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The Backwards Law.

Recently a patient suffering from a depressive illness described his situation as feeling like he had ‘fallen into quick sand’ and the more he struggled the more anxious he got and the lower he felt.

I don’t know if you have ever had a time when you have felt like this, or perhaps maybe you have been unfortunate enough to have actually fallen into quicksand, well if so it may be that applying the backwards law is perhaps the best thing that you can do to help yourself out.

The rule with quicksand is don’t panic because the more you struggle usually the worse things will get and the quicker you will sink in the sand.

Apparently quicksand is almost never as deep as you think it might be, and in reality the density of your body is only half that of the quicksand so this means that you should be all right and you should float. Therefore the worse case scenario, i.e. that you will sink is probably never going to happen, but as your stress levels increase you will start to think that it will, the panic that this causes could make you thrash about struggling against things you can’t control and by displacing the sand as you flail about you will be making the worst outcome more likely because in this situation your life really is dependent on doing less and the backwards law applies.

The backwards law quite simply is that sometimes the harder you try to do something the less likely you are to succeed, the backwards law was popularised by the writer and philosopher Alan Watts who wrote in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity in 1951.

‘when you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float’.

Another great analogy of the backwards law is that of muddy water where continued stirring or splashing will only keep it muddy and the best way to let it clear is simply by leaving it alone.

Getting back to real life; my organisation has just gone through a period of disruptive change and despite effectively managing this period of change there were times when pushing harder would have been counter productive, and at times clarity could only be achieved by applying the backwards law (also known as the law of reversed effort) and letting things happen organically.

So when you feel stuck in life like the patient of mine who felt like he was stuck in quicksand, perhaps you should apply the backwards law because there are times when struggling can only cause stress and anxiety in addition to making your situation a lot worse, so instead take your time, work out what you need to do and drag yourself out of your problem just like you would quicksand slowly and inch by inch.

Trying too hard is sometimes self defeating, sometimes things just take time and a little gentle persistence and perhaps the only thing you need to do is remember the backwards law and let go and do nothing because some things just seem to work themselves out.

‘When your mind is still the universe surrenders’ – Lau Tzu.

This article on the Backwards Law was written by me whilst reflecting on my week on a Saturday morning with strong hot cup of good coffee.