Change self-imposed rules into more helpful advice

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Do you do things you don’t want to, just to keep the peace? Do you agree with others so they won’t ridicule your opinions? What makes you act against your own interests like this? Perhaps you hold lots of rules about how you should act. You may not realise they’re making life worse. So don’t be so hard on yourself. Learn how to change self-imposed rules into more helpful advice.

Be aware

You may not be aware of your unhelpful rules. In the past you developed beliefs about how to act. You may have learned these beliefs from others. Or maybe you worked them out yourself.

Many of these rules are more like guidelines for behaviour. You can decide to adapt them to different situations, to make them more useful. Some on the other hand, have been imposed by others in your life, and may be unhelpful. 

But some self-imposed rules you hold are also harsh and unhelpful.

Self-imposed rules

Self-imposed rules are the ones you’ve made up for yourself to follow. Often you don’t even realise you’re doing it.

Most self-imposed rules start with the words, “I should,” or “I must.” For example: I should:

always be interesting.

have a relationship.

be happy all the time.

make lots of money.

never let my friends down.

The problem is that many of these rules aren’t helpful. They may not be what you really want to do. You’ve picked up what you think others want you to do. Or what celebrities say is the way to live.

Following these rules can stop you living your own life. Instead, you keep others happy. But it’s at your own expense.

So how can you escape this trap? One way is to soften these rules and turn them into more helpful advice.

Identify unhelpful rules

So how do you change self-imposed rules into guidelines?

The first step is to identify unhelpful rules you have for yourself. Identifying these rules can be a challenge.

Often we don’t question our actions or beliefs. We just keep doing what we’ve always done, without thinking.

Other people’s self-imposed rules

Sometimes it can be easier to identify rules others hold, rather than our own.

Everyone holds some rules of their own. These rules make perfect sense to them. But they don’t always make sense to others. And they can lead to unhelpful behaviours as well.

Let’s see how self-imposed rules can lead to problems. Have you ever seen these behaviours in others?

1 Josh

Josh has a rule that he doesn’t take breaks at work. He believes he’s employed to work, not waste time. So while others socialise, he eats lunch at his desk. This makes the rest of the staff think he’s standoffish.

Unfortunately, Josh pushes himself too hard. Now he’s tired and stressed, and works less efficiently. He’d be fresher if he took those breaks he despises.

But Josh doesn’t make the connection. So he keeps working harder and harder. Unfortunately he’s getting less and less done.

He can’t see that sticking rigidly to his rule isn’t working. Now it’s resulted in the very situation he was trying to avoid.

2 Jane

Jane is scared that others think she’s not well-educated. So she’s made a rule to talk as little as possible in social situations. That way, others won’t have a chance to criticise her.

So she melts into the background at gatherings. She never comments or disagrees with anyone.

But now others don’t know anything about Jane. They see her silence as meaning she doesn’t know much. Or even worse, as meaning she’s boring.

Jane thought her self-imposed rule would protect her. Instead, people are probably more critical than if she’d spoken freely.

Both Josh and Jane have been following self-imposed rules that have turned out to be self-defeating. 

Be flexible

So sticking rigidly to self-imposed rules can often be unhelpful. It can have consequences you don’t foresee. And they’re often the very things you’re trying to avoid.

However, often you don’t recognise the results of what you’re doing. You don’t connect your actions with their consequences.

So you keep doing what you’ve always done. And you don’t notice that what you’re doing isn’t working.

That means you keep getting the same results. Yet you wonder why you can’t change your life.

Stop going in circles

Are you going round in circles like this? If so, it’s time to look at the rules you’re following. Work out if they’re helping or hindering you.

If they’re unhelpful, you can change them. Then see if problem areas improve at all. Be aware you can change self-imposed rules into more helpful advice.

Identify your self-imposed rules

Identifying the rules you hold takes time. You need to tap into your self-talk. That’s your internal chatter that goes on all the time.

Often you don’t notice it, but it’s worth taking time to listen to it. Then you’ll find out what you’re telling yourself to do.

Commands to yourself

Listen out for commands you give yourself. As mentioned above, they often contain the word “should.” Or variations like “must, ought to, or have to.”

There’s an element of compulsion about them. You’re putting expectations on yourself or others. And you believe these rules “should” be followed.

