In therapy sessions with clients, we seem to spend an awful lot of time talking about rules. My clientele (and myself) are generally rule-oriented folks – having a set of structures helps us to feel safe, ordered, and in control.
Rules come in all shapes and sizes: religious affiliations, spiritual philosophies, cultural trends and dictates, or personal codes. Having these rules can be a part of taking care of the anxious Parts of oneself, and is usually not overly harmful or problematic.
Things get sticky, however, when a rule bumps up against some of life’s inevitable learning, and we are confronted with the fact that the rule no longer applies or fits, is no longer useful, or is actually hindering our growth as individuals. Adapting our rules as we change and grow can be a bit mind-blowing, and is sometimes panic-inducing. Nevertheless, change we must. How do we go about changing our rulebook without breaking down in the process?
Acknowledge that our old rules have tried to help us, and are not coming from an evil or malicious place within us.
Often, when we discover that a rule we’ve been applying is harmful (or, at least, is no longer helpful) to us, we automatically decide that rule is coming from a “bad” place within us, and want to banish it away. In my experience, this is very rarely a useful way to approach any parts of ourselves, and only causes those part to roar back at us with a vengeance.
Instead, I suggest speaking kindly to the part that harbors that old rule, thanking it for its suggestions but letting it know that you are going to try things a bit differently. For instance: “I appreciate you trying to help me out, but I think I might have a solution that’s even better than what you are proposing. Would you mind letting me try that out for awhile to see how it feels?
Acknowledge that growth is a process that has no end point, and that we are always learning and changing.
The way that we approach life will (and should) change over the course of our lifetimes. Rules and ideas that once fit very well into our life stories are sometimes outgrown, and that is expected, normal, and completely okay. Just because an approach no longer works for you doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable at one time.
Rather than berate ourselves (what was I thinking?) or cringe when we think about our historical rules that no longer apply, I suggest that they celebrate them. They brought us to where we are today, and that’s something to be grateful for. And, when we think positively about life approaches that no longer work for us, we are better able to let them go and move on to what’s working for us now.
Give ourselves the freedom to always change our minds.
I love the Billy Joel line “She never gives out, and she never gives in, she just changes her mind.” We are free to change our minds whenever we need to. Moved to a new state and it isn’t working out? It’s ok to move again! Entered into a relationship and it isn’t working as you expected? It’s totally fine to separate and date someone new (or stay single!). Picked a major in college that isn’t resonating as you’d hoped? Change that major!
When our life rules, decisions, approaches, etc., don’t feel right to us, that’s very valuable information. Nothing more. It does not mean that we’ve failed, or that we are wrong, or that we must persevere because we already picked this particular thing. We’re being given information that it’s time to change the rules. That’s valuable – don’t ignore it!
Remaining flexible as we experience life allows for us to make up new rules as we go (or – major overload – throw the rules out altogether). What if you experimented with being open to changing your rules?