The National Council of Psychotherapists
Do your own thing
by David Howard
LLB (Hons),MNCP MNCH(acc)
From the early stages of my first counselling course, when the students were talking about their own problems, to listening to my first and subsequent clients, one of the major areas I came across which cropped up in various forms over and over again was doing things, often life's most important decisions, to please others rather than do what you really want
and risk their possible wrath.
These did include small things just to keep others quiet or happy, but were frequently regarding the biggest things in ones life, such as choice of partner or career. Being a matter of personal preference, based on what seems right for you at the time, and hopefully lasting into the future, these lifestyle choices are as personal as taste in food or clothes, but the cultural and religious connotations of these major choices can provoke opinions and comments of disapproval that make it very tempting to follow the easier path at the time, i.e. giving in to the pressure, or if not, years of unnecessary guilt having 'done it your way' despite heavy opposition. The number of examples, just from my own religion, of Jewish people who have met and fallen in love with non-Jewish people, but were either prevented (by threat of being disowned by the family) or , more commonly, cultural pressure, from marrying them, only to have an unhappy marriage with another Jew, ending in divorce and wishing they had married the original love. Of course, this scenario is not confined to the Jewish religion, I have heard of people of different nationalities or classes being rejected by families, with the same consequences. The British royal family, with their long list of fairly recent divorces should serve as a good example for all that simply picking a partner who 'fits the criteria' is not a guarantee of happiness, rather a misguided attempt to blur business type ideas with what should be purely an affair of the heart.
None of the choices I will refer to in following are against the law or hurt anyone. As I said, they are purely choices as personal as our taste in any other area. Through a combination of culture and emotion, parents and others override their usual logic and commonsense and almost blindly discourage their children, friends or family from following a certain path that technically has absolutely no effect on their lives. As it is harder to train the 'rule makers' from attitudes that drive them to basically interfere (rather than helpful advice or suggestions) with another's life in these ways, it is easier to concentrate on helping the potential 'victims' to have the strength and courage of their convictions to go ahead with a decision they have usually already made, rather than waver and lose their possible dream which they will often then regret for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately it's very difficult to reverse these changes once made, as even if you divorce the wrong wife, what's the chance of the old choice of wife still being available, or stopping a career after 10 or more years to retrain for your true vocation with a wife and family to support? Neither of these reversals are impossible, but the trouble involved to stop and then reverse the equivalent of an oil tanker once it's started on its journey can cause so much upheaval that it really would be better to take that track in the first
place, despite the corresponding trouble and upheaval, which is usually verbal or perceived, at worst.
Therefore, the first step is to project into the long term, how will I feel in 10 years without this person or career, or pursuing a career my parents always groomed me for which I could do but would find boring.
Bearing in mind the trade off of short term peace and satisfaction for the long term drawn out boredom, unhapiness and other stresses, it can be seen as something which, though, as with many other choices, is not a black or white decision, as it has a tough price to pay either way, needs to be based on the heart, hoping most of the opposition will die down and eventually disappear once people get used to what you have done, and see how happy you are with it.
Even if you're not happy, it's your mistake and you can always change it, knowing noone else made you do it. Luckily, these extreme examples involving threats or actual exclusion from families are not the norm, and most of the actual examples I have come across have been faced with far less possible consequences to their actions, but often acted as if there could be far worse ones.
There are two long standing principles in counselling that are relevant here, firstly, noone knows how you feel except you, so shouldn't dictate what's right for you, and secondly, it's better to learn from others' mistake than your own. Human life, since it began has laid the same traps with each generation, as observed by great men such as Shakespeare, and has also been said, to put it another way, there's nothing new under the sun.
The second step in allowing yourself to follow your heart is to not only see what happened to those who suffered from changing their plans but to see others who stuck to their guns and were usually quickly forgotten about as their critics got on with their own lives. Even with a few negative consequences, balance the relatively sporadic and distant comments, exclusions or similar compared to the pleasure of doing what you like to do.
