We can let circumstances rule us, or we can take charge and rule our lives from within.
— Earl Nightingale
Exploring Your Psychological Rules
Psychological rules are unique laws that govern your choices, decisions, and actions. They are guidelines that help you function in the world. They influence how you perceive yourself, how you perceive others, and how you perceive and interpret the world around you. They are the guiding principles for your behaviors, and the fundamental coping mechanisms you use throughout life. What’s most significant is that your psychological rules support your core belief systems
We have already discussed the role that your beliefs play when it comes to influencing your choices, decisions and actions. Likewise we have already outlined how psychological rules fit into the picture by supporting your core beliefs. Here is a quick reminder of that discussion:
Psychological rules form the foundations of each of your beliefs. You believe something because you have a certain set of rules that tell you that this “something” makes sense and is true. Therefore if the rule makes sense, then it only makes sense to believe that what you’re seeing and experiencing is the truth.
Psychological rules often stem from the pain and pleasure response. Let’s say for instance that you come across a specific situation. Your brain will ask whether making a certain decision or taking a specific action will mean pain or pleasure. You then either decide to take action that helps you avoid pain, or to gain pleasure. Whatever you decide to do provides you with insight into the underlying hidden belief that is at the core of that particular psychological rule.
Say for instance you have a sales call that you want to make to a potentially lucrative client. Making this call seems daunting and will be difficult, however you know that if you can secure this client that you could generate some very good revenue. You therefore look at this situation and see two options before you: You can either make this call, or you can instead procrastinate and put it off till tomorrow. The first option brings you pain, and the second options provides you with some pleasure and temporary relief. You now think to yourself:
If I do this what will happen?
If I do this, then what will happen with that?
Let’s say that you choose to keep putting things off till tomorrow and therefore decide to procrastinate and instead focus your attention on other matters. All this is very significant, because your psychological rules essentially directed the decision you would make in this situation. And what’s even more significant is that underlying this decision there lies a hidden and potentially limiting belief. That belief could be:
I am not good enough to do this…
I don’t deserve to be successful…
I am a failure…
Therefore your rules might be:
I should never do anything I’m not capable of doing…
I must never take a risk that is beyond my ability…
As a result of one or more of these beliefs, you have chosen to procrastinate instead of taking the necessary steps to secure this account. What’s significant about this is that your psychological rules influenced the decision you ended up making. In other words, your perception and interpretation of what gives you pain and pleasure influenced the end outcome. Your rules prioritized short-term pleasure over long-term pleasure, and this directed you to avoid short-term pain even though that short-term pain could potentially bring you long-term pleasure (if you secured the account).
It’s important to understand that we all need rules. Rules help you to make sense of your world, allowing you to cope with everyday life. In fact, you have rules that are built upon your personal habits, beliefs, emotional experiences, habits of procrastination and perfectionism, and your levels of self-esteem. What this ironically means is that making some adjustments to your psychological rules can effectively help you to mange your emotions more effectively, to eradicate limiting beliefs, to transform unhelpful habits, and to boost your self-esteem. All this is possible if you’re ready and willing to explore this area of your psyche.
In summary, rules aren’t necessarily bad, it’s rather how useful (helpful) or how hurtful (unhelpful) they are in your particular situation.
The Evolution of Psychological Rules
Psychological rules are learned and often evolve early in life, however they can also develop during your adult years. They evolve as a result of the conclusions you have made about yourself, from your observations of others, and from your response to pain and pleasure. Therefore, how you interpret pain and pleasure while growing up, will often influence the psychological rules that you are likely to abide by as an adult.
Within this context, pain is the manifestation of unhelpful emotions that don’t necessarily feel good. These emotions could include anger, stress, anxiety, fear, worry, etc. On the other hand, pleasure is the manifestation of helpful emotions that often feel good. These emotions could include happiness, excitement, love, joy, peace, etc.
Any emotion you feel comes about from the observations you make and from personal experience.
While growing up you will do certain things, and you will refrain from doing other things. Your life experience moves through a process of trial and error. You will try certain things and as a result of trying you will experience either pain or pleasure. Therefore you might for instance experience fear (pain) or excitement (pleasure). Then as a result of this experience you begin to build a fundamental set of psychological rules that govern what you will do within that particular situation in the future.
Let’s say that during your childhood years you were fascinated with little insects. One day you reached down and touched a bee and unfortunately you got stung. This created a lot of pain. You might have cried and maybe your parents ended up taking you to the hospital. This entire experience felt absolutely dreadful. Your parents were incredibly upset and went on-and-on telling you about the dangers of touching insects.
That day you created a psychological rule that informed you that touching insects was dangerous. As a result you have made the conclusion that all insects are dangerous. Consequently you now have this belief that is telling you to fear all insects. Even looking at an insect today makes you feel squeamish and fearful. In fact, the fear is so strong that you cannot stand being in the room with another insect, and it doesn’t even matter whether that insect is a spider or a butterfly. All insects make you feel squeamish.
This entire experience has been deeply ingrained into your psyche for better or worse. In this particular scenario you made the conclusion based on one experience that all insects are dangerous and must be feared. You are therefore assuming that all insects are dangerous despite the real-world facts. Your unhelpful rule has turned into a limiting belief, which has manifested into an irrational fear.
This is one scenario. However, you make conclusions such as this about yourself, about life and about other people on a daily basis. Each of these conclusions give birth to a new set of psychological rules. These rules are at times justified and helpful. However, at other times these psychological rules can be rather unhelpful and hurtful because they lie at the core of your limiting beliefs, and your limiting beliefs build the foundations of your fears.
Your psychological rules can also evolve as a result of cultural influence and conditioning. They are rules and assumptions you have made that reflect the norms and culture of the family, the society, and/or the community you are a part of.
You might for instance be encouraged to think a certain way about things, or to do things that are aligned with your cultural heritage. For example you might have a rule that tells you that women must be subservient to men in the home. And as a result you continue living by this rule even though times have since changed.
All these kinds of examples lead to a specific set of beliefs. These beliefs likewise have a certain set of rules that dictate what you will believe and under what conditions you will believe these things. Again, these rules and beliefs can be based on fact, or they might simply be based on opinion or tradition. Whichever it is, doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether or not these rules and beliefs are helpful in your particular situation.
All of this is incredibly significant because as you go about your day you use your personal assumptions, rules, beliefs and values to filter out very specific information that is most relevant for you. This means that you only tend to pay attention to, and make sense of, those things that are consistent with your assumptions, rules, beliefs and values. And this of course can be helpful or unhelpful depending on what you’re filtering out from your experience.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that these psychological rules are often deeply ingrained into your psyche. It will therefore take a tremendous amount of willpower, discipline and effort to change them and make them work for you and for your circumstances.
Types of Psychological Rules
Psychological rules can be broken down into two distinct types. The first type of rule we will classify as being “helpful”, and the second type of rule we will classify as being “unhelpful”.
Let’s look at each of these two types of rules in a little detail:
Helpful Psychological Rules
Helpful psychological rules often create success scenarios. What this means is that they empower you to make choices and decisions that will help you get what you want most out in life.
These helpful rules are often grounded in reality. They are realistic because they are not based on any conclusions or assumptions you might have made about things. They are often based on solid facts and evidence that builds the foundations of your empowering belief systems.
Helpful psychological rules are also flexible and adaptable. Therefore, a helpful rule that worked for you in the past, also works for you in the present moment because you have successfully adapted it to the changing conditions and circumstances of your life. This is significant because there is never any certainty in life, and you will of course not always be able to control everything. As such, your helpful rules allow you to make adjustments, mistakes, and bend the rules to accommodate the changes that might take place over the years.
