The “Rules” We Live By

Last week, I gave one of my couples “homework” to complete by their appointment this week. I handed them a piece of paper with a list of fifty or so open-ended questions, and I said, “Ask each other these questions this week and discuss your answers together.” I gave no other instructions.

They came to their appointment this week, frustrated with each other because of the homework. He said they completed the list the previous night; she said it was last minute, so they didn’t spend much time on it. He said they didn’t have much time over the course of the week; she disagreed.

So, I asked, “How did you interpret the homework?”

Him: That we had to do all the questions in one sitting.
Her: That we had to do all the questions, but we could do them over the course of the week.

We make up our own rules.

Not only do we make up our own rules, we assume others know our made-up rules. I did not tell them they had to answer all the questions on the sheet. Nor did I specify that it had to be in one sitting or spread out throughout the week. Because each person made up their own rules and did not communicate their rules with the other person, the couple was frustrated with each other. In other words, their made-up rules got in the way of enjoying their time together.

Individuals interpret words through their own experiences, feelings, and thoughts. The problem is each person has their own unique experiences, feelings, and thoughts that do not belong to anyone else. Our rules come from the way we view ourselves, the world, and others, as well as other forces such as our upbringing, birth order, personality, and personal belief system. And because our rules are so well-known to us, we assume everyone else operates by the same set of rules. It is in this space where miscommunication, misunderstanding, hurt, and frustration live.

An activity about our rules.

I did this at a conference recently. The organizers taped two X’s on the carpet with blue painter’s tape. Then they taped two boundary lines running vertically between the two X’s. Here are the rules they told us:

  1. No one gets hurt.
  2. Everyone moves from one of the X’s to another one of the X’s at least one time.
  3. Each person has to do something different.
  4. Everyone gets acknowledged.

We completed the activity, then the organizers asked us what rules we made up. A few examples of our made-up rules were:

  1. Start on the north side of the room and move south.
  2. Stay between the two boundary lines.
  3. The carpet had X’s in the pattern, but they did not count as X’s.

Our made-up rules can get in our way.

In other words, when we assume everyone knows our made-up rules, we can inadvertently sabotage ourselves, our relationships, and our projects. We tend to be less creative and more judgmental. Additionally, we communicate less and focus on negative thinking patterns more.

However, when we know our own made-up rules and recognize others have their own set of made-up rules, we are more likely to communicate our assumptions and come to an understanding where all parties involved follow the same set of known rules.

Thanks for reading,

DeAnne Negley, T-LMHC, NCC

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