Day 16. Homing In On the Rules That Aren't Actual Rules
Your inner critic features a set of rules that aren’t actual rules that are being used by you to guide and direct you through life, with what at times might be some pretty messy and painful results.
Rules essentially represent codes of conduct and practices that are based on clearly stated and detailed directives and principles about something. They are not universal (even laws aren’t universal as each country interprets laws and prosecutes differently) and they aren’t laws either.
Rules are necessary in life in order to minimise chaos with groups, to have a foundation and fairness from which to operate and to let people know the line and the limit.
Some rules in life are inherently understood because they represent social norms - things that we’ve all come to expect - but by and large, we learn about what is and isn’t allowed through the way in which people express their boundaries through words and action plus we also learn about what is and isn’t allowed by people who have or assume an authoritative role.
In our childhood, rules helped us to be managed. In our home, rules help to discipline, to set boundaries, and yes, in some instances, possibly made it easier to control us or for that person to be in control of their circumstances (pseudo control as it’s like trying to control the uncontrollable). At school and in other aspects of our childhood, rules made expectations clear and whether it was family, education, other adults - we inferred that rules represent the conditions for us being OK.
Sometimes these rules are explicitly stated (although not always understood, especially when you’re a kid) and sometimes these rules were assumed. As humans, we can find ourselves looking for signs of rules about how things are so that we can slot into our own habits. It’s a way of avoiding the vulnerability that comes with feelings things out and showing up.
As children, especially when we’re unsure of ourselves or unsure of who we’re around, we look for what we feel are vital indicators about things should or shouldn’t be, and yes, we also use child-like reasoning to work out how and why things are. When we experience something that doesn’t make sense to us or that causes us to feel bad and unsafe, we look for reasons to explain it and because we’re a kid and are not schooled in the nuances of adult behaviour never mind life, we see ourselves as being at the centre of everything and so we reach a conclusion that we did something wrong.
We then set ourselves some rules for the future to help us to avoid re-experiencing that pain.
Each time we use that rule, we reinforce not just the original flawed reasoning but the actual rule itself plus we add in more stuff to it or apply the rule to more and more situations, fencing us in in the process.
One of the things that often isn’t made clear by the adults in our life when we are children, is that the rules they give us are not the rules for life full stop. They don’t tell us that the rules are about their preferences not everyone’s preferences.
Rules are by and large about keeping a particular person or a set of people happy.
The rules we learn at school, it turns out, don’t apply to the real world. We are taught to follow the rules and we will be OK. Do good work, put in a good effort, pull of the grades and we will be OK. Please the teacher, stay out of trouble (follow the rules) or else there will be very bad consequences, if you can’t be super academic make sure that you’re not making a nuisance of yourself and ensure that you’re being useful in some way. Only people who work hard and go on to do a degree do well and on and on we go.
We are continuously taught from an early age whether it’s by our parents or other caregivers and authorities, that obeying others who give out rules is key.
We assume that these are the conditions for being OK and yet we’re not OK.
We rock up into adult life doing the same ‘ole thing and following the rules and yet, we’re getting burned. They’re not giving out stickers, stripes, brownie points and pats on the back. We don’t get the romantic relationship we want. People don’t respond like the rule givers do.
We might feel cheated but we’re highly likely to feel is that there is something wrong with us.
Your inner critic is a backing track of rules that aren’t actual rules that are becoming increasingly ineffective. Life doesn’t work in a paint-by-numbers style so if you keep following these ‘rules’, you are going to get lost and at times, you’re going to get burned.
Following these rules blindly or even grudgingly, has allowed your inner critic as well as your outer critic to be the expert or boss of you. At a time in your life where you’re an adult who needs to work out who you are and set your own rules through your values and boundaries, your inner critic (and any outer critic involvement) is keeping you stuck in the past.
Your parents might effectively still be parenting you because you’re still trying to please them or letting them direct you via your inner critic. You’ve likely transferred some or all of your parent’s power to a romantic partner or even to a meddling friend or colleague.
If you were bullied, your ex-bully is still bullying you because you’ve internalised their actions as well as your own criticisms of you and you’re still trying to figure out what the hell the rules are so that you can stop being bullied. Your boss may seem like your old bully or a parent reincarnated. You might feel reduced to being that lonely kid in the playground when you contemplate asserting your boundaries with certain friends and so always feel on the backfoot.
If you experienced abuse, the backing track of your inner critic is keeping that going. You’re still looking for the magic set of rules to follow that will finally get them off your back and let you have some worth.
Each time we follow rules that are set for us, we are tipping our proverbial cap to the person or people and letting them know that they have our support and allegiance.
Part of your attachment to these rules is about a sense of loyalty.
When you think about rightfully speaking up for or stepping up for you, it brings up fears around breaking the rules (associated with past negative consequences or even threatened ones) and it also brings up a fears about being disloyal.
A critical part of breaking any unhealthy pattern is recognising the ties of your habits because sometimes, we can really want to stop being or doing something but fear that in making these changes, we’re saying that who that person is, what they espoused, is not ‘OK’. We fear that if we choose to live our lives in our way that we are insulting whoever set or inspired the rules or that we’re ruining their dreams because we won’t live our life on their terms so they can’t correct their past. Even if that person is no longer around or certainly doesn't have the power to hurt or rule us as they did before, we act as if they’re still there by letting them rule in our head.
It's critical to locate the rules that aren't actual rules because you have inferred these rules to be laws and have learned that who you are is no OK or "good enough". If a belief and a rule about you doesn't positively serve you, it's not worth holding on to.
- When you identify the rules that aren’t rules as well as discern which rules that you actually want to live your life by, it’s no longer about loyalty. You can also look at whether you want to live your life in the person who inspired its way and choose from a healthier place.
- No matter how much you follow these rules, you won't be happy because they're not your rules and a hell of a lot of them are not actual rules.
- No matter how much you follow these rules, it will not turn a parent or anyone else from your past into the person you want them to be and it will not right the wrongs of the past.
- The way to feel better about the past is to stop living in it by abiding by a set of rules that keep recreating pain.
- Whoever inspired your inner critic, following those rules didn't make them happy otherwise they would not be the inspiration of your own critical inner voice. Pledging allegiance by joining them in misery will only compound the pain.
- When you consciously stop living your life by rules that aren't rules, you stop inadvertently looking for validation and trying to fill voids, which means you open you up to much happier, loving experiences.
JOURNALING: Write out your current rulebook. What are the rules that you have to live by in order to be OK? For instance, if you felt as if you weren’t OK and “good enough”, what would you have to have done to bring that about? e.g. I wouldn’t feel OK if I thought that I had upset somebody by saying no would point to a rule about not saying no to people if it means that they might dislike you. Look for the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. I should, people should, I must never. What do people in your family not do - these are rules.
TASK: Go through your list and identify which rules are actual rules, as in, they don’t just apply to that person but they apply to life full stop and are categorically true. Cross out anything that is irrational, harmful, only serving one person (your inner or outer critic). Use the Releasing Exercise to pick up on any associations you have with breaking the rules so that you can reduce your emotional charge and start to gain perspective.