So What If My Life is a Mess?

The Surprising Power of Reverse Psychology

I love using reverse psychology to cope with emotional hang ups. It is effective and fun.

My son taught me that humor is a tantrum extinguisher. He used to throw exhaustingly frequent tantrums as a toddler. Nothing worked faster than humor to snap him out of his yucky mood. Many times I pretended to trip and fall clumsily to transport him from a kicking and screaming monster back to my adorable giggling child.

As he grew older, I used other kinds of humor. Poop and fart jokes worked, if done well.

But one trick I occasionally use is to instruct him not to smile if I catch him becoming grouchy. “No matter what,” I tell him, “please don’t smile, and don’t laugh.” Then I watch him struggle not to laugh. Sometimes I use this trick when he refuses to smile for the camera.

I use it on myself when I feel nervous or tense. “No matter what, please don’t relax,” I repeat to myself and listen to my body. I feel my breathing deepen and my jaw unclench as I try hard not to relax.

I admit it didn’t always work. But on several occasions, it did help me to fall asleep faster when I used it in bed.

My brain loves this game. I mentally celebrate all my failures and flaws. “I am soooo happy I am failing,” I repeat to challenge my inner critic, “I loooove that I am such a mess.” It relaxes me and makes me smile.

There is so much built-in reversibility in life. For one thing, the eyes see the world upside down before the brain reverses it back to the right way up. By experimenting with seeing the world upside down, we can glimpse radically unedited view of things. An article in Scientific American called Right Side Up suggested an exercise:

Next time you are lying on the grass, look at people walking around you. They look like they are upright and walking normally, of course. But now look at them while you are upside down. If you can manage yoga, you might want to try your downward dog or another inversion. Or just lie sideways with one ear on the ground. The people will still look upright as expected, but suddenly you will see them bobbing up and down as they walk. This motion instantly becomes clear because after years of viewing people with your head held straight, you have learned to ignore the up-down bobbing of their heads and shoulders.

The brain in its usual upside up mode perceives the world not as it is, but as it needs to make sense of it.

So much of what we perceive depends on particular angles from which we view life.

I subscribe to the idea that we cope better and do better when we chill out by not striving so hard. Lao Tsu is one of the most influential advocates for this kind of ideas.

By letting go it all gets done. Stop leaving and you will arrive. Stop searching and you will see. Stop running away and you will be found. He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.

― Lao-Tzu

Though, this kind of chilling out doesn’t come easily or naturally for me. Like everything else, it takes deliberate and consistent practice.

Reverse psychology has helped me become better at chilling out. The primitive part of my brain is stuck in determined stubbornness. It refuses to respond to logic and will power. Perhaps this is a good thing. But, what to do?

My son says “Mommy, there is no such thing called grown ups. You are just a big child”. I think he has a point.

These days I try coaxing my brain gently and humorously as if handling an obstinate child.

In his book How To Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, psychologist Randy Paterson nudges his readers to live miserable lives. Ironic, right? But it apparently helped his patients.


It is based on hacking our tendency to respond positively to reverse psychology. We seem to be better at learning from our mistakes. As a part of our survival instinct, our brain is more sensitive to information telling us what not to do instead of what to do.

Dr. Paterson struggled with helping his depressed patients feel better using traditional approaches. At one point, he decided to tell them to go ahead and be as miserable as they could manage.

In an interview with Dr. Michelle Skeen, he described a question he posed to his patients:

What if we can win money if we make ourselves feel a little bit worse next week than we feel this week? What would you do? How would you accomplish it? People began coming up with ideas and, the weird thing was, they began laughing.

Seeing his severely depressed patients laughing was amusing for him and it encouraged him to explore more about the power of reverse psychology. It is as if his patients were waiting for permission to suck at life.

The focus of this exercise is to become aware of all the things we are already good at doing that lead us into misery. This increased awareness in turn helps us to recognize things we can control and to make better choices. However, Dr. Paterson emphasized there is much about depression and life that is not within our control, so it is not about blaming ourselves for all our shortcomings.

He himself became depressed during his internship in the 1980’s working at a hospital in Ontario. He noticed some things he was doing, such as not exercising, eating hospital food, working long hours, and socially isolating himself. He then realized it was no wonder why he felt depressed considering all the things he was doing wrong.

Now I practice becoming aware of things I am good at doing wrong. I am an expert at canceling my own dreams by chasing after those that are not mine. For example, I once wasted years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing a CPA. I am still paying for this mistake. Now I know to say, “Hello World, I am not a CPA. I refuse to be one because I’d suck at it. I was never meant to be one. Thank you, but no thank you.” It is truly one of the best things I’ve given up on.

There is another even more freeing side effect of practicing reverse psychology. May I just call it Upside Down Psychology?

Upside Down Psychology is useful in softening our resistance to our experience. It is common for our species to feel bad about feeling bad or depressed about feeling depressed. Such feelings are connected with heaps of social stigma, real and perceived.

However, being depressed is already hard enough. Having problems is already problematic enough. Why do we make it harder by feeling mad, sad, and bad about having problems, and then make it even harder by worrying about what others think about us having these problems?

Let me guess. I know this is because we are partially wired and partially conditioned to be this way, however screwed up it is. This thing I call Upside Down Psychology alleviates that extra stupid layer of suffering.

Some experts say that worrying about worrying is ‘very bad and no good’ for our health. But by stating it this way, they’ve added to our collective anxiety.

I sometimes worry that I am worrying about having worries.

On the other hand, I tell myself, “Please, let me worry. Let me be miserable. I want to feel bad or feel whatever that I am feeling and I don’t care if it is not cool with anyone.” This has reduced the psychological pain and shame of struggling on too many occasions to count as a coincidence. I swear by it.

I work in a chaotic and insanely fast-paced company. It used to stress me a lot when I naively thought that things would fall apart at any given moment unless I kept up with the pace. But now I recite to myself, “Let it all fall apart. I embrace the chaos.”

Doing so has ended up improving my focus and speed. I have stopped fretting when I get behind. As a result, I experience more energy and less dread overall in my personal life as well as at work. I am not kidding.

This kind of chilling out really is liberating.

Originally published at

I write to collect, capture, and curate ordinary beautiful ideas.

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