One of the strangest things about my adolescence was how much effort I would put into something only to see it end up being mediocre or start promisingly but then fizzle into nothing or just totally fail.
It was insanely frustrating because I had been taught that if you work hard and think positively you could achieve whatever you wanted. I saw little to no fruits of my labor. In fact, the main fruit was bitterness. I would see other people excel around me and I assumed they were working hard too. So why were they successful but I failed?
Maybe it’s because they weren’t working so hard.
In the book, The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, Joseph Murphy outlines what he referred to as, “the law of reversed effort.”
The law is explained in two parts. Firstly, the law of reversed effort states that the more importance and therefore the more effort we put into a task, the more likely we are to fail at that task.
Secondly, when our imagination and our desires are in conflict, our imagination always wins because that is the predominant thought in our subconscious. But when we notice this, we begin to use effort to defeat our imagination but it never wins because effort implies an obstacle.
This sounds a lot like Alan Watts’ “backwards law” that has been popularized by Mark Manson in recent years. The difference is that with the backwards law, it’s about the more you pursue something, the less likely you are to get it. The law of reversed effort on the other hand gets more specific. It explains why trying to get something will end in failure — it’s because of too much importance and your imagination showing failure instead of victory.
Maybe you’re like me and you have struggled in the past to enact changes in your life only to “give up” and then everything works itself out. But the moment you start to take control again, everything goes back to the way it was.
It may even trigger feelings of shame and guilt because you start to think that you are the cause of things not working out.
So is there a solution to this? Can we learn to deescalate importance and make our imaginations align with our desires?
Dealing with the Importance
The telltale sign that something is more important than it should be is that you cannot be at peace without that thing. Your mind is constantly agitated with acquiring that thing because you believe that that thing is the cause of your happiness.
Your happiness is outside of yourself, which is the most dangerous place it could ever be. If things change for the worse, you will suffer. If the thing goes away, you will suffer. If the thing does what you didn’t want it to do, you will suffer.
And then you will do a bunch of things to get it back to the way it used to be and it will only yield even more failure, shame and suffering.
Seeing the importance of this can sometimes be enough to cut the bad habit cold turkey. After all, if we want these things because we want to be happy but trying to get these things causes you to be unhappy, then why would we continue this insane act? But if you need something more heavy duty, consider this:
Eckhart Tolle wrote, “How do you let go of attachment to things? Don’t even try. It’s impossible. Attachment to things drops away by itself when you no longer seek to find yourself in them.”
So here we have Tolle continuing the sentiment of Murphy’s by saying that effort to let go still won’t work out! The solution is more fundamental: we must stop defining ourselves by the things we desire.
We cannot control desire. We didn’t ask to ask for stuff. But desire isn’t our enemy anyway; it is our relationship to the stuff we desire. If you don’t know yourself apart from the thing, you’re in trouble. If you use external things to dictate who you are and how you feel about yourself, you’re in trouble.
However, if you stop defining yourself on whether or not you have this thing, you are free.
Uniting Desire and Imagination
In his book, Joseph Murphy gave an analogy of how imagination and desire, when in conflict, will spell disaster.
When walking on a plank of wood on the floor, it’s a piece of cake. But try walking on a plank of wood suspended between two buildings twenty feet in the air. It’s a completely different reaction. But why?
One’s desire to walk to the other end when the plank is on the ground is easily matched by one’s imagination. You can see yourself doing it with no problem. But one’s desire to walk to the other end when the plank is suspended in the air is not matched by one’s imagination. Instead, one imagines falling.
Chances are, there would be no attempt to try because the fear of falling is too great. It isn’t impossible to make it across but facts don’t matter when your mind showed you falling. But if you were to try, you would probably fall because imagination and subconscious thought always beats desire.
Interestingly, the solution has already been addressed. If you don’t define yourself by your goal, it’s a lot easier to meet the goal because the importance is minimized to a healthy level.
Now you’re not restricted by the desperation of being a particular thing. You are free to focus on the goal instead of the fear of failing to meet your goal. You are free to focus on the goal instead of the need to define yourself in a particular way.
But if you still need more help to focus, visualization can help.
Visualization is all about seeing yourself in the situation you desire and feeling the desired feeling state, whether it be wealth, health, love, etc.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with visualization in the past because when people suggested it in order to make changes in my life, it rarely worked. In fact, it only worked for the things I didn’t care that much about — which perfectly matches what we’ve been talking about.
You can’t visualize from a place of finding or defining yourself by the thing you desire. It will not yield what you want. In fact, you might even lose what you already had. Until that first issue is resolved, nothing can change in a positive way.
Getting your desires met is great, but perhaps what is even greater is to be at peace with or without your desire. That is true liberation.
Don’t believe the thought that peace of mind can only be obtained through some external thing. It’s a flat out lie.