Alan Watt’s Backwards Law And 3 Ways It Can Help With Your Mental Health

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“When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float’ and that ‘insecurity is the result of trying to be secure.”

— Alan Watts

I’ve been rereading some Alan Watts. If you don’t know who Alan Watts is, I suggest you read or listen to his many books or talks.

One of his more famous thoughts is the “backwards law,” which is nicely summed up in the quote above. Essentially the more you try and grab a hold of something, the more it slips through your fingers.

His “backwards law” is not an original thought by any means. Its origins come directly from the Tao Te Ching or Zen Buddhism. But like a lot of famous white male philosophers of recent times, he has made it more understandable to a Western audience. 

So how does this apply to mental health? I can think of a number of ways:

1) Happiness- Many people’s parents tell them “I just want you to be happy.” I know parents mean well, but it can create an unrealistic impression for a lot of us and a source of shame. It means that if we don’t feel happy, then we feel shame because that’s all anyone has ever wanted for us, and yet we can’t achieve it still. We become failures. 

I see this a lot with many of my patients… the constant striving to be happy and how that continually makes the patients unhappier. I think what the Tao or backward law can teach us is that while striving for happiness will make us unhappy, accepting our unhappiness leads to happiness. 

2) Love- I’ve known many people desperate to be loved that usually comes from a place of deep hurt. But ironically the more these people try and get people to love and respect them, the fewer people often do. And more importantly, the less they love and respect ourselves. 

3) Anxiety- the more anxious we are, the more we try to control every aspect of our life. But strangely the more we try to control our feelings and impulses, the less in control we feel. It is only with self-acceptance with what we feel and who we are that we can feel more in control of our lives. 

I realize that some of what I wrote above is an oversimplification, especially concerning serious mental illness or real moments of grief and sadness. But there’s a lot of truth here too. There is so much that is out of our control. Often the only choice we have is to let go over and over again. It’s the only way out I’ve found. It’s the only way to find some peace.

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