We hear “don’t” from the moment we’re born; when is it time to change the record?
So many things, yeah? Money (or lack of), family commitments (too many), time (there never being enough), time (it never being the right one) etc etc etc…
Years of international research has shown that, actually, there are twelve underlying beliefs — or “injunctions” — (identified and named by the field of Transactional Analysis, a theory of human behaviour and development formed after Freud’s psychoanalysis) — these form the secret rules that really hold us back in life.
They came from the often unconscious messages our parents gave us when we were kids. They can be taught through example, through rewarding certain behaviours and ignoring others, and through indirect and direct expression. Sometimes, they are not even given by the parent but by our grandparents or significant adults in our childhood, or by our “cultural parent” — the society we grow up in. Sometimes the child creates them themselves through misinterpretation.
These secret rules are held not in words but in our emotional brains that formed before we had words — and it’s that which makes them so powerful. We’ve believed them for so long that we can’t see or hear them, or see the difference between those beliefs and “me”.
Here’s the list. The twelve Injunctions have the power to shock when we see them put into words. They have such a cruel bluntness about them. And that’s not surprising because they are child-made and child-held beliefs about how to stay safe in the family we grew up in. The problem is that our inner child still believes them.
Which of them still secretly haunt you?
1. Don’t be (don’t exist).
This is one of the most harmful — but common — messages. Perhaps your parents clothed and fed you but weren’t interested in you. Maybe they felt your needs were too much. Maybe your parents didn’t want you in the first place. There is a Facebook group called ‘I regret having children’ that keeps growing. Those parents need to be careful what they unconsciously communicate to their children. Comments and behavioural messages that convey ‘If it weren’t for you I’d…divorce your mother / have a career / be free” etc can send this message to any child. A lot of people with depression are complying with a ‘don’t be’ injunction.
2. Don’t be who you are.
Maybe your parents wanted you to be more like them and less like you. Maybe they had different expectations about your appearance or your personality. Maybe they wanted you to be a different gender. The parent might compare siblings ‘oh, he’s the quiet one’, ‘she’s not very sporty’ and the child might absorb this whole and decide ‘oh ok that’s who I better be then’.
3. Don’t be a child.
‘You’re a big boy/girl now’, ’Don’t be such a baby’, ‘Grow up!’, ‘Act your age’. This sort of message is often sent to first-born children. You might have been expected to look after your siblings and be responsible. To not make mistakes or act daft. Do you tend to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders? Some parents want their children to parent them, relying on their children to comfort them, give them advice or a shoulder to cry on. People who hold this secret rule often have difficulty having fun, letting go; they might feel scared if they get too happy or excited in their life. Because they weren’t allowed to be children when they were children.
4. Don’t grow up.
Some parents want their little one to stay little — and keep needing them. Some parents define their identity solely by being parents. This message is often directed to the youngest child in the family. It can be worse when the parents do not have a strong relationship of their own or with each other. Their purpose in life comes from having a ‘baby’ to look after. You may have complied by being immature, being “naughty” or delaying leaving the nest. Adults who still allow their mum to do their laundry take note!
5. Don’t think.
When you started questioning everything as a toddler, perhaps your parents got annoyed. Or as you grew they discouraged you when you had a different opinion to theirs. This may well have gone on into your adult years. Some parents undermine confidence in their child’s ability to problem solve. You might have been made fun of for your ideas by parents or teachers. If as an adult you regularly get confused or agitated when you need to work out a problem, you may hold this injunction.
6. Don’t feel.
This one’s particularly British; the stiff upper lip. Good ole’ Blitz spirit. There are all sorts of messages in British culture around feeling our feelings: ’Keep calm and carry on’ ‘, ‘Boys don’t cry’, ‘Man up’ and ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’. Some families pretend not to have feelings. When you cried or were upset, your parents felt uncomfortable. They got annoyed with you, they shut you out or tried to distract you. They may have said things like: ‘Big boys don’t cry’ or ‘Nice girls don’t shout.’ Do you have tears in your eyes when you get angry? Do you get angry when really you are sad? You may have learned to substitute certain emotions with others that were more acceptable in your home.
7. Don’t be well (or don’t be sane).
You may have only got the attention of your parents, or got far more of it, when you were sick. This is common, especially in a large family with lots of siblings to compete with the mum and dad’s attention. So you started not to be well more often. Whenever life feels too scary or demanding you may feel the only way to be is not to be well. You have learned to get attention from others by being unwell or unstable.
8. Don’t be important.
This may have formed in reaction to a lack of attention from your parents. Often it was about your parent not wanting you to be more important than them. Think of families that organise themselves around the needs or demands of one parent. The child’s way of seeing themselves in relation to others is then to hold an idea that they and their needs aren’t as important to others. This message is swallowed whole and believed so that the child might spend their entire lives not feeling important to anyone — not even themselves.
9. Don’t make it.
Did your parents set high or unattainable standards, so it was very difficult for you to succeed? Do your parents caution you against success? This ‘Don’t’ often comes from a parent being unconsciously jealous of their child’s abilities, or scared of disappointment and failure themselves. They might have given their child opportunities they never had and secretly resent this. They might feel threatened and not want their child to be more successful than them. The child might then obey the ‘Don’t Make it’ by unawarely sabotaging themselves, or not fulfilling their whole potential, so as not to challenge their parent.
10. Don’t be close
As a child you may have picked up on a parent not wanting to be physically or emotionally close to you; this would lead to natural feelings of rejection in any child. A parent might not have formed an emotional attachment with you, or they felt uncomfortable with intimacy and expressing emotions. Maybe they didn’t show affection, or they may have taught you not to trust others or not to share your self or your life. So in order to protect themselves from the unbearable pain of feeling rejected, the child decides it’s safer not to get close to other people.
11. Don’t belong
Perhaps your parents didn’t have many friends or judged your friends and any group you attached yourself to. Or you may have moved around a lot as a child. Parents can give a message of ‘you’re the odd one out in the family’, ‘you don’t fit in around here’, ‘it’s you not us’, ‘we brought the wrong baby home’. Or the family as a unit might not have shown it could integrate in a community. All can lead to us holding the ‘Don’t belong’ injunction.
12. Don’t. Don’t do anything.
“Don’t run.” “Don’t touch.” “Don’t get dirty.” “Don’t climb too high.” “Don’t do that.” Don’t, just don’t. Your parents were too afraid for your safety or too controlling. They tended to do everything for you, or stop you from doing anything remotely risky. You may struggle to make decisions as you think the world is a scary place. The secret message you were getting was ‘Don’t go out, explore and be yourself in the world’. People who have been magically spelled with ‘Don’t’ might lead very quiet lives, possibly finding it hard to take even small risks to get their needs met and get more out of life.
As a child, we did the best we could to deal with the situations we found ourselves in. We all made unconscious adaptations at the time that helped us get what we needed — at the time. Are they still working for you? Are these cautionary beliefs still what you need? With increased self-awareness we may realise that these adaptations may not serve us so well anymore. We’re adults now. And it’s our free choice how we live our lives. And the more we notice the negative injunctions we carry with us, the more we are free to stop doing them, stop blaming our parents… and to let go of all their don’ts.
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