March/April 1998
(rev July 2007)

Empowering People

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According to my thesaurus, injunctions are orders, commands, mandates, demands, dictates, prohibitions, instructions, guidelines, prescriptions. Although you’ve probably not thought about it very much, if at all, much of our valuing, feeling, thinking, and doing is based directly upon the myriad injunctions we’ve heard, mostly while we were growing up. We’ve learned the supposed "rules of the road" regarding, among other things, what we should be wanting, feeling, appreciating, believing, thinking, and doing, who we should be associating with, and how we should be dealing with our pain and pleasure.
A small sample of these injunctions include:
  • Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about! 
  • Don’t be a sissy! 
  • Stop acting like a child!
  • Don’t be such a coward!
  • Be a man! Act like a man!
  • Respect your elders!
  • No point getting out the crying towel.
  • Conquer your fear!
  • Stop feeling sorry for yourself! 
  • Don’t dwell on what you don’t have. 
  • Snap out of it! 
  • Grow up! 
  • Dream when you’re feeling blue. 
  • When you walk through a storm, keep your head up high and don’t be afraid of the storm. 
  • "... I whistle a happy tune / And ev'ry single time / The happiness in the tune / Convinces me that I'm not afraid...."
      (The King and I)
  • Keep your chin up! 
  • What good would it do to get angry! 
  • Get over it! 
  • Relax!
  • Put a lid on it!
  • Keep your hat on!
  • It takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown. 
  • Losers let it happen; winners make it happen. 
  • There’s no such thing as failure. 
  • You can do whatever you want, if you just set your mind to it. "Anybody can be free–all you have to do is want it bad enough."
  •   (Andrew Cohen)
  • It’s all in your mind! It’s all in your head!
  • She broke down and cried.
  • He was out of control. He lost control.
  • "You only make things worse by whining and grumbling."
  •   (Hansel and Gretel, by Humperdinck)
  • Hold your tongue.
  • "Be cool!
  • Don’t let them see you sweat.
  • Don’t brag.
  • Be humble.
  • What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice...
  • What are little boys made of? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails.
  • A stitch in time saves nine.
  • If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
  • If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
  •   (Mary Poppins)
These constitute just the tip of the iceberg. We have thousands more well-known, oft-repeated, rarely examined injunctions which we’ve learned from everyone: parents, grandparents, siblings and other relatives, as well as neighbors, playmates, teachers and clerics. And, just as significantly, we’ve learned them from songs, movies, books, magazines, radio and television. (I’ve long believed that one of the reasons that so many people watch soap operas is to learn what’s "permissible." Unfortunately, the soap operas are for the most part simply "carriers" of injunctions.)
Sometimes, the injunctions have been directed towards us (Don’t talk with your mouth full!). Sometimes, they’ve been directed towards someone else–such as a sibling or a playmate–but we got the message. Sometimes they’ve been direct, but often were indirect, delivered, for instance, via a disgusted look or a critical tone of voice. Sometimes they’ve been concrete (Say thank you.), sometimes vague (Act like a lady!), and sometimes metaphorical (Let sleeping dogs lie! Don’t cry over spilt milk!).
Many of them warn us not to do certain things (Don’t say anything hurtful. Don’t talk with your mouth full.) Still others required that we do certain things (Cheer up! Always look on the bright side. Be thankful for what you have. Be polite. Be nice! Be strong! Put your best foot forward. Get a grip on yourself! Control yourself!)
Many injunctions are useful (Measure twice, cut once), and may even be life-saving (Always wear your seatbelt!). But it seems that more often they are disturbing. They present "distorted maps" (A grown man shouldn‘t cry!) and/or make impossible demands (Don’t be afraid! Don’t be so sensitive!) and/or give disturbing advice (Control yourself! Turn the other cheek)–which make our individual and collective journeys considerably more difficult. For instance, obeying the injunction, "Don’t wash your dirty linen in public" keeps me from reaching out to others for empathy, reassurance, and direction in dealing with what’s distressing me.
Injunctions given as though it was more important to obey them than to feel good about who we were, and those given as absolutes–as having no exceptions, were and are particularly disturbing. (For most of us, for example, it’s probably not pleasant to look at someone who’s talking with his or her mouth full. But is that person’s being obedient--that is, doing what I want--really more important than his or her comfort and self-esteem? And aren’t there exceptions? For instance, would I want my kid to swallow everything before warning me that something was on fire or that someone was about to attack me?) 
The problem with absolute injunctions, beyond the fact that they can’t be appropriate for every situation, is that I can never rest. The threat that love will be removed is ever present and I must always be on the alert, lest I fail to obey the injunction and be found to be unworthy of love.
Also disturbing are injunctions that encourage disturbing acts (All’s fair in love and war!) and injunctions that contradict themselves (Rules are made to be broken), as well as those that contradict other injunctions. (Fools rush in where angels fear to tread calls for caution, whereas God helps those who help themselves calls for forwardness.) 
Injunctions often include a further, ulterior injunction–a disturbing "between the lines" message that the injunctions are self-evident and are not to be questioned. The big problem here is that even though the injunctions were frequently bad advice (or good advice in one setting, but bad in others), or impossible to follow, we were given them as demands rather than suggestions or guidelines, and our failure to obey them was then often punishable by harm or disapproval. We were thereby caught in a double-bind. To follow inappropriate injunctions would do us harm; not to obey them would risk the loss of others’ care. 
Such disapprovals generally left us believing that it was we who were difficult, disappointing, and deficient and that therefore everyone else was going to judge us the same way. This rendered us unable to realize, for instance, that others can and do find us worthy of love even though some (e.g., our parents) seemed to have found us lacking. 
A particularly disturbing aspect of metaphorical injunctions is the unexamined acceptance of the underlying metaphor as reality. If, for example, someone is described as "having" "feelings," what is implied–and rarely questioned–is that "feelings" are "things" which we "have" and which, if unpleasant, ought to be gotten rid of. Similarly, if we are described as being "too sensitive" (a pejorative description--nobody says this about us when we’re feeling good), the implicit injunction is that we ought to get rid of intensely distressing feeling lest–again (inaccurately) implied–we will break down and lose control. The inference is that being emotional is losing control and that it is bad to lose control. Beyond the inference that not "breaking down," (or being "out of control," or "losing control) would be a good thing is the inference that we actually can accomplish this. 
This point of view is reinforced by numerous song lyrics, such as "I whistle a happy tune and the happiness in the tune convinces me that I’m not afraid," "Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’ breaking." "Let a smile be your umbrella on a rainy, rainy day," Bing Crosby singing, "The future’s brighter when hearts are lighter, " Anna (Anna and the King of Siam) singing "Don’t cry young lovers, wherever you are" or, more recently, the Academy Award winning "Don’t Worry, Be Happy." How well we have accepted these impossible injunctions. (Lest you deny that you are influenced by injunctions, I suggest that it’s worth your while to take the time to check it out before you dismiss it out of hand.) 
It seems to me that as clearly labeled guidelines, injunctions are useful and even necessary tools; but as demands or prohibitions (which essentially conceal the self of the demander), they are destructive. Such attempts to control--to get someone to do or say or not do or say something--ultimately exacts quite a large price. We resent such coercions, which inevitably damage our self-esteem, inhibit our ability to act assertively and creatively in dealing with life’s exigencies, and disturb our relationships. 
By the way, all’s not fair in love and war.

©1998 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People

The threat that love will be removed is ever present and I must always be on the alert, lest I fail to obey the injunction and be found to be unworthy of love.

Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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