Often these rules originally came from parents, teachers or society. Sometimes they were stated quite openly; for instance, teachers saying you “should” do your homework. But other times you may have picked up what you thought others meant, even though they didn’t say it in as many words.

High expectations of others

Parents with high expectations often unwittingly send the message to their children that only perfection is acceptable. They pounce on little mistakes made in tests, or when the child is doing activities like playing sport or a musical instrument. So it’s easy for the child to believe they must perform perfectly in everything, all the time. 

Then it’s an easy step to believe that if they’re not perfect, they’re no longer acceptable as a person.   

And yet, the expectations they perceive were probably never said out loud. The child just “knew” what was needed, and didn’t see they had any other choice. Of course they could have rebelled, but they probably didn’t give this a moment’s thought. The price of disappointing their parents was too high. 

Sadly, it can take years before people understand they can choose to let go of or change these self-imposed rules. And doing so doesn’t make them a bad person.   

Shelley is an example of how harsh self-imposed rules can affect your mental health and well-being. 

3 Shelley’s self-imposed rules

Shelley is an anxious teen. Her parents are both high-achieving professionals.

From early on, she knew she “should” get good grades. However, no-one actually said this openly. Shelley absorbed this expectation from listening to family talk.

So now she puts huge pressure on herself to excel at school. She worries about the tiniest mistakes she makes. At the age of 15, she’s already highly stressed. 

Rigid rules impose rigid expectations

Shelley’s parents would be horrified if they realised what she’s telling herself. Here’s an example of her self-talk:

“I have to study for that maths test next month. I should do two extra hours a night, so no TV. And I have to beat Tom and his gang. I mustn’t come second; I can’t bear to fail like that. It’d be terrible and I won’t be able to stand it. The teacher and my parents will think I’m lazy. They’ll be angry and annoyed at me for not doing my best.”

And Shelley’s only 15! How will she cope with the stress of work when she’s older?

Unhelpful rules

Some of Shelley’s unhelpful rules are:

I should get perfect marks all the time.

I have to always work hard.

I must never take time off to relax or be “lazy.”

I should always please my parents and teachers.

I must never make mistakes.

I must never “fail.”

And the worst thought of all?

“I’m a bad person if I’m not perfect all the time.”

Usually Shelley’s not even aware of how she thinks. She’s always thought like this, as long as she can remember.

Her high expectations are now part of her internal world.

Unrealistic expectations

Shelley doesn’t understand these demands are completely unrealistic. And far too taxing, both mentally and emotionally. She certainly doesn’t realise she has a choice.

She can’t even let herself take time off to have some fun. To her, it would risk failure. And Shelley defines failure as anything less than 100%.

Shelley faces a lifetime of anxiety and low self-esteem. However, she could avoid this with some help.

First, she needs to recognise the rules she’s imposed on herself. Then she could evaluate these rules to see if they improve her life or not. If not, she can change these self-imposed rules into more helpful advice. 

1 More realistic expectations

Of course, success in any area requires hard work. But you also need to be realistic as well.

Everyone needs time out for other interests and fun. This helps recharge energy, motivation and creativity.

Sadly, Shelley may burn out. She’ll be exhausted mentally and physically. Then she may lose interest in her field. If she drops out, her talents will be wasted.

2 Modify self-imposed rules

Yet this sad result could be avoided if Shelley modifies her rules. For example, she could use these more helpful statements:

I’m happy when I get 100% for tests, but it’s OK if I don’t.

It’s more important to understand the work than get perfect marks.

It’s OK to make mistakes sometimes – it’s not a disaster.

I can recover and learn from mistakes.

Yes, I want to do well, but I can relax and have fun as well.

I don’t have to please other people all the time.

What I want to do and how I feel is important too.

3 Use flexible guidelines

Notice that these are no longer rules. They’re simply helpful advice for Shelley to follow. They allow more leeway than her previous rules. And she can change them at any time.

Not only that, these guidelines can lower Shelley’s levels of stress. Yet she can still work at a high level.

However, it’s usually not helpful to expect perfection. So it’s worth thinking carefully about rules you hold. Re-examine them to save yourself a lot of stress.

What self-imposed rules do you have? How helpful have they been for you? Do they make you miserable? If so, do you want to keep them in your life?

Can you change unhelpful self-imposed rules into more helpful guidelines? Learn how to trigger change by encouraging yourself and using helpful action statements, not self-criticism.

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