It may surprise you to know that following rules can cause a lot of psychological distress. It's often at the root of many problems that we face.
Of course as a counsellor what I am most interested in is a particular set of rules, which are termed introjects. Introjects are social rules which we are taught as we grow up.
They can be learned explicitly by being told them, such as, "Don't fidget in class!" or implicitly by watching the behaviour of important people in our lives. So when we see Mum always serving Dad his dinner first we may infer that we must always wait for others to be served before us. We may also infer rules about the social status of men.
And because they are learnt from a very young age, typically as soon as we learn to speak, they become part of us. We rarely realise that we acquired them from someone else. We often talk about them as though we had thought of them.
This feature is characteristic of an introject... they feel like they belong to us. We also have a very characteristic way of talking about them. Usually when we haven't followed one of these social rules, we preface them with should, ought, or must..
"I haven't seen my brother in a while, I really ought to go and see him."
"I shouldn't have been rude to the woman in the shop."
"I shouldn't get so angry over such small things"
"I really must lose some weight"
All these statements contain an introject, and what we are doing in these statements is noticing how we are not following a particular rule. Not following an introject often causes feelings of anxiety, guilt, and sometimes even shame.
The problem with introjects is because they have been given to you by someone else, they don't always fit you very well. What they often ask you to do...
is be something you are not
...and just to help you be something you are not, many of us have a critical voice, which spends its time noticing when we are failing to live up to them.
And these rules, these introjects, are always at play in the social situations we face. Even seemingly small and insignificant interactions, such as in this story...
We were out on New Years day... it was cold and windy as it always is on this day... and we were walking into this biting wind... we looked to the low sand dunes on our right... and trudged to the top of them looking for some shelter from the wind
It's not obvious in this example that people are following an introject... should not walk on people's property... it seems as if the people in the story are following their desire to walk on a flatter part of the beach.
What has happened is that the confusion and uncertainty about whether we would be accidentally breaking a rule, has instead been transformed into a desire to walk on the flat part of beach.
Introjects can be quite sneaky... they can work from behind the scenes without us being aware of them. A theoretical way of talking about this is to describe them as appearing in a distorted fashion (distorted symbolisation), or as interrupting/modifying our experience, which comes from the Person Centered and Gestalt traditions respectively.
So rather than facing my anxiety of breaking a rule, I turn it into a much safer decision based on preference - I have distorted my anxiety into a preference. And this distortion enables me to retain my self-concept of being free to choose. It also keeps intact values I might have about myself, such as being a trend setter, independent, a free thinker, and so on.
And if you like a bit of Gestalt theory, this is the classic way introjects modify or interrupt the mobilisation stage of the contact cycle. The introject... shouldn't walk on people's property... interrupts the process of looking for a route through the dunes past the signs. This is part of the mobilisation stage, where we gather energy to take Action. Instead it is modified into a desire to walk on the flat part of the beach.
And you may be wondering about me. Did I escape from the introject? Was my choice truly free? If my continuing to walk along the dune was merely to break a rule, in a kind of you can't tell me what to do moment, then is my choice really free of the introject? And you may also want to consider that I may just have been following another introject, which was stronger than the one I was considering... remember the many footprints I could see?
As it happened the posts were designed to mark out the route of a permissive path across the dunes... they just didn't do it very clearly.
Working with introjects
The first step in resolving an introject... a social rule... which is holding you back or causing conflict is... to notice it... to become aware of when you are responding to it.
You often need to do nothing more than notice when you are using it, because noticing on its own changes things. Already something is different, because this time you have noticed, whereas before you followed the 'should' without considering it. Noticing allows you to ask questions, to contemplate whether this is right for you, and whether you need to keep following it.
And lastly you can have fun with them. You can observe people and yourself following them. So when you are waiting in the queue at the supermarket, you can observe how people manage the tension between following the social rule about queuing and their desire to get quickly through the checkout. You can also watch how introjects can compete with each other to cause tension, such as when one person starts chatting to the check out operator at the front of a long queue.
main picture by Jan Mallander via pixabay.com
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I am an experienced therapist in private practice in the Southampton area of England, UK. I see men from all walks of life, dealing with all sorts of problems.