“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.”
George Orwell once said “to see what’s in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.” Hmm…talking about in front of your nose, did you ever notice that little quirk in your brain that, if you let it run unchecked, will drive you mad?
It goes like this. You need to deal with something or someone in your life. You grow apprehensive about the confrontation. Your worry stops you and you begin to wonder why you’re so apprehensive. Are you aware that in that very moment that you just became apprehensive about being worried? Damn! Now you are twice as angst-ridden! Now you’re worried about your apprehension, which is causing you more anxiety…and on it goes.
Which one of us hasn’t experienced this?
Suppose you are one of those people with an anger problem. You get cranked up at the most ridiculous stuff, and you just can’t figure out why. As you realize that you get angry so easily, the very notion starts to frustrate you even more. And then, in your initial rage, it enters your mind that being so furious probably makes others think that you are a shallow and mean person. You really don’t like that thought at all do you? Actually, you hate the thought so much that you get mad at yourself again. Now take a minute and look at yourself. What you see is a person who is angry at him/herself for getting angry about being angry. Damn, here you go again….
Try this one on and see if it fits. Are you ever so worried about doing the right thing that you realize that you’re worried about how much you worry? Or how about the times you feel so guilty for every mistake you make so that pretty soon, you start to feel bad, or guilty, about how guilty you’re feeling? Or maybe you get to feeling sad and alone so often that thinking about it makes you feel even more sad and alone?
Welcome to Repetition Compulsion. Chances are you’ve engaged in it more than a few times. Maybe you’re engaging in it right now: “God, I do that kind of repetition thing all the time! I’m such a jerk for doing it. I should stop. Oh my gosh, I feel like such a failure for thinking of myself as a loser. I really should stop calling myself a loser. Ah, damn! I’m doing it again! See? I’m a f-up!” And on it goes….
Calm down; believe it or not, this is one of the great things about being human. One of the virtues of having a prefrontal cortex is that we humans have the luxury of being able to have thoughts about our thoughts. You can think about watching Cher videos on YouTube, and then instantly consider about what a weirdo you are for wanting to watch Cher videos on YouTube. The miracle of self-awareness!
Now here’s the problem. In our world today, through the magic of our 21st century consumer culture and our way “too creepy to be cool,” hey-look-my-fabulous-life, combined with social media, has resulted in a whole generation of people who believe that having what seems to be unhelpful experiences—anxiety, fear, guilt, etc.—is a bad thing. I mean, if you look at your Facebook or LinkedIn in pages; everybody there is having a fabulous time. Don’t look now, but eight of your “friends” went to France this summer! And look at that 16-year-old on Pinterest, he got a Bugatti for Christmas. And another teenager, yep, that one on Facebook, just made two billion dollars inventing an app that automatically delivers you hot, fresh Chinese food to your door—complete with soy sauce—anywhere in the world! Cool, huh.
Flashback to your own life. You’re stuck at home, clipping your dog’s toenails, while you watch some lame reality TV program, waiting for your frozen dinner to warm up. When you think about it, you can’t help but think your life is even worse than you thought…clip…clip…clip….
Repetition Compulsion has become a near epidemic, making lots of people over stressed, overly neurotic, and overly dissatisfied. Back in my dad’s time, if he had a bad day, he thought to himself:
“Well, I sure do feel terrible today. But hey, I guess that’s just life. Back to shoveling hay; after all, it won’t shovel itself!”
That is only one of the reasons those growing up in the 1930s are referred to now as “The Greatest Generation.” But now? Now if you feel bad for even five seconds, you quickly drown in hundreds of happy images of people blissfully happy and having fabulous lives. I get it, when you are faced with that over and over again, it’s really hard to feel like there’s not something wrong with you. clip…clip….
That is the insidious part, that feeling bad about a feeling. You feel bad about not feeling good. You get pissed just because you are angry, and don’t even get me started on being anxious about feeling uncomfortable. And then you wonder at times what is wrong with you?
The contemporary philosopher Alan Watts calls this the Backwards Law. He describes it as follows:
“The idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces that you lack it in the first place. The more desperately you want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make. The more desperately you want to be sexy and desired, the uglier you come to see yourself, regardless of your actual physical appearance.”
