Have you ever wanted something you told yourself you shouldn’t have, and then bought it, eaten it, or done it anyway?
If you’re human, the answer is probably yes.
It’s incredibly common, this push-pull we create for ourselves with restriction and rebellion.
I thought about this the other day while walking around a Mulberry store in SoHo. I remember when their bags hit the US fashion scene a decade ago. They were super popular, incredibly expensive, and I couldn’t afford one. And I remember feeling this great desire for the bag, the shame for the desire, the guilt of even thinking about purchasing one, the guilt about how I spent my money, and then the rebellion against that guilt, shame, and restriction.
This time I had a completely different experience. I had full permission from myself to buy one of the bags if I wanted to.
But you know what? I really didn’t want one.
It’s not because I no longer like the style—the handbags are still gorgeous, and I still carry things in bags. What’s changed is my mindset about it.
I have switched from restriction to permission.
When I believed I shouldn’t buy the handbag, I was operating from a place of restriction. I was telling myself I could not or should not, so I was placing a mental restriction on myself.
And you know what the human reaction to restriction is? Rebellion.
When we try to restrict ourselves, we create a natural rebellion. We become the taskmaster and the daydreaming pupil, the mean accountant and the over-spender, the parent pushing vegetables and the toddler who wants cake. I see this most often when it comes to food and money—some of my clients even do it with thought work!
We immediately split ourselves into two roles: The restrictor and the restricted. Doing this creates feelings of restriction, rebellion, and resistance.
If you’ve ever wondered why you find it so difficult to do things you “know are good for you,” “know you should do,” or even think you want to do, this is why. The minute that you place restriction on it, the minute you tell yourself you should or shouldn’t do something and make it a moral issue that relates to your worth as a person, you’ve transformed yourself into both the bully and the victim. From that space it’s impossible to access your actual desires, priorities, values, choices, or wisdom.
So if restriction creates rebellion, what is the answer to this conundrum? It can’t be eating foods that make you feel ill and buying 12 pairs of shoes instead of paying rent, right?
Right. The opposite of restriction is allowance, which creates the space for choice. The key to escaping the mental prison of restriction, and to curbing the impulsive acting out of rebellion, is to recognize you’re always making a CHOICE. You always have the power to choose what you want to eat, where you want to spend your money, and how you want to spend your time.
There are very few things you will be compelled to do in your life on pain of death. There are people who don’t speak to their families, never eat vegetables, don’t pay their taxes, and even abandon their children. Those are all choices open to you.
Now, you might not like the CONSEQUENCES of those actions. Perhaps you don’t want to be the kind of person who abandons their children, eats only Cheetos, or goes to jail for not paying taxes. But you are still making choices.
If you tell yourself you can’t or shouldn’t do something, you create the mental restriction that produces rebellion. But if you take ownership of your own choices and your agency in making the decision, you will feel differently.
The most insidious thing about restriction is that it makes you think you want things you may not even want. Just telling yourself you can’t have it will create the rebellious desire to get it at any cost, whether you really want it or not.
Allowance means creating the space for you to exercise your agency and make a choice. Note that this space is entirely internal—it happens in your mind. You create this space by recognizing you already have this agency. You’re already choosing.
The next time you’re feeling rebellious about doing something you think you should do (or even want to do), or you’re feeling the desire to do something you don’t think you should do, check in with yourself. Are you creating mental restriction? If so, change your thoughts. Create allowance so you have the freedom to choose.
Remember you’re always making a choice, and you have the agency and ownership of that choice. You don’t have to be the mean hall monitor or the rebellious student sneaking around. Make your decision consciously, recognize your own agency, and you’ll make restriction and rebellion a thing of the past.