Part of psychological health is being able to respond flexibly, in context. It means you can do what is needed in the moment. For example, what life calls for when you are at work is different than your best responses when you are home or on vacation. That’s an easy distinction. But if you’re a rule follower you may sometimes find that you are sticking to routines and rules when it doesn’t fit the context or serve you well.
For example, do you have a routine that you’ve been following like forever? Maybe the rule is that you have bacon and eggs for breakfast. That’s fine as long as you make sure you have bacon and eggs in the fridge. But what if you don’t get to the grocery store? Or maybe you are traveling and bacon and eggs are not available. Do you adjust easily? Or maybe you are upset and refuse to eat and/or maybe you are irritable the rest of the day and grump at your friends.
Maybe you have a rule about being on time. That rule says that it is rude and irresponsible to be late. So you leave for appointments in plenty of time. Imagine that as you are walking out the door for a meeting the child next door pulls on your jacket, saying that she has lost her dog. She wants you to help her and her mother look for the dog. Do you keep your rule about not being late and rush away, giving the child a brief explanation?
Do you have rules about your schedule? Maybe you do the same things at the same time every day. Does it anger you when someone wants you to sit in on a conference call and it’s time for your lunch? If company comes by to chat and it’s time for your walk, do you fume inside or become anxious? Do you leave parties in order to get home in time for your bedtime?
Sometimes, when you have rigid rules about life you may apply those rules to others. If you make it a priority to never be late, do you judge others when they are late, even a few minutes? Maybe you have a rule about not dropping in on people without being invited. Then you find a friend who loves spontaneous visits. Others are talking at work about the good times they had at her house and you feel left out and lonely.
Maybe you have a rule that if you invite others to go to dinner, then you have to pay. That means you rarely invite others to go out to eat and if you do, you limit it to one or two. You may again feel left out when you hear about groups of people going for pizza or you resent it when you are invited to go but the tab is dutch treat.
You might be a person who has rules about asking for what you want. Do you believe it’s wrong to ask others to go to a certain restaurant or movie? Do you believe you should go along with the group and whatever they want to do? Do you believe it is wrong to tell someone that you don’t want to go to a sports event they have invited you to?
Routines and rules can help decrease the number of decisions we have to make each day and thus help us conserve mental energy. But routines can become a way of being stuck and ineffective. It can become a way of being constantly busy but not doing anything that you really want to do. Sticking rigidly to rules can mean you not having much fun and sometimes building resentments toward others.
Think about the rules that you have about life. Sometimes those rules are helpful and sometimes not. Questioning those rules instead of just following can be the first step. So is today a day that calls for routine? Do you need to conserve energy? Or do you need to shake things up a little and create some interest and variability? Flexible responding can mean doing something new and different. It doesn’t have to be a huge, big change. It could be as simple as eating something different for lunch or doing something you don’t usually do. It can mean changing the way you spend your days so it matches your needs and your stage in life.
Consider the rules you have for your life and behavior. Do they serve you well? Are you flexible with those “rules” when the situation calls for it?