Personal Rules {+ Coaching Exercise}

Breaking rules can be empowering! Personal rules strongly influence your feelings and behaviors. If you’re wondering why you’re getting the results you are experiencing in your life, take a look at your personal rules.

Personal rules can be defined as  the “shoulds” that strongly influence our behavior and feelings.  Examples of rules are: “I should work hard”, “I should be nice”, “I should always be on time”, “I must not show that I am afraid,” etc.

Rules like these serve to help guide our behaviors, but if taken too literally without flexibility, personal rules have the potential to decrease well-being (Hayes et al., 2001).

Take for instance the rule “I should always be on time.” Unpredictable factors may determine times for us when we are incapable of being on time: a train may be delayed, or we may accidentally note the wrong meeting time. Whatever the cause is of our inability to follow the rule, breaking it can generate a great amount of negative feelings like shame, stress, fear or guilt. Personal rules are guarded by our inner critic, or the internal voice that critically examines our behavior.

Although the rules themselves are not problematic, they may create problems for you if you are not able to flexibly adjust to them. In reality, we simply cannot adhere to our adopted personal rules 100% of the time. We are human beings, and making mistakes is part of our nature. Becoming aware of your personal rules and using them, rather than letting them use you, is an essential process related to the cultivation of self-compassion and well-being.

Some tips about personal rules:

  1. The goal is not to replace, to challenge or to get rid of rules, but to cultivate awareness so that you’re able to consider the rules in a less rigid and automatic way. In other words, the idea is not to eliminate personal rules, but to allow for more flexible use of them. Rules are just words, not facts.
  2. Rules can also be in conflict with our values. Consider this:  If you have a rule about working hard and a value about spending time with your family, you are likely to experience inner conflict when these two collide.  A flexible approach to personal rules facilitates valued living, where a more rigid approach would detract from it.
  3. Are you a leader or parent? How do you apply personal rules to your team and/or family.  Because rules are often invisible to us, we can unknowingly impose our rules on others and then be critical of their responses when they don’t align to the rule.  Once you have awareness of your own rules and where they become rigid, you can begin to apply more flexibility to yourself and your family and team.
  4. In Mindfulness, we learn to observe our thoughts. The exercise below offers you a way to directly take a look at your own thoughts. After completing the first part of this exercise (writing down personal rules), consider your own list of rules. What does it feel like to observe these rules?  This exercise can help you to understand that stress is often caused not by who you are, but by who you believe you should be.
  5. Breaking rules is empowering! It allows us to experience that we have the power to follow rules or not, thereby contributing to our sense of autonomy.

Download the worksheet and learn more about your personal rules.

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