When people in Russia hear the advice ‘Do only what you want to do’, they think it’s a call for anarchy. They consider their biggest, wildest desires absolutely low, perverse and harmful for those around them.  In their mind these people are certain that they are savages and are too terrified to let themselves have what their hearts desire. I see it as a serious symptom of our national neurosis.

I tell someone: “Do what you want.” And they reply: “Are you kidding? How can I?”

So my answer is: if you consider yourself a good person, you can. You can and you must. The desires of a good person are in harmony with the interests of the people around them.

Over the course of 30 years as a practicing psychologist, I have developed six rules that have helped dozens of people free themselves from their neuroses. This doesn’t mean that I spent 30 years thinking about them. It was more like they just emerged one day, like the Periodic table in Mendeleev’s head after a good night’s sleep.

The rules appear quite simple at first:

  1. Do only what you want to.
  2. Don’t do something you don’t want to.
  3. Speak up straight away if you don’t like something.
  4. Don’t give an answer unless you are asked a question.
  5. Answer only the question you have been asked.
  6. When you are in an argument, speak only about yourself.

I’ll explain how the rules work. Every neurotic becomes affected by a certain irritant – or more often, a few — in his life when he is still a child. As the aggravating stimulus is constantly repeated, the child develops a repeated reaction to it. For example, if his parents yell at him, the child gets frightened and withdraws into his shell. If the yelling repeats all the time, the child stays frightened and depressed. The child grows up and his behavioural pattern is set: stimulus-reaction, stimulus-reaction — year, after year, after year. Strong neural connections, known as reflex arcs, are formed in the child’s brain: nerve cells organize themselves in a certain way to wire in the same response to similar stimuli. (But what if the child is being beaten or abandoned? Can you imagine his response to life in these scenarios?)

So, to help a person overcome his fears, anxieties, insecurities and low self-esteem, you need to break this vicious circle and create a new pattern of responses and new connections. There is only one way to do it without resorting to a lobotomy — with the help of actions that are new to the neurotic.

He has to act differently and break his usual behavioural patterns. It’s easier to change when there are clear instructions on how to act in every specific situation. There is no need to think about it, or to self-reflect, or to appeal to his own (negative) experience. In life, it doesn’t actually matter much what you think. What matters is what you feel and what you do.

My rules offer a way of behaviour totally alien to neurotics, but typical of emotionally and psychologically healthy people: calm and independent, with high self-esteem and love for themselves.

The first rule is the one that provokes the most resistance, questions, doubts and accusations. I am told, “What is this? Love yourself, ignore everyone else, and you will live happily ever after?” Note that I have never stated that the others need to be ignored.

For some reason, everyone implies that if you live the way you want you will disadvantage the people around you. Even worse, in our society we despise our own wishes as if they are always low and perverse. I would even say that Russian people look at their desires with caution and fear. The concept is as follows: “Unleash me and I will be unstoppable!” (“Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll,” or “I will be the end of you all!” or “I’m a monster when I’m angry!”) If that’s what he really wants to do, what kind of person is he? This is usually followed by a confession that he needs someone with a firm hand to keep him in line, strong reins and so on. I would call this psychology the mind-set of a slave.

There is another concept. A mother’s favourite thing to yell at someone as they were leaving (maybe the father) was: “You can’t live the way you want!” Even worse things were said about people who actually lived that way (also, maybe the father again). The grandmother had a saying: “Life is not for pleasure, but for clean conscience.” And the whole family believed that if they laughed a lot today, they’d cry tomorrow. The result from this family is an anxious person who physically can’t do what he wants. In fact, he can’t even know what he wants. It’s as if he feels guilty and is sure that if his wishes were to come true, there will be a payback later. So to be safe, he has to behave ‘as he ought to’.

Another problem is that people confuse ‘do what you want’ with ‘be selfish’. There is a huge difference. A selfish person doesn’t accept himself and can’t settle. He is fixated on himself, his problems, and his inner emotions — the most common of them is feeling hurt. He can’t help you or empathize — not because he’s such a bad person, but because he doesn’t have the inner strength to do so. He’s already in a fascinating and tumultuous relationship — with himself. Everyone thinks that he’s insensitive, abrasive, and cold, that he doesn’t care about anyone else; while he constantly thinks that no one cares about him. And he continues stacking and storing the offences against him.

So what is a person who loves himself like? He always chooses to do what is close to his heart. When he has to decide how to act, he might consider what would be effective, or logical, or obligated — and then he’ll still do what he wants. Even if it leads to losing money. He might even lose much more. But whom would he blame? There is nothing wrong with him. He lives amongst the people he loves and he loves his work. He is in harmony with himself, and so he is kind to others and open to the rest of the world. And he respects other people’s desires as much as he respects his own.

That is why he doesn’t have that inner conflict that is so typical of neurotics who are living a double life. For example, he feels a duty for his wife, but he feels for his lover. So he gets a present for his wife because it has to be done, not because he wants to make her happy. Or he goes to work not because he loves his job, but because he has a mortgage and hopes he can endure another five years of the office from hell to pay it off. Et voilà – the duality!

In trying to achieve results, the majority often think it’s their duty to fight themselves, to suppress their emotions and tell themselves, ”It’s ok, I’ll get used to it.” Getting results without struggling and overcoming their inner self just doesn’t seem to make them happy. Here is a great example of such a battle: a woman wants to eat and wants to lose weight at the same time. Even if she loses weight, she loses the battle, because she still longs for that cream cake, usually sometime around one a.m. (We will talk later about the connection between extra weight, overeating and neuroses of all types. All of these are very closely related.)

This is what I tell my clients when I explain the first and, probably, most important of my six rules. By the way, these are the rules I try to live by myself. I won’t pretend it was easy. ‘Living the way you want’ takes a lot of effort to start with. Your mentality wants to lead you down the path of compromise and fear, but you have to stop yourself and say, “What the hell am I doing? I don’t want this!” And you have to do it time after time before it becomes easier and easier to make decisions that favour your wants, but without depriving others. After all, I know that I’m a good person, so my desires won’t cause problems for anyone else.

Then you realise that life becomes easier and easier. And what’s more, it becomes second nature and you simply can’t act in any other way. Sometimes you consider doing ‘the right thing’ against your will and wishes, but your body fights it… and continues to fight until you stop doing things that seem necessary but are not desired. And happiness is achieved. As a result, I have lost a good source of income. But I’d rather lose some money than lose health and happiness.