Helpful psychological rules are also often very specific. They will for instance apply to one particular situation, but not to another situation. You therefore don’t treat all situations in exactly the same manner. However, unhelpful rules on the other hand often force you to use one rule that applies to many different situations. This completely disregards all other possibilities and allows no “wiggle” room to make the necessary adjustments that would help you adapt to unique circumstances. For instance a rule such as:
I must be the best at everything I do…
This rule isn’t flexible. Yes it might provide you with a little incentive and encourage a competitive spirit. However, the realty is that you will never always be the very best at everything you do. And this will of course lead to disappointment. A more helpful and flexible rule would focus on being more specific. For instance a rule such as:
I will always try and do my very best whenever I’m playing sports…
This helpful rule is very specific because it focuses on one particular thing and doesn’t encompass your entire life. It is also flexible because at times you might not feel well and therefore might not be able to perform to the best of your ability. As such it’s not realistic to expect your very best all of the time.
You will often recognize these helpful psychological rules when you use words such as:
It would be nice if…
It is good to try…
These rules don’t “lock” you into one way of thinking about a situation. You are instead more flexible and take into account different possibilities and scenarios that might provide you with a variety of perspectives that you could take into consideration.
You might for instance have a helpful rule that suggests that:
It is good to try and get at least 30 minutes of regular exercise each day throughout the week…
This is a helpful rule because there is a lot of evidence that suggests that regular exercise is good for us.
Another reason why this rule is helpful is because it’s flexible. It instructs you to “try” and get at least 30 minutes of regular exercise every day throughout the week. However, at times you might get caught up doing other things, and in such instances this rule helps you feel comfortable missing a day or two of exercise every now and then when you simply don’t have the time. Therefore with a rule such as this in place you don’t end up feeling guilty about not exercising on occasions.
You are obviously not always consciously aware of these kinds of psychological rules. However, this doesn’t mean that they have any less of an impact on your daily choices and decisions. In fact, you have these kinds of rules running your entire life. They are there whether you’re thinking about them or not in every situation you find yourself in. So for better or worse, they are directing what you will choose to do and how you will respond to the events and circumstances of your life.
Unhelpful Psychological Rules
Unhelpful psychological rules often create failure scenarios. Failure scenarios are hopeless situations where no matter what you choose to do you will likely fail.
These unhelpful rules are often rigid, unrealistic, excessive, unreasonable, and unadaptable to changing conditions and circumstances. They tend to hold you to such high standards, that they are almost impossible to live up to on a consistent basis. Moreover, they tend to demand that you behave in a particular way all of the time. And the moment one of these rules is broken you end up feeling disappointed. And that’s certainly no way to live your life.
It’s very possible that some of the psychological rules you have held onto since childhood may very well have served you in the past. However, your life has since changed, you have since changed, but your psychological rules have remained the same. The rules that worked for you in the past, may no longer work for you now, but you still continue to use them because they feel comfortable, or because you simply fail to question the assumptions that these rules support.
Every day you are making certain conclusions and assumptions about your life and circumstances. Some of these assumptions might be justified, however others may have very little basis in reality, and instead are only supported by the conclusions you have made in your imagination about things. And it’s these conclusions that are preventing you from moving forward.
In a moment you will go through a psychological rule identification process. You will be asked a certain set of questions that will help you pinpoint the psychological rules that are currently governing your choices, decisions and actions. However, before you jump into these questions, it’s important that you become aware of the common words you might typically use that often lead to unhelpful psychological rules. Here is a list of some of the words you must look out for:
If I don’t… then…
I should never…
I must… or else…
As you can see, these rules provide you with very limited options moving forward. When you say that you “should”, “can’t”, or “must”, do something, you are being very rigid, maybe unreasonable, and possibly incredibly unrealistic. These words are often at the core of the unhelpful psychological rules that are influencing your daily choices and decisions. Keep a close ear-out for them throughout your day and as you move through the following unhelpful rule identification process.
For instance, you might have an unhelpful rule that states:
I must never make mistakes…
This rule is unhelpful because it is unreasonable to think that you will never make mistakes. As a result, when you do make a mistake you will feel absolutely miserable. And you will continue feeling bad about yourself and about your life if you keep abiding by this rule. You must therefore either change this rule or replace it with another rule that is more helpful. For instance you might replace this rule with:
If I make a mistake I will learn from it and do better the next time around…
This alternate rule provides you with more flexibility. It is more realistic and reasonable. It is however an assumption — a helpful assumption that will allow you to get the most out of your ability and potential. You are assuming that you will be able to learn from your mistakes and do better the next time around. And this is perfectly okay. The chances are that there will always be something to learn, and you can therefore make this assumption because it helps serve your greater good.
Therefore living with this new rule will help you avoid the feelings of disappointment that comes from making mistakes. Yes, you will make mistakes, however your rules allow you to feel good about your mistakes because they will help you to learn, grow, and improve things moving forward. And that’s what this process is all about.
In another example, you might have a limiting belief that tells you:
I’m completely incompetent…
The accompanying rule for this belief might be:
I must never ask for help because people will laugh at me…
You therefore believe you’re incompetent and as a result you have this incredibly unhelpful rule that doesn’t allow you to ask for help. This is ironic because asking for help allows you to learn what you need to learn to improve your confidence and competence in specific areas of your life. This is an example of an unhelpful psychological rule that helps protect you from pain, however it actually ends up causing you more long-term pain because every time you don’t ask for help you don’t learn anything new or grow as a person. You could instead instill the following rule:
I will try and ask people for help at every opportunity…
This new rule is fantastic. However, unfortunately you won’t be able to live-up to this rule because your core limiting belief is still in place. You must therefore dislodge this core limiting belief while at the same time questioning the validity of your unhelpful psychological rule. And that’s exactly what we will try and do within the final section of this article.
Unhelpful Rule Identification Process
Let’s now jump into the process of identifying your unhelpful rules.
To begin with, let’s first take a look at your personal standards. The personal standards you uphold within a variety of areas of your life will provide you with some interesting insights into the psychological rules that govern your daily choices and decisions. Ask yourself:
What standards do I expect myself to uphold?
What standards do I expect to uphold at work?
What standards do I expect to uphold at home?
What standards do I expect to uphold in social situations?
What standards do I expect to uphold in various life roles?
What don’t I accept in all these areas of my life?
As you work through this process, keep an ear out on the common words that signal when an unhelpful rule has been activated. These are the words that will help you to identify the potentially unhelpful rules that might be governing certain areas of your life.
Let’s now break this down even further by looking for patterns within your daily activities and interactions with others that might provide us with some more insight into your psychological rules. Ask yourself:
In what situations do I experience most anxiety and self-doubt?
What about others makes me feel uneasy?
What negative predictions do I tend to make?
What aspects of myself do I tend to criticize most?
What don’t I allow myself to do?
What do I tend to criticize in other people?
What standards do I expect of others?
What does all this reveal about me?
As you work through these questions, and begin identifying some of your psychological rules, make sure to list them down on a sheet of paper.
Looking at this list of psychological rules, let’s now break this down even further by looking at how certain rules might have been conditioned into your psyche at an early age. Ask yourself:
What was I told that I should or shouldn’t do as a child?
What happened when I did not obey these rules?
What was I punished and criticized for?
What did I do to receive praise and affection?
What was said to me when I didn’t live up to other people’s expectations?
What insights does this provide me about the current unhelpful psychological rules that are prevalent in my life?
Do I see any connections between the psychological rules I held as a child and the rules that govern my experience of reality in the present?
Keep in mind that many of your childhood psychological rules might have evolved over time and are now manifesting in your life in a variety of different ways. They are therefore “masked” psychological rules that stem from childhood experience. To transform these rules, you will need to go back to those “root” psychological rules that lie at the core. But more about that later.
Take a list of all the unhelpful psychological rules you have thus far identified, and ask yourself the following set of questions:
How are these rules rigid and unadaptable?
How are these rules potentially unrealistic and unreasonable?
How are these rules somewhat excessive?
What assumptions am I making that help support these unhelpful psychological rules?
Most of your unhelpful psychological rules will be tied-to assumptions. You make these assumptions based on past references and experiences that might have made sense at the time. You now hold onto these assumptions because they feel comfortable and familiar. However, assumptions are only your opinions of reality. They might in fact have no basis in reality. And holding onto them may actually be hurting you and preventing you from moving forward in the way you had imagined. It’s therefore paramount that you spend some time exploring each of the assumptions you are potentially making, while also identifying the impact that they have on your life. Ask yourself:
What’s the evidence that supports this assumption?
What’s the impact of holding onto this assumption?
Let’s say for instance that you tell yourself that you can’t do something.
I can’t be successful because nobody wants to listen to me…
I can’t be supportive because people always lie to me…
In this example, you have rules that convinces you that you can’t do something because of such-and-such a reason. These two rules are built upon the assumptions that nobody will ever listen to you, and that people always lie to you. What you are doing is assuming that everyone is exactly like everybody else and that they will always respond to you in a predictable way. Is this a realistic assumption to hold onto? Does it make any sense? Is it true in all cases and scenarios?
Is it reasonable to assume that absolutely everyone in the world doesn’t want to listen to you or to your ideas? Is it reasonable to assume that everyone will always lie to you? Of course not. Some people will of course not listen to your ideas, however other people will. Some people will lie to you, however, most other people probably won’t.
The assumptions you are making are feeding your unhelpful psychological rules, and your unhelpful psychological rules are feeding your limiting beliefs, which are likewise directing your daily choices and decisions. For this very reason it’s absolutely paramount that you crack-down on the assumptions you are making within each of the psychological rules you identified throughout this process. It is these assumptions that are hurting you, and it’s these assumptions you must work through if you desire to make positive changes to your life.
Transforming Your Unhelpful Rules
It’s now time to take those unhelpful psychological rules you identified earlier and transform them into rules that are more helpful, flexible, and realistic.
In order to successfully make this transition, you will need to be willing to question your current psychological rules even if they make perfect sense right now. If you are not willing to open yourself up to alternate possibilities and perspectives, then you will most likely struggle to make the necessary changes that will help improve your life and circumstances.
Let’s now spend a little time exploring this process in detail.
Your very first step is to identify what unhelpful rule you would like to change.
In order to get this process started it might be helpful to view your unhelpful rule as an assumption. This is advantageous because assumptions are built upon our opinions of how things are. And our opinions are not based on fact. And if they are not based on fact then there’s always a possibility that our assumptions might be incorrect. Yes, of course your assumptions might be based on reality — at least your view of reality. And it’s this view of reality that might need some changing to help you move forward successfully in this particular area of your life.
To begin with, pinpoint the unhelpful psychological rule or assumption that you feel is letting you down:
What unhelpful psychological rule or assumption needs changing?
If you identify more than one psychological rule, then prioritize which of these rules is most important to work through right now. The most important rule is the rule that when changed will potentially have the biggest impact on your life. Remember that your highest priorities are built upon your core values. Therefore, use your core values as a guide to help you prioritize what psychological rules you will begin working on first.
Now take the time to reflect on the impact that this rule has had on you, on your life, and maybe even on other people in your life. Ask yourself:
What specific aspects of my life has this rule impacted?
How has it impacted my life in a positive way?
How has it impacted my life in a negative way?
How has it specifically impacted me?
How has it impacted other people?
How has it impacted by relationships with other people?
How do I respond when this rule is activated?
What specific emotions do I express?
How are these behaviors and emotions impacting me? Impacting others? Impacting my life?
