One of the first things a child learns to say and understand is the word “no.”
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Toddlers are told not to throw the ball in the house, but they do it again anyway. Teenagers roll their eyes when asked to wear a seatbelt and, when no one is looking, they unbuckle. Adults get angry and defensive when told to eat veggies and to exercise, so they refuse.
As humans, we crave independence and autonomy. We want to be the ones calling the shots and making the rules. Since we were little we’ve participated in some form or another of the same song and dance — we don’t like someone else telling us what to do, so we don’t do it or we act out.
And although the idea of rebelling against authority or rules is not new, the coronavirus pandemic has given it a modern, urgent twist. We’re being told to wear a face mask, practice social distancing and stay at home. (We’re even being told not to hug grandma or get-together for the holidays!)
The pandemic has been tough on everyone, but even more so for our inner rebel who just can’t stand being told what to do. So how do we tame our need to revolt, especially when it has to do with our safety and those around us?
A behavioral therapist explains how we can keep our ego from causing harm to ourselves and others.
“No one really likes being told what to do,” says behavioral health therapist Jane Pernotto Ehrman, MEd, RCHES, ACHT. “Resistance is engrained into our culture and brains from a young age. Everyone has some form of inner rebel that likes to question or do the opposite of what we’re told.”
Experts call this feeling or need to rebel psychological reactance. It’s your brain’s reaction when you feel a threat to your freedom or think your choices are being limited. This response can make you feel annoyed, panicked or angry when rules or guidelines are put in place. It can lead you to do the exact opposite of what you’re being told or asked to do, even when safety is involved. In some instances, when our psychological reactance runs wild, it can lead to fights, relationship issues and other problems.
Some people have a better tolerance and understanding of their brain’s psychological reactance. When they have a negative reaction, thinking their freedom is in question, they’ve learned to take a step back, pause for a moment and determine what’s really important about the situation. Others, however, have never worked through the kinks that come with their brain’s psychological reactance. Instead, they make choices based on ego and strong emotions, which often lead to self-sabotage or unsafe behavior.
Maybe you get agitated when your spouse asks you to unload the dishwasher, even when you had plans to do it already, so you pick a fight. Or maybe your boss asks you to switch gears at work and move on to a different project, which makes you angry, so you refuse or act passive aggressively. Or perhaps the guidelines to wear a face mask during the pandemic makes you feel rebellious and angry, so you refuse.
Psychological reactance can take place on large and small scales. Take inventory of your emotions and reactions to different forms of rules and authority throughout your day. How do you react when your freedom seems threatened or your choices are being limited? Does your ego take over or can you work through your feelings to understand why you’re being asked to do something?
“As adults, it’s important to recognize when our rebellious self is acting out in a way that’s not in our best interest or if it might be harmful to those around us,” says Ehrman. “When we feel a powerful surge of resistance, it’s usually us trying to protect our ego because we don’t want to look vulnerable.”
Retraining your brain and managing your emotions takes discipline and practice. It’s all about making your inner rebel work for you and not against you, says Ehrman. Rather than living from your ego, you learn to balance what’s best for you and those around you, even when it might not be convenient, but it’s the right thing to do. (Aka, properly wearing a face mask and not gathering in large groups.)
So when your spouse asks you to unload the dishwasher, ask yourself if your ego is the reason you’re feeling agitated. Surely something so small is not worth picking a fight over. Acting out could end up damaging your relationship, especially if this happens over and over again in various forms. The same holds true at work when someone asks you to do something. Letting your ego takeover is a fast track to sabotaging your job and relationships with your boss or coworkers.
It’s also your responsibility as a member of a family, workplace and community to make decisions that help protect those around you.
“You may have the right to drink alcohol, but you also have a responsibility to the safety of those around you to not drink and drive your car,” says Ehrman. “And when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, you have a responsibility to help protect those around you by wearing a mask, staying home when you’re sick and social distancing.”
Consider your desire for independence and the need to please your ego and the welfare of others — which is more important to you?
When you start to feel threatened by someone asking you to do something, observe your emotions first. Just because you feel or think something, doesn’t mean it’s true. Learning to tame your inner rebel is about reframing your resistant thoughts. What are you really being ask to do and what is best for you and those you care about?
It might feel uncomfortable moving past annoyance to avoid a fight with your spouse or boss, but you’ll be better off that you did instead of damaging your relationship. It might be annoying to put on sunscreen, but you’ll be glad that you did when you don’t have a scalding sunburn. And it might feel uncomfortable or inconvenient to wear a face mask, but perhaps so did using a seatbelt, wearing a bike helmet or starting to exercise — until you noticed the benefits.
Reframing and retraining your psychological reactance will take time, but with practice, discipline and deep breathes, you can start letting go of your ego and begin to better understand yourself and the world around you.