I am a slave of my self-generated "rules for living"! Help!

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

I continue with my saga, illustrating how small events can make people realise that they might need psychological support. One of my clients was on her way to work on a foggy morning in London. She got to the station platform and was waiting for her train to arrive. She noticed a bench on the platform and she thought it would be a good idea to sit down and relax before starting her journey to work. However, she did not sit down because she noticed having a thought that “I should not sit on the bench”. She could not explain her reluctance. There was no obvious reason for not doing so. Then she reflected on her “rules” – in therapy we call these “rules for living”. They are self-generated and they are very rigid statements – “I should… must… or ought…”. For example “I should be successful”, "I should not make mistakes ever", "I must not fail" “I must work hard”, “I should not allow myself to have positive experiences”, “the world should be fair to me”, and so on.

Often we are not aware that our lives are driven by these rigid rules, until we realise that we can’t operate in the world without flexibility. Originally these rules had a positive function – they motivate you to do better. However, there is a limit to how much you can allow these rules to dictate. At some point the rules become destructive and unhelpful and potentially lead to anxiety and depression. In session, we teach our clients to become aware of what rigid rules they have developed and what are the effects of adopting these rules on clients’ mental health. Initially these rules motivated you but now they are demotivating you from doing anything, because what you do is never good enough. In session, we try to challenge these rules and make them less rigid, so that they become less dogmatic and more flexible.

We also look at what behaviours are associated with holding on to rigid rules: for example, “I must succeed” leads a client to overwork long hours, rejecting the idea of taking breaks and holidays, and doing tasks in a perfectionistic way. Eventually the client cannot sustain such high demand and s/he fails. This again reactivates another rule: “I should not fail” and “I should continue working harder”. In sessions we try to list all behaviours that are associated with rigid rules and try to do things differently.

We introduce more flexibility, both in thinking and responding.

Returning to the client above on the railway platform, she had become aware of the negative effect of adopting a rigid rule that “I should not be lazy”. She was applying this to quite a trivial situation, but one that reflected an underlying rule. In session she worked really hard to free herself from her absolute rules and rigidity. Now when she notices herself applying statements that start with “I should” or “ought”, she copes by rephrasing them. If you find yourself adopting rigid rules and they interfere with your daily life, then get in touch.

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