This might surprise you, but I’m a fan of rules.
The rule that says I should drive on the correct side of the road is a good one, because following that rule makes it less likely I’ll run into an oncoming truck.
I like the rules about saying please and thank you, because it feels good to be kind, plus it’s an effective social lubricant (and who doesn’t like a bit of ease and flow?)
Even the rules about paying tax seem fundamentally good to me – I like knowing we have the resources to pay teachers and nurses and garbagemen and the smart folks who design and build roads and train lines and other complicated infrastructure. (I might have some other preferences about how taxes are spent, but I know how to find love for non-negotiable rules in my life!)
But I don’t follow ALL the rules. Here are some rules I ignore:
- big boys don’t cry
- girls are bad at numbers
- fat is bad, thin is good
- success is only ever indicated by numbers on a page
- a man must bring home the bacon or he’s not a real man
- a woman must have a child or she’s not a real woman
- you have to eat your greens before you eat dessert
These rules are limitations. Many of them are self-critical and damaging, triggering shame and doubt.
But the thought of breaking such a rule may bring a huge sense of dread or anxiety, especially if those rules were embedded for a long time. So how do we free ourselves?
First, get aware.
When you notice some thought that might be a rule, ask three questions. You aren’t taking any actions just yet, so drop any anxiety that arises. You’re merely exercising a little curiosity and discernment.
Whose rule is it anyway? Is it my own, my doctor’s, my dad’s, the media’s, my naturopath’s, that dude on Twitter …. you get the picture. Dig deep enough and chances are it’s a rule you’ve picked up from someone else. You may not be able to identify the exact person, you might just know you picked this rule up at school or church. It’s all fine. No judgement, just investigation.
Is this rule absolutely true for everyone, or is there someone in the world for whom it’s not? Smart Greek philosopher Socrates said that if any rule has just one single exception, it is no longer a rule – because it is not 100% true all of the time. This question may stir up all kinds of resistance, but do it anyway – spirit of curiosity, right? You can even turn it into a game where you LOOK for the exceptions. Because remember, if a rule has an exception, it is no longer a rule.
Does this rule make me happy? If engaging this rule always makes you feel GREAT, then celebrate that! If not, simply make a note. No judgement – just curiosity.
And now – decide
Once you have asked these questions, you get to choose.
If it’s your rule, and it feels genuinely good when you engage it, call it a choice, a decision.
Claim it and own it!
And then notice and celebrate every time you express that choice.
You’re in charge. Woohooo!
If it doesn’t feel good when you engage it, you have some options.
You could simply drop the rule and ignore that it ever existed. Let it go without a backward glance. And if it comes back, remind yourself that’s it’s just an old rule that has nothing to do with who you truly are.
If the rule had some intention that you’d like to honour, you can replace it with a more loving choice.
If your old rule was “I have to work an 8 hour day to be worthy”, replace it with something kinder, such as “I contribute to the world simply by showing up”.
If your old rule was “I sacrifice myself to take care of my elderly parent because that’s what a good child does”, replace it with something healthier, such as “I take care of my parent while I also prioritise my own well-being”.
When you use this technique on any rule you notice, you can reshape everything in your life so it’s lined up with YOU.
Not someone else’s needs or perspective or desires or decisions.
You still get to be a caring person who contributes to the world. In fact, you’re likely going to be MORE effective if you’re working with ‘rules’ that you created yourself, to satisfy your own preferences.
How many of your rules might you ditch, or replace with a better, more self-loving choice? I’d love to know!
Feel free to share yours in the comments below.