The problem with following the rules

The problem with following the rules

I've been thinking about the beliefs we have that hold us back and how the fear of failing stops us from trying. We confine and constrain and curb ourselves with all these lines in the sand that we draw. These beliefs, thought patterns and fears are informed by our culture, upbringing, the patriarchy and they're woven so smoothly into our lives that we don't notice they're there.

They're in the invisible rules we tell ourselves we have to obey because if we don't we're not good people, we aren't doing it right, there's no point starting or we may as well give up.

It's the rule we set ourselves that if we don't think we're able to do something brilliantly we shouldn't try it at all. 

It's the rule that if someone suggests you do something it's an instruction that you're obliged to carry out.

the problem with following the rules

It's the rule that if you can't see the complete path in front of you, it's safer to not take a step at all. 

It's the rule that if we don't meet our own expectations as well as other people's (real or imagined) it's a failure reflecting on our inherent self-worth.

Wow, that's a heavy set of rules that we're, often subsconsciously, telling ourselves we have to live by!

So what does this look like in real terms? Perhaps it's not volunteering to lead a project at work because you don't have ALL the experience and knowledge and you believe you'll never meet your boss' expectations. Maybe it's letting other people order for you in a restaurant on holiday because you're afraid of pronouncing the words wrong, embarrassing yourself along with everyone else and insulting the staff (and their culture and nation). Perhaps it's a friend recommending a book which you find so boring it puts you off reading (which you love) but you feel a duty to them to finish it.

These rules can be so subtle that we don't realise when we set them for ourselves. A coaching client of mine decided she wanted to take five minutes a day to meditate, to simply focus on her breath going in and out of her body. So she set an alarm on her phone to alert her to do this action. But when the alarm sounded she felt obliged to meditate because the alarm said she had to. She felt she had no choice and resented being told what to do by her alarm.

On our following call we talked about her reason for setting the action and the alarm in the first place – to give her a chance each day to take a break, give herself a little space and care, calm her mind and soothe her nerves by focusing only on her breath for just a few minutes. The alarm was a prompt to remind her of an action she chose to take to help her feel calmer. Through our conversation my client realised she'd turned what she had intended to be a supportive prompt into a oppressive rule. And with this awareness she could change her view of it.

The next time we spoke she was noticeably more relaxed as she told me how she saw her meditation alarm as permission to stop work, to take a little time for herself, and how she now looked forward to it sounding so that she could have her five minutes of peace. The alarm didn't change, the meditation didn't change but her thinking about the rule that she created around it changed.

What rules in your life, perhaps created consciously from subconscious influences, are holding you back? What are you telling yourself you can't do, or you have to do? Where are you scared of failing, what do you believe isn't worth you even trying? How can you explore, gently, the rules and your thinking about them that are getting in your way?

gabrielle april 2021
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