Updated: Sep 2, 2021
I think we all have a love/hate relationship with rules.
There are rules that govern polite society such as following the speed limit, mowing your lawn, not taking your neighbor’s stuff, or covering your mouth when you cough. Most of us would say that these rules are necessary and we should follow them. These rules are helpful.
But there are a lot of other, not-so-easily agreed upon rules that govern areas such as health, eating, exercise, sleep, fashion, lifestyle, and finances. In a world of unlimited (and complicated) possibility, it is nice to have someone make things easy and give us some rules to follow.
Eat this not that.
Exercise this way on these days.
Buy this, wear this, don’t be caught dead in that.
Decorate your house this way.
Follow these 10 steps to make this much money in a year.
Do these three things every day to get that result.
Lose that weight by doing these things.
Believe this, vote this way, like that group of people, read those books, listen to this music….on it goes.
The store has shelves full of books that spell out steps for you to accomplish pretty much anything. Any group, religious or otherwise, has a set of norms for your behavior. Even magazines or YouTube channels you subscribe to subtly give you a set of rules to live by to fit into their group.
We love this because these rules make life easy. Decision making is simpler. The outcome feels guaranteed. We feel like we belong.
On some level, that is very attractive, isn’t it? On some level it is actually helpful.
Buying into any set of external rules means that you are committed to following those rules in the hope of attaining a specific goal. You SHOULD do this and SHOULD NOT do that. Sometimes there are very long, complicated lists of what is OK or not (especially in diet and exercise programs) but you follow them because you think it will definitely get you what you want.
There are just a few problems to this.
The outcome is not guaranteed. Even the best expert who has had success with thousands of people cannot put their entire body of expertise into one 10-step plan. There is no plan that will work 100% for everyone.
Rules bring guilt. The dark flipside of any rule book you choose to follow is that inevitably you don’t do something right and then the self-flagellation begins. Or you don’t meet the intended goal and you assume it is your fault.
Buying into a set of rules gives away your power. No guru or celebrity fitness expert or fancy magazine can actually define a set of rules that meet you every need. We are all different. The only one who can really know what you need is you.
Let me say it again. There is no set of rules that will guarantee everyone meet the intended outcome 100% of the time. It just isn’t possible.
So maybe you should start thinking of these sets of rules more as guidelines rather than absolutes. Maybe you need to trust yourself enough to know when to break the rules because they don’t work for you.
How do you know when to break the rules?
If you are doing everything you are supposed to but not getting the results that you want.
If you are struggling with rules and restrictions that only make you feel guilty.
If you are unhappy with your life and having a hard time finding joy in what you are doing.
If you are twisting yourself (or your family or friends) into knots to conform to some external standard.
How do you know which rules to break?
You don’t necessarily have to throw everything out the window. Here is a good way to figure out which rules aren’t working for you. Notice how often you say “I should” or “I shouldn't” as well as the feelings that go along with those words.
“My menu says I should eat plain broccoli and boiled chicken for dinner” (while staring longingly at the broccoli, cheese, chicken, and rice dinner being enjoyed by your family).
“My fitness coach says I should get up at 5 am to exercise at least 4 times a week” (while desperately trying not to yawn because you only get 4 hours a sleep each night).
“I shouldn’t buy that blanket because it definitely does not match the carefully coordinated bedroom my magazine says is in style” (while holding it in your arms and imaging a cozy afternoon snuggle).
The “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” tell you which rules you need to stop and think about. Asking yourself if you really want/need to follow that rule. Just because you don’t want to follow it right now does not mean it is a bad rule. Will breaking that rule still allow you to reach your intended outcome? I believe that you know what you need to heal and to meet your goals. If you get quiet and listen to your body, you will know if that rule is right for you. Once you’ve decided if you are going to follow that rule or not, go back and rephrase your original statement. Change it to “I will,” (or won’t) “I choose to,”(or not) “I want to,” (or don’t) “I am going to” (or not).
“My menu says I should eat plain broccoli and boiled chicken for dinner” may become, “I want to eat the delicious dinner my family is eating because I really need something more filling tonight.”
“My fitness coach says I should get up at 5 am to exercise at least 4 times a week,” might be “I choose to sleep in tomorrow to catch up on rest but I will get up early four other times this week to exercise. Unless I’m still really exhausted, and then I will choose to change the plan.”
“I shouldn’t buy that blanket because it definitely does not match the carefully coordinated bedroom my magazine says is in style,” could become, “My new bedroom is beautiful but not very cozy. I am going to buy this blanket anyway because it makes me happy.”
Do you see how doing this takes back your power? You take an external rule and decide for yourself if it is worth following or not. You take responsibility for your own life. You take responsibility for meeting your own goals. You free yourself from cycles of guilt and mindless choices that don’t work for you. You keep the parts that work for you (because they make life easier) and throw out the parts that don’t (because hanging on to them isn’t helping you).
There is no external set of rules that is going to work for you 100% of the time to get you to where you want to be. It is only by getting in touch with yourself that you will find the path toward your healing and best life. There is no shortcut for this. There is no guidebook for your life. You are the only one who can figure out how to be you.
This week it is time to take back your power. Think about the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Decide if the rules work for you or not. Take responsibility for your decisions.
If you want a reminder to help you to consider your shoulds and shouldn’ts this week, download/print one of these free PDFs to post around your home as reminders to take responsibility for your decisions!
TakeBackYourPower.pdf (full color version)
TakeBackYourPower.pdf (printable black and white version)