How to Notice and Challenge Your Self-Made Rules
October 1, 2018
Rules—you probably either love them or hate them.
And I can honestly say I love rules. I especially love creating rules for myself because I crave order.
I love having a clear picture of what I can and can’t do. There’s something about knowing my limitations that makes me feel safe.
For example: I’m queen of never letting my guard down. I believe that the more walls I put up, the less pain I’ll have to feel if someone lets me down.
Another rule I practice on the regular is sticking to my favorites. I’m a creature of habit and like to do things that I know I already enjoy.
But, there’s also a downside to cozying up to these rules: I’m never challenging them, which can block me from living life to the fullest.
Brittany Luse, co-host of The Nod podcast, recently pointed out this issue with self-made rules on Twitter:
Been talking a lot with my therapist lately about the pressure I put on myself with my own (made-up, useless, but ruthlessly enforced) rules and standards for “living”. (Must do/ have TK by TK age and things like that)— Brittany Luse (@bmluse) September 13, 2018
I’ve also noticed that the people in my life who have nixed, broken, or ignored their own “rules” (if they had them at all) are happy and having a really, really good time living, regardless of stressors.— Brittany Luse (@bmluse) September 13, 2018
And she’s absolutely right.
When we set rules for ourselves and stick to them, we’re limiting ourselves from truly experiencing life. We’re stopping ourselves from venturing outside of our rule-bound comfort zone—and in turn stopping our growth.
Although we have our best interests in mind when we set these rules, it’s important to understand that those rules are sometimes born from internal myths.
These pesky rules are part of our “narrative identity”—volumes of internalized stories we tell ourselves. They can be small (“I can’t cook”) or large (“I can’t open up to people”). Either way, they impact how we make sense of ourselves and others.
“Like myths, our narrative identity contains heroes and villains that help us or hold us back, major events that determine the plot, challenges overcome and suffering we have endured,” Emily Esfahani Smith writes in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. “When we want people to understand us, we share our story or parts of it with them; when we want to know who another person is, we ask them to share part of their story.”
And within these stories, we create those rules about what we can and can’t do, think, and be.
The good news: You can edit and change the rules you set for yourself. How? By embracing your inner rule breaker. Promise: It’s not as drastic as it sounds.
Here are two steps to start:
1. Notice Your Rules
Our self-made rules often go unnoticed, but they bubble under the surface of all our actions and behaviors. Start by trying to notice when a rule is impacting how you move through your day.
For example: If you resist chatting with your friendly barista, does that come from a rule about not opening up to people?
If you stay quiet during that brainstorm, is there a rule that says your ideas don’t deserve a seat at the table?
If you resist the dance floor at the wedding, is there a rule that says your moves aren’t the greatest?
If you end the day running through all the little mistakes you made, is there a rule that says you have to constantly point out your faults?
Get curious, and slowly start to notice the rules governing how you act and think. And try doing it without judgement. Again: We all carry these rules.
2. Create Rule-Breaking Challenges
Now that you know your rules, it’s time to throw them all out and live a completely different life.
Going from a rule creator to a rule breaker happens one step at a time. Instead of trying to rewrite all your rules at once, try challenging just one rule first. Pick one that feels easiest to push back on.
One of the biggest rules I set for myself: Spontaneity isn’t your thing, so avoid it all costs. The idea of things being outside of my control scares me so much that I refuse to let people plan surprises for me and not give me a few days notice before we hangout.
To break that rule, though, I decided that twice a month I’ll let someone do something spontaneous for me and I can’t get mad or protest it. At first, it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I was constantly anxious and on the verge of having a panic attack. And sometimes, I would just give up and have to revisit the challenge in a few days.
But then one day that all changed. My boyfriend decided that we should fly to Orlando for a day so I can finally go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (I’ve only dreamed about going since it opened). Thinking he was joking, I went along with the idea—but before I knew it, he booked two tickets and the joke was becoming a reality.
When the day finally came, I was actually happy that he planned this spontaneous trip. I was filled with so much joy and excitement that I was able to take everything in without stressing. It wasn’t easy to start breaking my “spontaneity is bad” rule, but the more I practiced, the more comfortable I became.
Maybe you’ll challenge a rule and realize “Yup, there’s a reason I don’t let myself cook—this is the most stressful thing.” Or, maybe like me, you’ll see that there’s some wiggle room with the rule you’ve carried.
Give yourself permission to take the time you need, and know even just challenging a rule in a small way can help you learn more about yourself.
We all have a fear of letting go or putting ourselves out there, but once you do it, you’ll truly know how you can and want to grow. Trust me, you won’t regret it. Some of my best adventures happened when I threw my rules out the window.
We set rules to protect ourselves, but sometimes we need to break those rules to find ourselves.