By Mike McMahan, LPC
With the recent announcement that the game tokens in Monopoly will be changed by an internet vote (no way that goes wrong), we can all quake in fear that something will happen to the shoe. This bit of news reminded me of a pretty interesting bit about all of the so-called “house rules” that many of us follow when playing this often long and contentious game. One of the best known examples is placing money generated from Community Chest and Chance into the center of the board (perhaps held down by the thimble), to be won by the next person who lands on Free Parking. Anyone who has ever read the rules know that Free Parking is, in fact, named for exactly what it is. A place to sit for free while waiting for your next turn, as explained in the rules video.
Truthfully, that’s kind of boring. Whatever it might say in the rules, the Free Parking jackpot is a whole lot of fun. It also keeps money circulating in the game, though the game will undoubtedly be extended due to so much money being in play.
Near the end of the video, the narrator notes that many people have likely never read the rules of Monopoly and likely learned to play when they were taught by friends or family members and, therefore, learned whatever “rules” that person played with. This is the reason the Free Parking jackpot has become so enshrined.
When you think about it, this is actually a lot like life. There are certain rules of life and society that we all agree on, even though there is no rule book to explain them. These are called social constructions. It is an interesting concept to read more about and it’s implications go well beyond a blog post, but let’s consider a simplified example. If I show you the color red and ask you what it means, you will likely say “stop” (unless you’re a bull, in which case it inexplicably means “charge”). Think about that for a second. There is nothing about the color red that makes it means “stop” more than anything else. At some point, it became used on stop signs and presumably became enshrined going forward. But for most of us, if you see red, you stop.
How does this apply to your life? Well, how often do you find yourself saying “it’s what everybody does” or “that’s just how it works?” Does it really? Or are you assuming that just because something is red there is something inherently woven into its meaning that means stop? There are different levels of this. A fairly minor one is how we dress. I’m sure I can google it, but I’ve always wondered why a tie is considered formal. Tie a random piece of cloth around your neck and you’re dressed up? Sure, why not.
Much more worrisome to me, especially as a mental health professional who frequently works with teens, are agreed upon social norms that may not be best for all of us. There’s an idea that a lot of people have (though not everybody, and it is fading) that a person needs to get married by a certain age. If you find that special someone and you’re in love, great. By all means, get married if it’s what you think is right and I wish you happiness. But I have had clients tell me “this relationship is bad, but we both think it’s time to get married and start a family.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. Why is it time? Says who? There may be an imaginary consensus in society that a lot of us buy into, but that doesn’t mean it’s real in any sense. It may even be a narrative we've slotted ourselves into without realizing. At some point it was “decided” and that was that. And marriage can be challenging as you age. Any number of studies point to the advantages of waiting until at least the mid 20s before making a lifetime commitment to someone.
So the next time you find yourself saying “it’s just how it works,” ask yourself if you’re buying into something because it’s what is “always” done. Maybe it’s Free Parking and you should win a lot of Monopoly money because someone taught you those rules. Or maybe you should sit there and enjoy the view. It’s free!
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture