What does it mean to think in reverse? It means starting from what you want instead of where you are. This is a metaphor that can be used when thinking about goals and plans for your life, but also your mental health!

What is The Backward Law?

The Backward Law is a principle that was articulated by Alan Watts, who said "If you want to change the world, start by making your bed." How does this work? The basic idea of the backward law is that if you start at the end, you will have everything necessary to get there. This may seem like an odd statement at first. But when you think about it, it makes sense! The goal of this post is to explain how thinking in reverse can help improve your life and make your emotions healthy.

The following are the ten Backwards Laws:

  1. Control – We will feel more powerless the more we try to control our feelings and impulses. Our emotional lives are chaotic and often uncontrollable, and our desire to control them exacerbates the problem. On the other hand, the more we accept our emotions and impulses, the better we'll be able to control and process them.
  2. Freedom – In a number of ways, our constant desire for more freedom ironically limits us. Similarly, we can only truly exercise our freedom by limiting ourselves β€” by choosing and committing to certain things in life
  3. Happiness – We become less happy when we try to be happy. Accepting dissatisfaction makes us happy.
  4. Security – Trying to make ourselves feel as safe as possible only adds to our sense of insecurity. It is only by being at ease with uncertainty that we can feel safe.
  5. Love – The more we try to make others love and accept us, the less they will, and, more importantly, the less love and acceptance we will have for ourselves.
  6. Respect – The more we expect others to respect us, the less they will respect us. The more we respect others, the more we will be respected by them.
  7. Trust – The more we try to persuade people to believe in us, the less likely they are to do so. The more we put our trust in others, the more they will put their trust in us.
  8. Confidence – We will create more insecurity and anxiety the more we try to feel confident. We will feel more at ease in our skin the more we accept our flaws.
  9. Change – The more desperately we desire to change ourselves, the more we will always feel inadequate. The more we accept ourselves, the more we will grow and evolve because we will be too preoccupied with doing cool stuff to notice.
  10. Meaning – We will become more self-obsessed and shallow as we seek a deeper meaning or purpose for our lives. The more we try to make a difference in other people's lives, the more profound our impact will be.
"The more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place." - Alan Watts

A feeling of scarcity

The human predicament is a collective delusion that tells us that acquiring external things or changing external circumstances, such as objects or money, physical adjustments, or changes in scenery, will fundamentally free us from our sense of lack.

The law of backwards induction demonstrates that the opposite is true. We feel deprived as a result of our dissatisfaction with current circumstances. The more dissatisfied we are, the more we suffer. The more change we need in order to be satisfied, the less satisfied we are.

Imagine that you've set a goal for yourself to become a millionaire because you believe it will make you happy.

Setting such a goal not only means that achieving it will take a lot of effort; it also means that being so far from it will make you unhappy because you will realize how insufficient you are in comparison to what you want to be. Or, to put it another way, as bestselling author Mark Manson put it:

[..] pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make.

Mark Manson (on β€œthe backwards law”), The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck

As a result, increasing the amount of money required to be happy will make you feel even more inadequate and, as a result, even more miserable. However, lowering the threshold will reduce your feelings of inadequacy because the goalpost will be much closer to where you are. Nonetheless, we continue to set the bar high, often far above our current position, resulting in a deep and lasting sense of inadequacy.

The desire to live

The human proclivity to pursue more as a cure for the itch while simultaneously maintaining the itch through that pursuit appears illogical. According to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, this is exactly the case. We want what we want, Schopenhauer concluded, because we, like everything else in the universe, are manifestations of the will-to-live, or simply the will.

According to Schopenhauer, the 'will' is an irrational, aimless, never-ending striving that causes us to live a life of suffering that cannot be alleviated by anything the world has to offer. As a result, we have a pathological desire for more than we require, driven by a constant sense of scarcity.

Lack is perceived by the mind because it believes that the present moment is insufficient; something is missing, but it is unsure what. As a result, we continue to seek solace in situations that we perceive to be more pleasurable. However, once we arrive, we find ourselves in the same dissatisfied state from which we attempted to flee. According to Schopenhauer, and I quote:

"Thus also every keen pleasure is an error and an illusion, for no attained wish can give lasting satisfaction." Arthur Schopenhauer, Works

The will, according to Schopenhauer, is what motivates us to strive and seek. However, following it never brings satisfaction because the will is the very thing that prevents us from achieving our goals. The negation of the will, according to Schopenhauer, is the only way to be truly content, as it leads to a blissful, empty state free of striving.

To put it another way, stop trying to get it and you'll get it.

How can we get what we want?

"He does not store, and therefore he has a superabundance; he looks solitary, but has a multitude around him. In his conducting of himself, he is easy and leisurely and wastes nothing. He does nothing and laughs at the clever and ingenious. Men all seek happiness, but he feels complete in his imperfect condition." Lao Dan (Lao Tzu), Zhuangzi, Tian Xia, 5

Accepting flaws makes you feel perfect. Accept loneliness and you will be content with your solitude. If you try to be perfect, you will be flawed. You're miserable by yourself if you try not to be lonely. It is a positive experience to accept a negative experience. Fighting a negative experience, on the other hand, means suffering twice.

Alan Watts stated, "When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink (12); but when you try to sink, you float." Similarly, when you try to sleep, your efforts will keep you awake. You'll only fall asleep if you stop trying. You'll lose your breath if you hold your breath. However, if you let it go, it will continue on its own.

We'll be happy when we stop trying to be happy and accept that we don't need anything more than what we already have. When we stop trying to be wealthy, we will be able to live in abundance because we will be content with what we already have, and anything extra will be a bonus. As a result, the only way to get what we want is to stop wanting it. That is what the law of backwards teaches us. There's a Zen story that explains how to clear cloudy water, which illustrates this paradoxical idea.

Let's pretend we're looking for the bottom of a pond with cloudy water. We can stir the water or use our hands to remove the cloudiness, but neither of these methods will work. The only way to see its floor is to wait until the cloudiness dissipates and the water becomes clear. Our desires, thoughts, and dissatisfaction are represented by the cloudiness. Our grasping for happiness is symbolized by the stirring in the water and attempts to remove the cloudiness. 'Seeing the floor' denotes contentment, which can only be achieved by leaving the water alone and allowing the cloudiness to dissipate on its own. As a result, stop attempting to obtain it and you will have it.


Knowing about the workings of the backwards law does not imply that we should never set goals, have ambitions, or pursue change. There are probably an infinite number of reasons why we should make a change and not accept the status quo.

However, the backwards law teaches us not to be deceived by the notion that pursuing happiness leads to happiness. It's the exact opposite. And with that knowledge, we can enter that blissful state of 'not wanting'

a little more frequently. Because, as Alan Watts put it, "life's mystery is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced."

Useful resources

The book on the taboo against knowing who you are

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck


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