We are born helpless and we remain dependent on the care and provision from adults for quite some time. The worst outcome for a child would be to be abandoned by its carers. The worst outcome for a teenager would be to be ousted by society.
Learning the Rules
To avoid this catastrophe, we learn the rules of engagement - what is acceptable and what is not, what behaviour results in love and affection, and what behaviour results in reprimand and rejection. And the pattern recognition machine that is our brain makes up rules to avoid the repetition of disappointments experienced in past and present.
The rules we learn to follow can be based on general societal agreements such as ‘do not steal’, ‘hold the door’, ‘offer your seat’, ‘clean up after yourself’. Some rules are gender based: ‘don’t cry’ or ‘you’ll get beaten up if you show weakness’ for boys and ‘don’t be so bossy’ and ‘you’ll be more appreciated when you’re cute’ for girls. But some rules are purely individual as they relate to personal experiences we had growing up. And the more individualised they are, the less likely we are aware of them - especially when they don’t coincide with what we rationally believe to be true and right.
My Personal Rule - the Rule I myself Made Up
One of the personal rules that I carry around is ‘Don’t be a sourpuss!’ It was probably formulated based on several experiences: for example, my older brother always making me laugh the second I was about to cry, my mother telling me that I should stop spotting a pout and that I should try to keep a more agreeable expression on my face in order not to give people the impression that I didn’t appreciate their company I’m in. Indeed, when you look at pictures at me as a toddler, I did have what is nowadays commonly called a ‘resting bitch face’. The moment my facial muscle relaxed into neutral, my face displayed a frightfully sullen and pissed expression.
As I grew up, these well-meant interferences gradually solidified into ‘Don’t be a sourpuss!’ which - when spelt out - meant the following:
1. When you’re in a bad mood, don’t show it, keep smiling through anger or tears.
2. When you don’t feel that you can smile through the anger or tears, stay away from people; don’t impose your unpleasantness on others and only resurface when you have restored a pleasant demeanour.
3. Any type of bad feelings or emotions are unacceptable. The feeling of sadness, the feeling of grief, or the feeling of anger - all of those need to be kept neatly under wrap.
‘Don’t be a sourpuss!’ generally served me well, when only point 1 was triggered: When I was generally feeling emotionally well, the rule allowed me to be an extremely pleasant and easy-going person to be around. My friends, colleagues, and bosses appreciated that I was super balanced - no matter what was going on, I would be in a neutral or cheerful mood, and I expressed frustration only in a humorous way. (Recently, having had very open conversations with friends and colleagues, it was revealed that even though they did indeed perceive me as pleasant, they also thought that I was difficult to read and holding them at a distance.)
Unfortunately, point 1 also carried within points 2 and 3. This means that when I was hit with a depression, following the rule meant that I was incapable of reaching out for help. Instead, I hid my low by pulling back from all avoidable interactions and I expended all my energy to keep up the pleasant front in all unavoidable interactions - like at work. Only when I had gotten myself out of the worst period of the funk, did I tell some friends about the dark stretch that I had just waded through. And of course, I presented this dark stretch in a matter-of-fact manner.
The funny - or tragic - thing is, that were I to present my family the rule that I made up and the three points that it consists of, they’d probably tell me that I was insane. Never did they intent to implant such an excessive self-restriction in me! It wasn’t them who made up the rule, it was me.
Reclaiming & Embracing Autonomy
Now, that I have become aware of the rule, I have a choice: I can choose to either stick to it or I can choose to abandon it completely or in parts. For example, I really resent point 3 and try to actively monitor that I don’t shut down my negative emotions any longer. For points 1 and point 2, it is more complicated: I now use my adult judgement and my ability to communicate to relax point 2. I try to reach out to friends when I am down. I might have an outburst of frustration in the company of others, but I still try to frame that outburst with clear communication on why it occurred. I still want to ensure that no one feels uncomfortable or personally attacked when they have no reason to feel that way. I still use point 1 in the sense that I don’t take anything too seriously and that any mishap is generally turned into a fun story to tell the second that it is over or even while I’m still in it.
