Are unspoken rules hemming you in?

Life is, unfortunately, not always lived spontaneously.

In many ways and contexts, we live life according to a set of rules and expectations that are often unwritten. That can be an excellent thing when the rules are ones that empower and support us, but it can be detrimental to our mental health and well-being if they are rules that limit us or inhibit us.

So how do you know if you are operating according to a rule? Your language will give it away. Listen out for these kinds of phrases;

  • I ought to...
  • I should...
  • I must...
  • I need to...
  • I have to...

These are all words that tell you that a rule or expectation is at play. They indicate a lack of choice - a necessity for doing something.

The trouble is, we have often buried or forgotten the source of the rule. We may not know why it is we must not show our feelings or that we need to keep a stiff upper lip, we just feel deeply that it is 'right' and to do otherwise would be 'wrong'.

As well as limiting what we feel able to do or say, these beliefs about what's necessary can impact how we feel about ourselves. If we have a rule that we consistently don't follow, then we can begin to feel inadequate or shameful. We may feel guilty, and these feelings about ourselves can then impact how well we treat ourselves. That further impacts self-esteem and, in turn, self-care. It can become a vicious cycle.

Often, the work of psychotherapy is to help clients uncover and work with the rules they are unconsciously running that limit them. Through exploring the outcomes you want to achieve, and reflecting on what is currently happening, we can begin to notice how it is the gap between these things has come about. As you begin to contemplate change, the rules that hem you in can become apparent, and you can begin to question them.

In the neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) toolkit, there is a language framework called the meta-model. This model helps us identify where there are gaps in our conscious understanding of our patterns, and offers questions to help us restore the missing information.

Where we are running an unhelpful rule, the meta-model question we ask is, 'What would happen if you did... or did not do...?'.

So, if you must not show your feelings, what would happen if you did? 

The meta-model question makes clear the consequences of not following the rule, and we can then consider how important (or not) the rule is, and any limits to when we do or do not want to allow this rule to operate in our lives. We can experience the discomfort of knowing what we fear, and we can bring into the light any distortions or generalisations that we have been carrying that just aren’t true.

It can also be a useful enquiry to consider where rules came from. Often they were a perfect adaptation to what was happening back then; they were a solution to a problem. We may repeatedly have been told off for showing emotions, for example, in this case, having a rule about not revealing them makes perfect sense. The thing is, that was then. Now, as an adult, life is different, and the rule may just be a hangover from the past that is intruding on today. The part of you holding that guideline may not have recognised that you have grown beyond that context and are now free to choose.

Psychotherapy works towards wholeness. It’s about connecting up the resources you already have within you with the vulnerable parts of you that need support and holding. It’s about giving you a place to bring your whole self, gradually and in your own time, so that you can heal and find ways forward that are vibrant and of this moment.

Another good question to ask when a rule comes to the fore is 'what’s good to do?'. Considering your own needs and wants, the people around you, and society and nature at large, what feels right? What seems congruent? The more spontaneous and the less conditioned you are, the more alive you may feel.

After all, all we truly have is now.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Darlington, Durham, DL3
Written by Fe Robinson, Psychotherapist, EMDR Therapist & Couples Counsellor
Darlington, Durham, DL3

Fe Robinson is a psychotherapist and couples counsellor working in Durham on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays with evening appointments available. Her mission is to help clients thrive, whatever their life circumstances. For grounded, authentic support, get in touch.

Show comments

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals