My client, Liv, sits opposite me in my psychotherapy office with a look of panic on her face.
What has brought about this fearful reaction? All I’ve done is ask her what she wants.
I notice her already translucent Scandinavian skin become even paler. Her eyes grow wide, her breath becomes shallow.
I ask, “What are you feeling?”
She says, “I don’t know.”
I ask, “You don’t know what you’re feeling?”
“No, I don’t know what I want.”
Not untypically, when I ask for a feeling, the response is a thought. That’s one reason why we shrinks ask people what they are feeling all the time. It is characteristic of the contemporary plight that we often have a hard time distinguishing between a feeling and a thought.
“How does not knowing what you want make you feel?”
“No, it’s not that, exactly,” she answers. “It’s something else. I feel this weird panic.”
Her reaction points to one good reason why it is good to know what we feel. Once we can start becoming aware of our emotions, we can begin to understand ourselves better. We grow.
“Stay with that weird panic, and see what emerges.”
“It’s not that I don’t know what I want, so much as there’s something about the question that scares me.”
“Do you have a sense of what that might be?”
“It’s like I’m not allowed to want anything.”
“Stay with that. Keep going.”
“It’s more than that. This fear I feel – it’s the same thing I feel when you ask me to say I’m proud of something I’ve done, it’s like I, I’m doing something bad, like something terrible will happen.”
Ah-ha. It’s the old retaliation fear, I tell myself. Everyone seems to have this one. Freud called it the castration complex. If you get too powerful, you’ll get your balls chopped off. I call it the “Fiddler on the Roof” complex: don’t get too happy, or let your guard down – the Cossacks are coming to burn down your shtetl!
Everyone seems to have this. When you imagine success, happiness, getting what you want, this doesn’t bring up joy, it brings up fear. Somehow, there’s something bad about feeling good. In fact, it isn’t the fear of failure that keeps people back as much as this. The big fear is the fear of success.
“Wait! I’ve got it!” Liv says, with that glow of insight on her face. “It’s the Janteloven!”
Not being of Scandinavian descent, I can barely decode what she is saying.
“It’s the what?”
“It’s everywhere in Scandinavia. It’s a bunch of, kind of, laws that every kid learns growing up. It says you shouldn’t stand out from the crowd by being too good or too happy or wanting anything for yourself. No wonder I get this horrible feeling when you ask me to brag, or want success or even what I want!”
As soon as Liv leaves, I go to the internet and Google Janteloven. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
“The Law of Jante (Danish and Norwegian: Janteloven; Swedish: Jantelagen) is a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Scandinavian communities, which negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. The Jante Law as a concept was created by the Danish–Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, who in his novel A fugitive crosses his tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933, English translation published in the USA in 1936) identified the Law of Jante as ten rules. Sandemose’s novel portrays the small Danish town Jante (modelled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, but typical of all small towns and communities), where nobody is anonymous.
“Generally used colloquially as a sociological term to negatively describe an attitude towards individuality and success common in Scandinavia, the term refers to a mentality which de-emphasizes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers.
“The term is often used negatively.
“There are ten different rules in the law as defined by Sandemose, all expressive of variations on a single theme and are usually referred to as a homogeneous unit: Don’t think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.
The ten rules state:
- Don’t think you’re anything special.
- Don’t think you’re as good as us.
- Don’t think you’re smarter than us.
- Don’t convince yourself that you’re better than us.
- Don’t think you know more than us.
- Don’t think you are more important than us.
- Don’t think you are good at anything.
- Don’t laugh at us.
- Don’t think anyone cares about you.
- Don’t think you can teach us anything.
“In the book, the Janters who transgress this unwritten ‘law’ are regarded with suspicion and some hostility, as it goes against communal desire in the town to preserve harmony, social stability and uniformity.
“These 11 principles or commandments form the “Jante’s Shield” of the Scandinavian people.
These lessons – you’re nothing special, you’re bad, you’re stupid, you’re unimportant, you’re a failure, no one cares about you, and you have nothing to offer – could pretty much make up the handbook of shame.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, shame is the feeling that goes along with the belief that there is something wrong with you. Guilt is “I did something wrong.” Shame is “I am something wrong.”
If you want to make someone feel horrible about themselves, and almost guarantee dysfunction, teaching the Jante laws is about as good a way as there is to do it.
The crazy thing is, this is not only a Scandinavian method. There appear to be similar rules in just about every culture that my clients have originated from. Retaliation fear – the fear that I will be punished for my power, brilliance, goodness, and love – seems to be universal.
What can we do to overcome generations of this negative inculcation?
Let’s invent ten new laws and call it the Lovin’loven.
Here are the ten new rules we should not only teach our children, but embrace for ourselves:
1. The world is a better place because you are in it.
2. You are as good as anyone. You’ve got hands and a heart and time to use them for something positive.
3. You are brilliant beyond measure. You are capable of thinking, knowing, feeling, and doing things that are nothing short of miraculous.
4. You are a unique jewel in a vast and mostly empty universe.
5. You are capable of achieving great things to make the world a better place.
6. The world needs to know what only you can teach us.
7. You are important.
8. You deserve fulfillment and happiness.
9. You deserve to be loved.
10. You are the universe and love itself. Feel proud.
Maybe if we all practice saying and teaching the Lovin’loven long enough, we won’t be so afraid of success, and it will be easier not only to be happy, but to make others happy, and the world a better place.