It’s May Day- Time To Break The Rules!

I spent the whole day in London, UK today. As I was leaving, there were crowds and crowds of people; traffic was snarled up and it was getting noisy. I had totally forgotten that today was May Day, and, as per the usual tradition, demonstrations were going on in our capitol. The voices were so loud- everyone there seemed to be clear about one thing; what they wanted.

It made me wonder, are we always clear about what we want? I know we like to think that we are, but are we, really? When it comes down to it, don’t a lot of us honestly think that people are mind readers- if we have been upset by something, we expect people to guess at what has upset us! It is then difficult to have a conversation; if you think you know what the other person means or intended, when actually, you’ve got it quite wrong! Does this ever happen to you? Maybe you have noticed that other people do it to you? Are we really being clear about what we want, or are we just hoping that others guess?

Relationships can be difficult, even at the best of times! Our relationships with out friends, partners and family are all different. The way we communicate with these people may also be different! We have expectations of people, and ourselves, that sometimes, just really aren’t sensible! Do you think that anger is a negative emotion? Do you think that it’s best to hold your anger in?

Well, it may (or may not!) surprise you to know that, actually, anger can be a very cathartic emotion! By expressing our anger, we are communicating our displeasure and upset to others- no need for mind reading here! If we bottle up our anger, we can become resentful; we expect people to know why we are angry (there’s the mind reading again!) and we don’t necessarily give them a chance to communicate with us about what is wrong!

If we supress our anger, we are a bit like a bottle of pop (no advertising here!) that has been shaken and shaken- when we take off the lid, the pop is going to explode outwards! Does that sound familiar to any of you? By supressing your anger, it can lead to your emotions coming out in other ways- sometimes by verbal explosion, sometimes physical, but none of them particularly helpful! So, what to do? Well, when you first start to get angry, I would suggest that this is the point at which you should express your anger- don’t wait until it builds up and leads to resentment. Violence, physical or verbal abuse is never the answer to being angry- perhaps dealing with your anger before it gets to tipping point, could help you to control the other emotions that spill out, when your anger gets too much.

Sometimes, we bottle up our anger and emotions, because that is what we were taught to do- from an early age! As we are born and grow, we are constantly surrounded by rules- some of them are there for good reason (don’t cross the road on a red light, for example!), but some of them are rules we have kind of inherited along the way. Did your parents ever teach you that ‘if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all’? This is an example of what we term ‘Rules for Living’ and is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy concept- sometimes our rules for living are just too difficult to live by; sometimes we need to soften them, to make things easier.

If you have a rule of ‘I must always be liked’, well, that’s a difficult rule to adhere to! Not everyone in this world can like everybody else, so, when your rule is broken, and somebody doesn’t like you (for whatever reason!), how does it make you feel? Do you feel good about it? Or do you feel terrible, guilty, and anxious or any other number of emotions? This is a very rigid rule to hold dear- perhaps you learnt it from your parents, or from school, church, your friends, the newspaper or social media. Wherever you have learnt it from, it isn’t helping you to get what you want in life- happiness. So, what can we do about it?

There are a number of things we need to do;

  • What is your rule? In this example, I am going to use the rule that ‘I must always be on time’
  • Where did the rule come from? In this case, we will assume parents (sorry Mum and Dad!)
  • Is your rule realistic? Is it reasonable? Is it achievable? No- sometimes you can’t help but be late- for example traffic queues. So this means it is not achievable.
  • What are the negative consequences of this rule- how does it impact your life? It makes me stressed all the time- I am constantly rushing around to be on time everywhere!

The rule came from our parents, who would always tell us to be on time as it is incredibly rude to be late, and only naughty people are late. As we have lived with this rule through growing up, it is something that we hold dear to us- after all, Mum and Dad are always right, aren’t they? This rule was then enforced when you went to school- remember being late for a class? Getting detention because you weren’t on time? Then you go to work, and the rule is again reinforced- it is wrong to be late!

But the thing is, life isn’t always straightforward- you’re rushing to get out of the house to meet friends for a play-date and the baby tips their milk all over them; which means that you need to change their clothes, making you late! There was a traffic accident on the way to your interview. The train was delayed. These are things that are simply beyond your control- you cannot change these. So, as you can see- being on time, always, is not reasonable rules to have- complications arise and for reasons beyond our control, sometimes, we are late!

So, what are the negative consequences of holding on tight to this rule? Well, rushing around to be on time all the time- how stressful is that? When you are late, and there is nothing you can do- do you beat yourself up about it? Do you feel cross and angry that you were late? What other negative impacts does your rule have on you?

Now you’ve worked out that your rule for living actually are hindering your goal in life- to be happy- what can you do about them? Well, you can do what we call to ‘soften’ the rules- turn a rule into a guideline. Be kinder to yourself and accept that sometimes, you just cannot be on time. Softening your rule from ‘I must always be on time’ to ‘I will try to be on time, but sometimes, this will not happen and I am ok with that’.

I am not saying this is easy to do, and it does take practice, but by doing this, you can make stressful or unpleasant situations a little easier for yourself. By softening your rules, you are hopefully not going to get as angry, and that bottle of pop isn’t going to explode everywhere! It seems so simple to do, but the tricky part here, is actually recognising your rules and working out how they affect you! We cant expect others to change for us, or to have the same rules for living that we do, but by softening our rules, it makes living with them much easier.

So, what’s stopping you? What are your rules and how do you think they are stopping you from getting what you want? It might not be happiness you are after; perhaps it is just not expecting everyone you meet to be polite. By making little changes to our lifestyles, we are making massive changes to our lives, and, over time, hopefully making our relationships and the way we deal with problems, a little better and a little easier!