You Can’t Cheat The System

It’s not uncommon in the course of a counselling day for me to repeat the phrase “You can’t cheat the system!” which I say with a smile, but internally I’m serious!

What does this mean?

Of course, “You can’t cheat the system” can have different meanings depending on the context.

From a counselling perspective, I applied this term to mean: We generally can’t cut corners (cheat) when it comes to our nervous systems. And to break this down even further, every action (positive, negative or neutral) has a consequence. One way of looking at this is:

Situation ———> Action ———> Consequence(s)

But sometimes we get into magical or wishful thinking, believing that we have full control over the consequences, sometimes to the point that we can cut corners and “get away with it.”Or that we can manifest a desired outcome. But do we truly get away with it, from a deeper, nervous system perspective? I’ll look at this more below.

And I would like to emphasize that in this article I’m talking about organic, natural consequences, not external punishment or moralization. I can’t stress that enough.

And also…. this article is about responding to situations where we have a choice. Not everyone in every situation has the privilege of choice.

And also… sometimes I’m asked, “Can we ever cheat the system?” This brings me to the point that “not cheating the system” is not intended to be applied literally, in every single circumstance, particularly if we are cutting corners to reduce perfectionism, decrease stress or for other reasons that help our personal growth. Maybe in a few months I’ll contradict myself by writing an article about cheating the system. But I digress.

How Do We Cheat The System?

There are multitudinous ways that we can convince ourselves that body and mind won’t pay the price for certain actions. In fact, we might not even be aware that our nervous system pays a price at all.

In looking at some common situations and how they can cause problems for us, this is not meant to be a comprehensive discussion as everyone’s situation is different; I will leave it up to you to extrapolate and find personal, relevant examples. Again, I’d also like to remind folks that consequences—or possible consequences—are just that. There’s no need to judge ourselves, particularly when the consequences are not what we were hoping for.

Sleep

Much has been written about the health benefits of adequate sleep, including its role in disease prevention.

We may cut corners with our sleep in order to fit things in, fulfill additional responsibilities, increase our recreation time and more.

We reason that we can “get by” with less—maybe we’re young, or we have a long history of doing so and are accustomed to it. We may also be neurodivergent and we may need more waking hours to process things. Or substance use may be playing a role. Or maybe we’re wired for insomnia and we’ve been frustrated by solutions that don’t seem to work for us.

Possible Consequences
Some of us recognize what happens for us when we’re sleep deprived. Others of us aren’t sure. I encourage you to pause and reflect on this at this moment, to see if anything comes to mind.

The US-based National Lung, Heart and Blood Institute points out that sleep deprivation can pose problems with driving, work, school and in social or other everyday situations. Learning, focus, and reaction times can also be affected. Socially, the Institute also notes that sleep-deprived folks may be more likely to misinterpret social situations (such as judging other people’s emotions and reactions) and their consequences We may also see increases in worry, anxiety and irritability and anger.

Rest

I’m defining rest as dedicated time to relax, renew, unwind or restore ourselves. In a productivity-oriented society where hard work is often seen as synonymous with moral virtue, it can be tempting to make rest a low priority. Rest may also not be an option if a person is consumed with matters of survival: having multiple jobs, paying rent, childcare responsibilities and more.

Possible Consequences
Whether we have a choice or not around rest, having a lack of it takes a toll. We may find ourselves more irritable, angry, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, etc.

Sometimes we may favour rest over sleep, forgoing sleep in order to get in some essential unwinding time or in order to feel like we “have a life” that includes interests and relaxation time outside of the daily grind.

Additionally, we may try to fast-track or supercharge our rest by using substances that may have physiological and psychological consequences that later, we’re not happy about.

While rest can also be an essential and universal tool for preventing burnout, neurodivergent and many disabled folks may need much more rest time in order to cope with existing in a world that is not designed for them.

Movement

I’d like to own up to the fact that my natural instinct is to hunker down. While I do enjoy walking, particularly when the environment I’m walking in is peaceful, because of my disabilities, certain forms of movement can be difficult, if not painful.

Why do I share this? There is so much stigma in our society about “lack of exercise,” and “sedentary lifestyles” and when we find ourselves in these categories, we may face fierce judgment from others, whether or not lack of movement is a choice.

And in our fast-paced world, which also includes many conveniences and many, many contradictory messages around sitting and staring at our screens (to make a living, to recreate and more) it can be hard to move, let alone schedule it in!

Much research exists around the benefits of movement including disease prevention, improvement in sleep, reducing early death, improving mood and anxiety, improving physical function and more—there are a lot of valid reasons for finding movement activities that are right for you.

Possible Consequences
Consequences of reduced movement can include, but are not limited to: poorer sleep, reduced physical function/need for more external supports, social isolation (e.g. not leaving the house, not being able to keep pace with friends, etc.), susceptibility to disease, compromised mental health and more.

