Break free of unspoken rules from the past

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Most families have unspoken rules everyone obeys. Usually these help the smooth running of the family. But sometimes these rules are pointless, harsh or even harmful. And yet later in life, we can still feel bound by them. Are you still following unspoken rules from your past? Learn to recognise and break free from their influence.

What rules do you follow?

As adults, most people decide for themselves how they’ll live their lives. They work out their own values and beliefs.

Part of this is questioning why they should follow childhood rules – especially when the rules were unreasonable or pointless.

But some people don’t break free from their childhood. They continue to comply even as adults, often to keep the peace. They obey so automatically, they hardly question what they’re doing.

Sometimes they may not realise they even have a choice.

Useful rules in society

Many rules are useful throughout society in general. They keep people safe and promote harmony.

Examples of useful rules are:

don’t drink and drive

treat others with respect

solve disagreements by negotiating, not violence

don’t steal from others

stay home from work if you’re infectious

wash your hands after going to the bathroom.

Most people would feel happy following these rules.

Group rules

Every family, workplace or group also has its own rules or norms. Usually these are stated plainly to everyone. Each person knows where they stand.

Again, most agree the rules serve a useful purpose.

Openly stated family rules

Openly stated family rules are usually appropriate rules. For example:

don’t stay out without letting someone know

do your share of chores

share treats among your siblings

use words, not fists, to solve fights.

Good rules protect welfare

These sensible rules also promote health, safety and family harmony. Most families can get along with a few well-thought out rules.

However every family has a second set of rules. And every member of that family knows what they are. It’s just that no-one ever talks about them.

Unspoken rules

Most of the time unspoken rules aren’t a real problem. For instance, everyone knows not to criticise Mum’s hairstyle. Or not to ask Dad his golf score after a bad game.

Keeping to these (usually) harmless rules saves everyone trouble. In fact, families may joke about them in a sly way at times.

Harmful unspoken rules

However, some unspoken rules can be more harmful. These can be about a range of issues. They may also vary in their level of seriousness.

Some examples may be:

never talk out of turn if Dad’s in a really bad mood

no-one in this family is allowed to change their religion

children have to make their parents proud

we have to pretend everything’s perfect all the time

don’t tell anyone about family secrets.

Implied threats

These are the sorts of rules that families never tell others about. Children in particular know they mustn’t let on about these rules.

Notice the silent “or else” attached to each of the above examples. It implies something bad will happen if you break the rule. For example, if you:

change your religion, your parents will disown you out of shame.

don’t make your parents proud, they’ll never let you or anyone else forget their disappointment.

don’t pretend everything’s perfect, someone else will have to deal with their problems.

speak out of turn, Mum will lose control and drink heavily for days.

disclose family secrets, the family will be in big trouble with the authorities.

Comply or else

With these sorts of unspoken rules, everyone knows what they can and can’t do. But nobody has to be told this out loud.

Instead, children pick up cues from the way parents behave. They learn to comply with the rules or get into trouble.

So family members quickly learn never to upset the status quo. And they close ranks if outsiders question what’s going on.

The family becomes a closed system. And there’s little or no input from the outside to break unhealthy patterns of behaviour. That means family members with little power can feel trapped or helpless. They may never even realise that there’s a better way to live.

If you break the rules

The person with the biggest problems often has the most to lose if others see what’s going on. This person could face unpleasant consequences if family dynamics are exposed.

Examples of consequences could be:

loss of control over the family

being publicly humiliated in some other way

having to take responsibility

having to go to rehab or to some form of counselling

facing legal action

developing the awareness that they’re not acting appropriately

experiencing emotions like shame, guilt, anger, sadness or disappointment.

It’s therefore in this person’s interests to make sure no-one else knows. So they need to stop family members telling others about what’s going on. And if family members do break the rules, they may be punished in some way.

Who has the power?

The person with the worst problems oddly enough may be most powerful. After all, the whole household revolves around this person. Everyone’s trying to keep them on an even keel and minimise their distress.

So this person may control what happens if someone breaks the rules.

For example, they may physically punish, or criticise and denigrate “wrongdoers.” They could also ostracise others, or shut themselves away from family members.

They may threaten to withhold care and affection to get their needs met. Or they may subtly undermine a young adult’s confidence to stop them leaving home.

Other family members may join in

Sometimes another family member may try to keep the peace. They may stop others seeking help or standing up for themselves. In a way, they think they’re protecting everyone. They fear what the person in control will do if others rebel.

However, this means no-one gets help.

Divide and conquer

One way to ensure compliance is to “divide and conquer.” The person in control may set up arguments between family members. That way, attention is diverted from what’s really going on.

Then the person in charge can control challenges to their authority.

For example, one child may be designated the favoured or “golden child.” Another may become the scapegoat. Instead of being united, family members will waste energy bickering. And if they bully the scapegoat, they can escape being bullied themselves.

Unfortunately this can affect relationships with siblings or the other parent for years.

Children protecting their parents

In effect, the person in charge tries to control how everyone else acts. They want to be protected from feeling bad about themselves. Some want to be protected from the consequences of their behaviour.

A small percentage of parents may not care they’re acting badly. They don’t want their behaviour to be exposed. And they may not want to change their behaviour either.

Unspoken rules can stop abusive behaviours being found out.

Parents who want to change

However, many parents are unhappy about what they’re doing. They do feel shame and guilt, and want to change.

Look back at your childhood

Do you think your family had lots of unspoken rules? Did you have to conform to highly unreasonable expectations?

Were your parents often unable to cope with daily life? Did they expect you to look after them when you were too young to do so? Were the tasks and chores way beyond your capabilities for your age?

How do you think this may still be affecting you today?

Identify unspoken rules

See if you can identify any unspoken rules from your childhood.

Write them down in a list.

Do you think these rules are reasonable for you now?

Which do you think you may still be following – at work, at home, or in friendships.

Work out which rules are unhelpful for you now as an adult. For example, if you’re very secretive, will you ever get close to anyone? Or will you be trapped in a bad situation if you don’t tell anyone?

How would you act if you didn’t feel bound by these rules? Can you see ways that you could slowly modify them?

Write down your thoughts about these sorts of questions. Challenge the role these rules still play in your life. Remember – you no longer have to live by them if they’re affecting your wellbeing.

Break free of unspoken rules from the past.

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