backlash of temporarily avoided pain is always worse than the original pain would have been. If I were to face all the pain that comes my way head-on, without ducking and diving, without defending myself against it, then I would actually suffer far less than I would otherwise. This is therefore a very ironic rule – the fact that I am so determined to avoid pain ensures that I will eventually have a hundred (or perhaps a hundred thousand) times as much of it. The same holds true for the rule that says “I must not do anything that is difficult”. This is actually the same rule as ‘I must not be in pain’, even though we might not immediately recognize it as such. If I have the rule that says I must not put myself into any sort of difficult situation, then this backfires on me in exactly the same way as the pain-avoiding rule. It is self-frustrating, like all rules are. If I make a rule out of avoiding difficult stuff then I make life very difficult for myself indeed – far more difficult that it otherwise would have been.
9/ I MUST NOT DIE
This is an interesting rule because if I have this rule, and seriously try to put it into practice, then it is guaranteed to turn my life into a living hell. Another way of expressing this rule is in the positive form as “I must carry on living”. But life is not meant to be a compulsion or rule. It is not meant to be a duty or obligation – something that we have to do. There is nothing but misery in a life that has to be protected at all times. The well-known paradox here is that if I say that “I have to live” then I quickly find out that I can’t live. Whatever I might be doing, it certainly isn’t living! James Carse points out that the same is true for friendship – if you have to be my friend, if I am forcing you to be my friend, then you cannot be my friend. The compulsion destroys it – only in freedom can there be true relationship.
10/ I MUST LET GO
This rule is a perfect example of self-contradiction – it would be funny if we could see it clearly enough. I am insisting on letting go, but letting go means that I stop insisting on stuff. Letting go means that I am not controlling – it certainly means that I am not trying to control myself so that I stop controlling myself! If I say to myself that I have to let go, then I am effectively putting myself in an inescapable double-bind – I am tying myself up in knots that no amount of wriggling about will ever free me from. The rule ‘I must let go’ can also be formulated in terms of the self-contradicting rule of ‘I must be free’. If I have to be free then I cannot be free because ‘have to’ is a prison – there is no freedom in ‘have to’ at all, not even a little bit.
“I must let go” is in fact the ultimate ‘impossible command’ because the harder I try to obey the command the more I disobey it. “I must let go” is the ultimate jinxed task because the more effort and determination I put into succeeding at the task, the more I am guaranteed to fail at it. If you want to mess someone’s head up, then an excellent way to do this is to tell them that they have to let go of whatever it is that is troubling them since a ‘have to’ (a command) is the very opposite of letting go. ‘Letting go’ is an impossible task because it isn’t a task – a task is something you personally have to do, or else it just won’t get done. A task is where I have personal responsibility for making something happen because if I don’t make it happen then it won’t happen. But taking personal responsibility for something to either happen or not happen is not letting go! ‘Letting go’ is the same thing as handing over to something bigger than yourself; it means trusting that everything will work out without you having to personally supervise and control it every step of the way. Paradoxically, therefore, ‘letting go’ isn’t my responsibility at all. It is not something I have to ‘do,’ but rather its something its something that happens by itself when I no longer put counterproductive pressure on myself for it to happen.