Of course, the less major each decision is, hopefully the fewer the consequences will be. Ideally, all parents, and potential parents, i.e. everybody, could be encouraged to value others' happiness regardless of their own opinions, with the previous rider of as long as noone gets hurt or breaks the law. And, to stop a few people here right in their tracks, I only mean physically hurt, as emotional hurt is much harder to predict or avoid. However honourable our
intentions may be to protect another, by trying to prevent them from 'getting hurt', we'd need a lot more information about their situation, including the ability to see into the future. As with counsellors, where a non-directive approach has been seen to be effective and successful, this
would be extended to anyone with authority or influence. Also, most clients ask a counsellor for help, and can't make up their minds. The family and friends usually give their 'advice' unrequested, and often regarding decisions that have already been made.
If someone is going to make a mistake, at least it will be their own on and a step on their learning process. There is also an element of transference, particularly in choice of career, where parents want their children to either follow what they do, or do something they couldn't. Also, someone will never be able to know if they've done the right thing if they haven't had the chance to do it.
As a therapist, a client in the midst of trying to decide what to do can be asked to look at all the possible outcomes of their choices, long and short term, to have as much information as possible to see the whole picture, and then encouraged to feel what they really want to do, and hopefully have the strength to follow their aim and feel good about doing so despite the clear downsides.
A corollary of this idea is to extend a legal rule used to decide how to apply an ambiguous law, called the mischief rule. This states that you have to find out what was the 'mischief' the law was written to prevent. With perceived or arbitrary rules made, not by the state or your employer, but other citizens of equal status and no authority, instead of continually following them without question, if you find yourself doing something just because someone tells you to, just ask yourself why this rule is actually there. To go back to law (my original area of study), many emergency laws were made during world war 2, in particular public house opening hours were restricted to keep the workforce fit and available, and radio transmissions
were severely regulated to stop information being transmitted to the enemy.
Both these laws were firmly in place over 30 years later and were only changed fairly recently, despite the original reasons for their inception being long gone. Many actions can have the appearance of being based on rules, like many rituals and superstitions, having been followed for such a long time, but have just become habits, without any actual purpose being fulfilled. And even when science proves these rituals unnecessary, there is usually still a delay
before the practices are dropped.
So where the mischief doesn't exist under scrutiny, or is just a discomfort or embarrasment to family or friends, it's not a binding or productive law, and 'shifts' or changes can often improve things in the long term as others see the benefits of dispensing with unnecessary rules and everyones' life becomes freer and easier. Why do you have to be home at 11, your friend at 12, and your cousin whenever he likes, although you're the same age and live in the same area? Until a child spends time with another family, they often think every other family in the world does things the same way as their own, and this kind of attitude can still operate
subconsciously in later life if not spotted to make it conscious.
To sum up, if what you want to do is purely a personal choice, doesn't hurt anyone physically or is against the law, it's better to be left to, and to go ahead with the choice, whether or not it turns out to be a mistake, than not do it or do something else and probably miss the chance to do it at a later date. Taking the odds, though there is a chance of making a mistake with the first approach, the second approach almost guarantees one, so by doing your own thing, the odds are in your favour. It also is a great aid to independence to know you had a dream and, despite the opposition, followed it through. The miners and labourers in the North often criticised their children for following artistic or academic pursuits, and some gave in to continue the family and local traditions, repressing their other abilities, but the others who suffered great social pressures to follow their own hearts, whether the fictional ballet dancer in the film Billy Elliot, or many of the great working class authors of the 50's and 60's are now greatly admired by the same people who laughed at their ambitions and desires to rise above their environment.
Finally the fact that by changing your plans, such as a marriage partner, a job or even a divorce, you're not changing the lives of your critics one bit, remembering noone can feel what you're feeling, so where does the frequently heard comment by parents when their children do this, 'how could you do this to me?' come from? It seems to sum up their 'logic' perfectly!