The Backwards Law, or the Law of Reversed Effort.
Getting back once again to that George Orwell quote, seeing the solution right in front of our noses is only a problem because we have occupied our attentions, our brain, with so many shallow and useless things:
- Internet-wired bicycles for exercise
- Video games
- The next kitchen pots
- Retractable water hoses
- Flashlights that you can beat with a hammer
- Geckos selling insurance
It’s no wonder we can hardly think straight. People joke about “first world problems” but for the most part, they are problems of our own creation. The pace of this modern life we have created is accelerating. But the demands of life in the fast lane come at a price, e.g., stress, fatigue, anxiety, and depression are at an all-time high, while our social interactions have become increasingly self-serving and opportunistic. For most of us, it is getting worse, not better.
In his book Stand Firm, Svend Brinkman writes:
“Our secular age is shot through with fundamental existential uncertainty and angst, and this makes it difficult to stand firm.”
We have so much “stuff,” so many distractions—some good and some not so good—that we don’t know what to care about anymore. We no longer recognize clearly what is important and what isn’t.
It appears that there is a nearly unlimited number of things we can see, do, or know. In addition, there is an almost unlimited number of ways we can discover that we just aren’t good enough, and that our life is not as good as someone else’s.
The answer can be pretty complex, but I think that the anti-self-help folks are taking a healthy swing at it. They say—in no uncertain terms—that the excessive desire for more and more positive experiences is in itself a negative experience. As Alan Watts might have said, the accepting of your own negative experience turns out to be a positive thing for you. That is the Law of Reversed Effort, aka the Backwards Law in action. If you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, and as he wrote years ago, before the internet, etc., the more you pursue something, you reinforce that you don’t have it, which ensures your continued dissatisfaction.
It is kind of like getting really lost, and rather than asking for directions, you just wander in circles growing more lost and more frustrated. Soon you give up on your pride, and ask directions. You quit caring about how it felt and just asked.
In other words, the harder you look, the less you find.
Did you ever notice that when you just relax and do the thing, you do it better than when you made yourself crazy focusing only on that thing? It isn’t that you are less invested; it is what you decided to focus on. You focused on the work, not the worry about the work.
That is what is so frighteningly direct about the Backwards Law. It is so counterintuitive at first glance. It isn’t the pursuit of the positive goal that gives you the achievement, but rather the acceptance of the difficulties, the overcoming of the pain that results in the achievement. Pain in the gym results in a buff body. Failures in the business world are what gain you the understanding necessary to reach your goals, and quite unexpectedly, being open about your insecurities can result in your being more confident and appealing to others around you. It is your acceptance of honest confrontation and the associated pain that gains you the trust and respect that most of us desire.
I could keep on with the list, but suffice it to say that almost without exception, the things worthwhile in your life are gained by overcoming the negative or the difficult experiences associated with the gain. When you try and avoid the negative rather than embracing it, you will find you make your life worse. It blows up in your face. It is a struggle to avoid struggle. You have failed a second and more important time when you deny your own failures.
Look folks—especially you millennials—pain and some degree of suffering are threads woven into the tapestry of your lives. When you try and remove them, you ruin the picture. You find that your tapestry is not only less attractive without those painful threads, but you will discover that they are the threads that give your tapestry the strength to last during your life.
So be wise… embrace the pain of success…of achievement… of reaching your goals and avoid the shallow avoidance of any discomfort. You might not think the work is meaningful, but it is. If you manage it correctly you will be as unstoppable as those men and women of the “Greatest Generation” who built most of the world we live in today.
So how is your life going? Is it a big circle of backwards expectations and continuing challenge. Let me know how it is going for you and if you would like to talk, schedule a time for a call and let’s give it a go.
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- Bennet, T (2004). Drama: Transforming the Pathology of Compulsive Repetition.Journal of Poetry Therapy,
- Busch, F. (1989). The compulsion to repeat in action: a developmental perspective.International Journal of Psychoanalysis
- Gifford, Sanford, rep. (1964). Panel: Repetition compulsion.Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association
- Svend, B. Stand Firm, Resisting the Self Improvement Craze
- Camus, A. The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays.
- Watts, Alan
- Brokaw, T. The Greatest Generation