Don't, just don't (posted 30/05/18)

After a fair few months, we have arrived at my description of the last of the main injunctions from transactional analysis. They are all damaging in their own way, as I have outlined in my previous posts, but this last one is one of the more debilitating. It is the ‘don’t do anything’ injunction. Often this is abbreviated to simply ‘don’t’. Whereas the other injunctions are messages prohibiting specific behaviour (thinking, feeling, succeeding etc.), this one implies that all actions are to be ceased. There is some relation here to the ‘don’t exist’ injunction, in that by doing nothing, in a sense, you have ceased to exist as a causal agent in your own life. ‘Don’t exist’ often comes from the caregiver’s child ego state who is scared of the consequences for themselves or of their own inadequacies. ‘Don’t do anything’, I would suggest comes more from the caregiver’s child ego state being scared of the world in general.

‘Don’t’ as a message is often given to children when a parent is scared of the consequences of the child’s actions. It leads to the metaphorical ‘wrapping up in cotton wool’, where the child is seen as so fragile and pathetic that they need to be protected from all harm. The arguably modern phenomenon of the ‘helicopter parent’, perpetually hovering over a child to check where they are, who they are with, and being ready with an intervention, can be seen as a way of this message being delivered. The abbreviation to ‘don’t’ explains perfectly how explicitly this message is given to a child in an almost unceasing barrage of ‘don’t’ message. What follows the ‘don’t…’ can be anything. “Don’t touch that”, “don’t eat that”, “don’t talk to them”, “don’t say that”, “don’t ask” etc. These are all delivered from the negative controlling parent ego state. There is rarely an explanation for the reasons from the prohibition (which the adult ego state would provide), simply assertions that actions should not be done. There is usually an implicit understanding that the thing to be done is ‘bad’ or dangerous in some way. The child starts in this way to label things they do as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This ‘don’t do anything’ injunction develops when the ‘bads’ far outweigh the goods. I unfortunately forget the source of the article, but I saw a headline which read, “What happens when we say “yes” to a child?” This headline speaks of how constantly telling someone no, will probably lead to that person giving up asking, and then giving up trying. These are both consequences of the ‘don’t’ injunction.

Implicitly, the message is also given by the caregiver’s negative nurturing parent, by never allowing the child to do anything for themselves. I have spoken before of the phenomenon of learnt helplessness. If a child never does anything for themselves, they never learn vital skills necessary for survival and resilience. They will literally do nothing and expect to be able to rely on others. This makes that person especially vulnerable when things go wrong, and ripe for exploitation by the unscrupulous. In extreme cases, narcissism may develop if the child gains a sense of self-importance and entitlement around the things that are given to him including attention and material things. It can be argued, however, that underneath narcissistic traits, there lies a vulnerability and fear of the world, and that the sense of worth held by the narcissist is false. Narcissism is a highly complex issue, and unfortunately this is not the correct forum for me to discuss my views on it further.

I have begum to outline the responses to this injunction already. In the despairing mode the child will believe the implicit message that they are incapable of doing things for themselves or defenceless to the trials and tribulations of the world around them. They will probably become quiet and withdrawn. Many of the traits of other injunction will be shown, for example, not expressing their opinions or feelings, acting in an immature fashion, sabotaging any successes they may have or not getting close to others. This will all be due to fear. Fear can lead to anxiety and depression, both of which are paralysing. This can be literal paralysis with the person not only unwilling to move and take an active part in the world, but also unable. It becomes safe not to do anything than to risk failure, pain or reprisals for attempting things. Withdrawal and risk aversion are common behaviours. One set of behaviour which may be missing are the driver responses. This is because they are employed to overcome something that is lacking in the person to try and regain a sense of worth. This inunction might lead someone to believe that trying anything is a worthless endeavour. So either all of the drivers will be tried (probably unsuccessfully) or none of them.

In the defiant position, the child may rebel against the message not to do things and so engage with everything possible. Some of the messages from the parent may be for safety, but if everything from the caregiver is a “no”, then which ones do you trust? Like the boy who cried wolf, the parent’s warning are not to be headed and risk taking can become established. Unfortunately, this stance is a vulnerable one, and due to the lack of explanation and teaching from the caregiver, it can be extremely difficult for the person to cope when the risks don’t pay off and things go wrong. Risk without resilience is a dangerous thing. I will also mention, that it might be that the ‘try hard’ driver may be employed in this position to counter the injunction that has been given. Remember however, that drivers set unrealistic aims which cannot usually be reached or maintained.

The main thing that people with this injunction need is the experience of having a positive nurturing and controlling parent, or an adult teacher to guide them. These states are able to provide encouragement (saying “yes”) and managed risk to allow someone to explore things safely. They learn with the person and allow them to try things out, with help if needed or on their own. They foster independence and resilience, not reliance and dependence. They promote self-worth through praising and valuing not just success, but also the learning from mistakes. In this way, I offer some permissions and messages that might be helpful when addressing this injunction:
  • The world is not an inherently dangerous place
  • People will help and support you, if you ask for it
  • Mistakes are the perfect way to learn
  • If you don’t try, you have already failed
  • You are a worthy and capable person
  • Skills can be learnt, things can be earnt. This may take time.
  • Life is not a series of “nos”. If you find that it is, tell yourself “yes”