In their work as therapists in the 1970’s, Bob and Mary Goulding noticed a pattern of twelve hidden ‘Don’t’s’ that people seemed to be following, that limit their experience of themselves in the world.
The Gouldings called these twelve hidden ‘Don’ts’ ‘Injunctions’ [Gouldings, 1976].
They’re decisions made by us as children from messages we may have got from our parents and/or care-givers, probably without them even knowing about it.
They’re secret rules held not in words but in our bellies, in our very beings and it’s that which makes them so powerful. We may have believed them for so long that we can’t see the gap between them and us. We might think, feel and behave as if our ‘Don’ts’ are us.
The twelve injunctions still have the power to shock when you see them put into words. They have such a cruel finality about them. And that’s not surprising because they are child-made and child-held beliefs about how to stay safe in the families we grew up in. And our inner child still believes them.
Our inner child is also known as our Child Ego State [Berne, 1961]. Ego just means ‘I’. So our Child Ego State is our experience of ourselves when we’re thinking and feeling and behaving like we did when we were a child.
Once you read the names the Gouldings gave the Injunctions, they might sound uncannily familiar. We all have a couple of them, or a mix of a few. Now most parents in awareness want the best for their children. These messages are communicated mostly out of awareness by the inner child of the parents.
Don’t be / Don’t Exist
This is a surprisingly common injunction. When parents or carers mentally or physically abuse children, the injunction is being given clearly. Again most parents want their best for their children, so what we’re talking about here mostly happens out of awareness, under the surface of words and behaviour.
Parents can give ‘Don’t be’ from their own Child Ego States if they feel threatened by the presence of a child. Perhaps they feel in their Child Ego State that there won’t be enough attention for them. Perhaps they clothe and feed the child but aren’t interested in them.
A child might be told ‘I wish I hadn’t had you’ ‘I should never have had children’ ‘this family would be better off without you’.
People live with a ‘Don’t Exist’ Injunction by giving themselves a kind of counter-charm. A counter-charm will be something like ‘I’m ok if I keep on….’ And whatever comes to mind, it might be working hard, pleasing others, blaming or getting your own back on others, drinking, drugs or even going crazy… They’ll be coping strategies that don’t really address the underlying belief that you are ok to be in the world.
This is from a parent frightened in their own Child Ego State rather than in reality. This parent will give fear-laden reasons for the child not to go out, explore and be themselves in the world or in fact ‘do’ anything. People who have been magically spelled with ‘Don’t’ might lead very quiet lives, possibly finding it hard to take even the smallest of risks to get their needs met.
Don’t be a child
Again parents in their own Child Ego State don’t feel safe having other children around. Children are noisy and make a mess. Maybe they weren’t allowed to be children. ‘Children are best seen not heard’ ‘Don’t be such a baby’ ‘Grow up!’ ‘act your age’ ‘you’re a big boy/girl now I expect more from you now’ ‘you’re too old to cry’ ‘you’re the responsible one’.
Some parents might want their children to parent them, relying on their children comforting them, giving them advice, a shoulder to cry on.
People who have this injunction have difficulty having fun, letting go, accessing their Child Ego State because they weren’t allowed to be children. They might feel scared if they get too happy or excited in their life, they might want to ‘keep a lid on it’, like a permanent self-inflicted ‘ssshhhh!’
Don’t Grow Up
Some parents want their little one to stay little and needing them. Some parents define their identity by being parents. They might suggest that the world is more dangerous than it is. They might be overprotective and not allow their child to explore for themselves. Some parents might not have grown up themselves and wish to stay young. You might see someone with a lot of soft toys on their bed or the back shelf of their car who has this injunction. Someone might dress, look, sound and behave as if they were much younger than they are.
Don’t be You
A parent might say a child is/should be a certain way because that’s how they view the child, not because that’s who the child is. The parent might compare siblings ‘oh he’s not the bright one’, ‘she’s not sporty’ and the child might take it in and decide ‘oh ok that’s who I better be then’. A person might then carry a sense of a gap in themselves, that they’re somehow not who they are.
Don’t Make it
This ‘Don’t’ comes from a parent in their Child Ego State being jealous of their child’s abilities. They might have given their child opportunities they never had and be resentful. They might feel threatened and not want their child to be more successful than them. The child might obey the ‘Don’t Make it’ by sabotaging themselves out of awareness, so as not to upset their parent’s inner child.
There are all sorts of messages in British culture around feeling our feelings. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ ‘Stiff upper lip’, ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘man up’ and ‘you just get on with it don’t you?’ Some families pretend not to have feelings.
Or some feelings are allowed and stand in for others. So a family might ‘do’ anger but not joy or fear or sadness. They might sound angry a lot but as anger is the one feeling they do, some of their anger might be covering up the real ‘forbidden’ feeling underneath. I think some men cover fear or hurt or sadness with anger because anger is ‘allowed’ for men.
Some parents undermine confidence in their child’s ability to problem solve. They might have been made fun of for their thinking by parents or even teachers. If people as adults regularly get confused or agitated when they need to work out a problem, they may have this injunction.
Groucho Marx once said ‘I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member’. Although he said it as a joke he may have had a ‘Don’t belong’. He may have felt like an outsider looking in. Parents can give a message of ‘you’re the odd one out of the family’, ‘you don’t fit in around here’, ‘it’s you not us’, ‘we brought the wrong baby home with us’. Or the family as a unit might model not being able to integrate in a community.
Don’t be close
A child might pick up on a parent not wanting to be physically close to them and might feel rejected. A parent might not be interested in forming an emotional attachment with the child. So in order to protect themselves from the unbearable pain of feeling rejected, the child decides not to feel close with others. If you remember that the ultimate sanction in prison is solitary confinement, this can be a particularly cruel lifetime survival strategy. If someone is very overweight they might have a Don’t be close and a Don’t Feel.
Don’t be important
This is about the parent in their Child Ego State not wanting their child to be more important than them. Think of families that organise themselves around the needs or demands of a parent. The spell cast on the child’s way of seeing themselves in relation to others is to hold an idea in their bodies that they and their needs are not important to others. This message is swallowed and believed so that the child might spend their entire lives not feeling important to anyone, not even themselves.
Don’t be well/sane
Some children may only get the attention of their parents by being sick. So the child may decide out of awareness not to be well. Whenever life feels too scary or demanding this person may feel the only way to be is not to be well.
The twelve secret Don’ts.
I believe it’s life-enhancing to know more about the stories we tell ourselves on the inside, without even knowing they’re stories. It can help us find out more about being the person we want to be in the world rather than the person we were told not to be. For people who do want to find out more about being different with themselves and others, a first step might be considering coming into counselling or psychotherapy.
1] Goulding R, Goulding M, ‘Injunctions, decisions and redecisions’. Transactional Analysis Journal, 6, 1, 1976, 41-48.
2] Berne, E, ‘Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy’. Grove Press, 1961, 1966, Chapter Two.