If you do what I say, it will will be okay!

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Some of us really struggle with doing what we’re told. It goes against the grain to have someone, who is not us, tell us what to do. Even if we completely agree with the reasons behind the request like; wear a seatbelt, put on a hat when you’re out in the sun, drink less alcohol, get more sleep… we feel compelled to non-compliance.  Each of these directives could begin with the words, “you should…”, and that seems to push some internal buttons.  

It might be that you can almost feel your heels digging in when you’re told to watch that movie, eat this food, call these people, pay this tax bill. You learned somewhere along the way that to do what you’re told, means you’re surrendering something very personal and important like your autonomy, your independence, your self-determination.

And in a way, you’d be correct.

On the other hand, some of us find it easy to comply with the rules. We find a certain security in going with the flow.  The most non-compliant thing we do might be (deliberately) driving ‘up’ the ‘down’ isle of the shopping centre carpark. For these people, their past lessons include the clear understanding that if they did what they were told, things would go more smoothly.  There would be less conflict, less judgement, less hurt.

The tricky thing, with this kind of learned submission, is that giving in and surrendering your voice can lead to resentment.  Resentment, over time, can lead to the kind of mutiny that was previously avoided, either in passively-aggressive or aggressively-aggressive ways. Your bubble eventually gets popped!

Ultimately, being expected to comply with the shoulds, can lead to a revolt of one kind or another.  Obedience just doesn’t sit right and there is a logical reason for this feeling. 

One of the important attributes of being a child is that we have someone else to do the decision making for us. We need instruction regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. During adolescence, we develop our own decision-making muscles, ideally with parental support and assistance. The hallmark of being an adult however, is to be self-governing – and along with that liberating development, we take the weight of responsibility for the successes and failures of that independence.  We’re truly seen to be adults when we no longer expect Mum and Dad to do our laundry, store our stuff and pay our fines.

Currently, were being told where we can go and who with and this is playing havoc with our sense of rights and self- determination. Our ‘don’t tell me what to do’ button is being pushed with the tenacity of a small child trying to activate the green WALK sign at an intersection. The fact that it’s the government doing the pushing is possibly even more challenging than a parental should. How can we respond in a way that doesn’t sacrifice that autonomy we need in our lives – and doesn’t lead to a fine? 

Unlike our relationship with parents, setting personal boundaries in response to the isolation rules is not appropriate. However, changing the way you think about it can make all the difference.    

It may be surprising to realise that there’s no need to buy into the idea that ‘someone else is trying to control me so I must resist’.  As stated earlier, sometimes we even agree with the reasoning behind the request, but spontaneously feel that we must push back so as not to feel managed (like a child).

Here’s a helpful way of looking at this… we’re either responding from our grounded adult selves or from the triggered part of the brain. The triggered part is referring to the limbic system (think of the control room in the animated movie Inside Out) and parts of that system have the power to hijack our responses, causing a fight/flight response. It can be helpful to consider that, at any given time, we are responding from either our adult brain or our triggered brain.  Our inbuilt, initial reaction to the shoulds is to resist them; to fight against them, to withdraw, to freeze or even to submit. The reaction that is triggered will usually have a lot to do with our personal history and it is our first, or instinctive, reaction.

Relationship therapist, Terry Real, (in his book The New Rules of Marriage) uses the term ‘first consciousness’ to explain this instinctive reaction to the shoulds.  He suggests we make the choice to react out of ‘second consciousness’ instead.  This means we can notice our first (triggered) reaction – pause, breathe, soothe ourselves down – then choose the grounded adult reaction that is more in line with the person we want to be.  In other words, we choose to respond according to our values.

If we decide to view the rule from our second consciousness, we are liberated to respond differently. For example, rather than railing against the current national constraints for physical distancing because, “they just want to control me and take away my civil liberties”, we could replace that thought with one from our adult, grounded self. That’s where we shift into the adult language of I choose rather than our first reaction of I can’t or I won’t in response to the implied, you should.*

The adult thought might be something like, “While I’m not keen on these social restraints, I’m going to choose them as my way of contributing to a speedier solution.”  This allows for us to make values-based decisions that may comply with the rules but it is not from a place of surrendering our autonomy but instead, from a place of choice.  It’s then a matter of integrity. We are acting in line with who we choose to be, rather than being triggered into automatic compliance or non-compliance. We may be complying, but that’s just what it looks like.  We’re doing it on our terms – because we choose to.

Choosing to act from your adult self rather than reacting from a triggered part can also make a huge difference in a marriage.  It can actually be the key to a genuinely warmer, loving relationship for the long term. More on this next time.

*Note: The adult language is always ‘I choose’ rather than the childish, ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t’, or the parental ‘I should’ or ‘I shouldn’t’.

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