Your experiences have a big impact on who you are as a person, how you react and how you interpret situations. As a result of your experiences, you sometimes unconsciously create certain rules for yourself to help you navigate similar future situations more easily. However, it is important to consider whether your life rules are helping or hindering you in your daily life. In this blog, I will explain a bit more about how these life rules are constructed and the effect they can have on you.
‘Life rules’ or ‘underlying assumptions’ are behavioural or cognitive changes that you make and that guide the way you interact with the world. These rules guide the way you think, feel and behave in certain situations. Life rules often emerge to help you cope with negative experiences that take place during your childhood.
An example of a life rule or underlying assumption could be: “If I don’t show my emotions, people will think I am a strong person.“.
Helpful versus unhelpful life rules
We make all kinds of (unconscious) assumptions about ourselves, others and the world around us. Our brains work like this to help us understand and react to the world more easily. Therefore, these assumptions or life rules can be helpful in various situations and probably have helped you to cope in the past during difficult situations. However, some assumptions or life rules can bring about more harm than good. For example, life rules which are inflexible, not working anymore or lead to unhelpful behaviour or thoughts. That’s why it’s so important to distinguish the life rules that are beneficial for our well-being from the ones that hold us back or cause negative emotions.
Let’s take an example:
Rose is a young woman who is currently struggling with stress at her new job. She grew up in a family that values hard work and put pressure on her to achieve good grades at school. Rose would receive appreciation and affirmation from her family when she was top of her class. As a result of her experience, she (unconsciously) created the life rule:
“If I don’t work hard and I’m not successful in what I do, then I’m not a valuable person“.
This life rule has had benefits in the past: it got her appreciation from her parents and teachers, and it has helped her to stay motivated at university and get a new job. However, this life rule means that Rose places very high expectations on herself. As a result, Rose often feels disappointed when she does not meet her (difficult to reach) expectations. This has led to Rose overworking and burning herself out at work to impress her new colleagues.
Flexible and helpful alternative rules
Unhelpful life rules are often self-defeating, unrealistic or lead to an unhelpful coping mechanism. For example, it’s not possible to be successful in everything you do. When you don’t meet your high expectations it can lead to negative feelings, significantly impact your self-esteem or lead to you overworking yourself to cope. When life rules cause more harm than good, it’s important that we try to come up with more realistic, flexible and helpful alternatives. It is about keeping the parts that work and changing the bad parts!
Below you’ll find a list of a few example life rules. Do you recognize yourself in any of these?
- “I must do my work perfectly, otherwise, people will think I am stupid”.
- “If I eat vegetables every day, I will be healthy”
- “If I prioritise myself, then I am selfish”.
- “If I don’t help someone, they won’t like me”.
- “If I ask for help then I am a weak person”.
- “If I ask too many questions, I will look stupid”.
- “I must be prepared for everything, or things will go wrong”.
- “If I don’t get close to people, then I won’t get hurt”.
- “I must always look good, otherwise, people won’t like me.”
- “If I don’t show my emotions, it means I am strong”.
- “I should exercise every day to be healthy”.
- “I need to react angrily, otherwise, people won’t listen to me”.
- “If I don’t work hard and I am not successful in what I do, then I am not a valuable person”.
You can try to come up with some more realistic and flexible life rules! Guidelines can help us navigate through our everyday life, but try not to let these rules determine who you are or bring you down.