Realising and acknowledging that I have a choice whether or not to adhere to ‘Don’t be a sourpuss!’ means that I’m taking ownership of my life. This can be scary as it introduced a lot of flexibility, responsibility, and daily decision making. I can no longer hide behind the autopilot who was guided by the rule. When I take up the reigns and take my life outside of the thick castle walls as represented by the rule, I’m also responsible to take care of the little kid who was scared to upset people and who wanted to minimise any possibility of that happening by hiding behind said castle walls.
I have to tell the little kid that I have taken the possibility of upsetting people into account when I let myself have an emotional outburst and that I have deemed the risk minimal or acceptable or that I have taken the necessary communicative steps to mitigate any upset. When I don’t take care of the little kid, it will get unsettled and it will revert back to the rule for security - to my own chagrin.
Rule-breakers - they are the worst! …. and they might hold great insight
Have you ever come across people who just rub you the wrong way? Sometimes you have the impression that their breathing is enough to unnerve you! Very likely, these are people who blatantly disregards a rule that you yourself spend a lot of energy to uphold. And then you come across people who have the audacity to step all over your rule, and worst of all, they may even be really happy, liked by others, and successful while doing so!!!! That is hard to stomach and to fathom, and it’s difficult to have them in your face.
However, those people may represent a great opportunity to unearth a rule that you, as an independent adult with self-reflective impulse control and decision-making power, have outgrown. These people may carry the gift to lift the veil of invisibility off the walls of the self-imposed prison that we have built around us. Once we are able to perceive them, we can start tearing openings into the walls, or we can tear them down entirely. The newly created gates or freshly opened planes open up new options and allow us to grow beyond the limits that were previously imposed by the confines of the rule.
As individual as it gets
Why ‘individual’ rules? Surely, there are other people but me out there who are adhering to a similar permutation of my ‘Don’t be a sourpuss!’ rule? Yes, there most definitely are, but they would have come to the ‘Don’t be a sourpuss!’ conclusion from a different angle, based on different experiences. And having been exposed to the same experiences as me, doesn’t necessary mean that they’ll have formed the same rule.
For example, my sister grew up with the same mother and the same brother as me. But she doesn’t have the same expression of the ‘Don’t be a sourpuss!’ rule. She once told me that she had never understood how I never came to her to discuss my heart-break after break-ups, how I never asked for any hand-holding or for a shoulder to cry on, that she couldn’t understand how I’d just carry on as if nothing had happened. It was incomprehensible to her. She would have never dealt with heart-break the way I did: I would only cry behind closed doors where no one could see or hear me, and when I was in company I would always act up-beat and totally unfazed by the personal devastation. Whereas my sister didn’t have trouble reaching out and demanding help when she is feeling low. I dare say that my sister does not have point 2 of my rule governing her behaviour.
In some weak moments, I revert back to the rule - and scare myself in the process. Some weeks ago, my husband was having a grumpy day. I was going to meet a common friend and asked whether he wanted to come along. He gladly joined, hoping that a change of scenery and socialising would get him out of the gloom. On our way out the door, he made a grumpy noise and I snapped: “If you’re going to be a sourpuss, you might not want to come along at all!” The second I uttered the words, I cringed. My old rule and my newly acquired freedom had collided. Thankfully, my husband wouldn’t hear of it and told me off for the stupid comment. It’s not easy to roam the free field after having torn down the towering castle with its thick walls without once in a while falling into the remaining castle moat of the ancient rule edifice. They’ll remain stumbling blocks on my way to expansive freedom.
What is your rule?
What behaviours can you not be around? What about those behaviours is so annoying? Would you ever act that way? What would be different and possible if you did sometimes act that way?
What would be possible if you let go of that rule?
Another example of a self-imposed rule and what's possible when you let go of it in "On 'Should' and Its Side-Effects" and "When you talk to people, you may realise that you’re not alone".