When we are little, we learn rules. The rules are made by our parents or caregivers, our teachers, our coaches, and even our peers. Most of the rules we learn are there to protect us and to help us get along with others. They create structure in our lives and help us learn to set limits. When we are young, the rules need to be followed without question. But by the time we are adults, we usually understand the reasons for the rules and we get to choose which ones we want to keep following.
While most of the rules we learn as children help us to function as happy, healthy adults, some can really get in the way. These are the that rules make it difficult to to feel okay about ourselves, to feel satisfied with our work, or to be close to our partners and loved ones. Part of what makes these rules difficult to change is that they are usually implicit – meaning that they weren’t necessarily spoken out loud. We learned them by watching other people’s behavior and by the way that other people treated us.
For example, some people learned that they are never supposed to cry because crying is “weak.” Some people learned that their feelings aren’t important and should be ignored. Some people learned that they are not supposed to get angry, or that they aren’t supposed to ask for things that they need because it’s “selfish.” You can imagine how rules like these might get in the way of having healthy adult relationships.
When a colleague and I designed a “Healthy Boundaries” group, we spent a lot of time talking about values. The idea was to take a look at values (or rules) that govern your life and ask yourself whose values they really were. Almost without fail, people would identify the most harmful rules in their lives as belonging to someone else: mom or dad, teachers, or even significant others. When we live our lives according to someone else’s values, it is a recipe for unhappiness.
As adults, we get to decide what childhood rules we want to keep following. Maybe you still only eat dessert after you’ve finished all the healthy things on your dinner plate, and maybe you still try to get to bed at a decent hour. But you probably no longer have to hold someone’s hand before crossing the street. There’s absolutely no reason to treat implicit rules any differently. If you’re struggling with rules or values that are making you unhappy, try taking a look at who they really belong to. Talking with a therapist can help.
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Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist (PSY 25461) and therapist in Sacramento, CA. He specializes in psychotherapy with adults, adolescents, and couples.
To learn more about Dr. Ettensohn, please visit his website at www.DrEttensohn.com
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