Emotional Boundaries

This is an issue that comes up time and time again within the counselling context: the limits we set with other people regarding what is acceptable interpersonally, and what is not.

And the one thing that is not discussed enough is that boundaries are really about our choices—not what the people in our lives should be doing differently.

How does this show up? Some common examples include:

  • Saying yes to something we’re not comfortable with
  • Having contact with someone that we don’t want to interact with or who is unsafe
  • Fulfilling family expectations that we know are not reasonable
  • Sacrificing self care for the sake of pleasing others
  • Responding out of guilt or fear that someone will be angry with us if we don’t do what they want
  • Pretending things are fine when they’re not

Again, I’d like to emphasize that such situations are not black and white. For example, we may say yes to something un-harmful that we dislike personally for the sake of the greater good. Every situation is unique.

Possible Consequences
These can vary but may include:

  • Increased irritability or anger or angry outbursts
  • Increased anxiety. worry, panic, nervousness
  • Depression
  • Problems sleeping, eating
  • Perpetuating unhealthy relationship dynamics
  • Contributing to a false sense of reality/shared delusion
  • Others being angry with us such as when we overpromise but underdeliver

Habits

This is a difficult topic to discuss because most of us judge ourselves for habits which we (or others) recognize take a toll on our nervous system. Or we might compare ourselves with others’ habits in order to try to make ourselves feel better, or as a way of punishing ourselves further. None of this is helpful.

Habits often exist for very noble reasons: to make life easier (at least in the short term), to offer an escape, to promote different feeling states, for social reasons, to improve productivity and more.

Possible Consequences
This often shows up something like “short-term gain for long-term pain.” Consequences can include things like:

Nourishment

This is a highly loaded topic which is perpetuated by toxic diet culture that uses words like “healthy” to shame those who don’t meet culturally acceptable beauty standards.

Here, I’m not referring to any foods in particular or whether or not they are “healthy.” Rather, I’m referring to the individual experience of feeling nourished (or not), while also understanding that the experience of being collectively nourished, within the context of community, is relevant too.

Possible Consequences of inadequate nourishment include but are not limited to:

  • Increased irritability
  • Diminished ability to cope with stress
  • Body weakness/fatigue/lethargy
  • Anxiety, low mood
  • Physical illness
  • Eating disorders

A New Strategy

I’ve said it a few times already but letting go of judgement around our efforts to cheat the system is essential. Typically, we’re simply trying our best in the moment and reacting by shaming ourselves when things go poorly, inhibits learning and diminishes our resolve to try alternatives.

Here are some of my ideas for folks wanting to move away from cheating the system:

  1. Observe consequences neutrally. Dispassionately notice the consequences that follow from choices. Be curious, or, if you want to geek out, track them like a scientist. Having more data helps us make more informed choices in the future.
  2. Use “mistakes” as an opportunity to improve self-knowledge, which can greatly shape our future choices.
  3. Embrace Learning. When we’ve made it a habit of rationally revising actions and their consequences, we will see patterns more clearly and often be able to predict what will happen if we continue to go down a road that we’re questioning.
  4. Be real with yourself and make honest, informed choices. When we understand consequences on a deeper level, we can be real with ourselves and the situation. Situation—-> Action——-> Consequences just is as it is. I wholeheartedly believe that we can decide to continue with choices that have difficult consequences with our eyes wide open. Yes, we’re making a difficult choice, we know what we’re getting into AND we will fully take responsibility for their possible consequences. It’s still informed decision making.
  5. Be careful of ideals. We often think that we should be able to do something and not face consequences, simply because it’s the right thing to do. It’s sometimes difficult to realize that noble intentions do not absolve us of consequences. We may still have to pay the piper.
  6. Pump up the self-care. If we’re going through a difficult time or are anticipating challenging consequences, how can we look after ourselves and weather the storm? Our future self may also thank us!

Further Reading

The book links on this page are Amazon Associate links; if you choose to make a purchase through them, I may earn a small commission which I use to fund my low-cost counselling resource lists. Your support is greatly appreciated.

Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide To Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab (2021)

This book has emerged as a prominent and popular choice for those who wish to better understand emotional boundaries and co-dependency. Straightforward and practical.

How To Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing by KC Davis (2022)

A boon to neurodivergent folks, those struggling with mental health issues, or anyone else who is overwhelmed by life, therapist KC Davis, offers practical, forgiving strategies and care tasks that we can all use. Highly recommended.

Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Wellbeing and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison (2019)

Hard-hitting look at the diet orthodoxy and strategies for living in a fat-phobic world. Author is a journalist and anti-diet registered dietician. A good read for those who prefer facts and research-based books and who won’t shy away from the author’s assertive messaging.

The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Patterson (2022)

This book was first written when there was very little on the market to help with assertiveness skills. This practical workbook for understanding and improving assertiveness is now in its 2nd edition.