The more of an understanding you have about the wider consequences of this rule, the more motivation you will have to make the necessary changes moving forward.
Your third step is to consider when this rule is in operation and in what specific situations. Ask yourself:
How do I know when this psychological rule is prevalent in my life? When specifically is it active? Why?
How do I feel when it has been activated?
What do I think to myself at the time? Why?
What do I say to myself at the time? Why?
What assumptions do I make? Why?
Why is all this relevant and important?
It’s important to pinpoint when exactly your unhelpful psychological rule is active and when it isn’t active because it helps you identify specific triggers. This is relevant because at times all you might need to do is simply eliminate the triggers and as a result you will also successfully eliminate the rule.
Your next task is to dig into the origins of this rule. Here you want to find out how this unhelpful psychological rule came into existence and why you’ve held onto it all this time. Ask yourself:
Where did this rule specifically come from?
Why have I held onto this rule all this time?
Why is it still a part of my life today?
Is this rule really necessary today?
Is it useful?
We often adopt certain psychological rules as a coping mechanism while dealing with difficult situations and emotions. For instance something unexpected happens and we learn to adapt to the circumstances by creating very specific rules that help us better deal with the situation at hand. These methods of coping probably served you well at the time. However, it’s very possible that this particular psychological rule is no longer valid and doesn’t serve you in the present moment.
Also consider your childhood. Think about what your parents might have said to you in a variety of situations. If for instance they were very critical of you, then consider the impact of their criticism and how that might have influenced this unhelpful rule. These moments might even have given birth to other unhelpful psychological rules that you aren’t yet consciously aware of.
Your next objective is to determine whether or not holding onto this unhelpful rule makes any sense. What you are attempting to do here is pinpoint the flaws in the psychological rule in order to get a better understanding of its nature. Ask yourself:
In what ways is this rule unrealistic?
In what ways is it unreasonable?
In what ways is this rule inflexible and unadaptable?
In what ways is it unfair and rather unhelpful?
Here you are attempting to create some doubt about this psychological rule. The more doubt you create, the more motivation you will have to change this rule and replace it with something that is more helpful and relevant to your life right now.
Everything you do, everything you believe in, and every psychological rule you accept has a purpose. You are gaining something of value from everything you do, even if it is hurting you in the long-run. Take this into consideration while you ask yourself the following set of questions:
What do I tend to gain by living with this psychological rule?
What are the benefits of holding onto this rule?
How is this rule advantageous and helpful in my situation?
What specifically is this rule trying to protect me from?
Are all these advantages and benefits reasonable and genuine given my current circumstances?
Before moving on, it’s important to consider that the benefits you derive from this particular psychological rule might bring you short-term rewards. However, the rule might have long-term consequences that could negatively impact other areas of your life.
Let’s now look at the disadvantages of this psychological rule and the negative consequences you might experience if you continue to hold onto this rule. Ask yourself:
What specifically do I lose by living with this rule?
How does this rule limit my opportunities?
How does this rule deny me the pleasures I would like to experience?
How does this rule keep me from the success I would like to realize in my life?
How does this rule negatively impact my life?
How does this rule prevent me from achieving my goals and objectives?
Do these negative consequences outweigh the advantages of holding onto this rule? How?
What you are attempting to do here is use pain as a motivational tool to help you make the necessary changes to your life. If you are able to create enough pain, then you will likewise create enough “reason” to take the necessary steps to make positive improvements moving forward.
It’s now time to identify a more helpful rule that you could adopt into your life that will replace your unhelpful psychological rule. This new rule must wherever possible maximize the advantages and benefits of your unhelpful psychological rule, while at the same time minimizing its disadvantages. Moreover, this new rule must be more balanced, flexible and realistic. Given all this, take time ask yourself:
What would be a more realistic and flexible psychological rule that I could use?
Is this rule realistic?
Is this rule flexible?
Does this rule feel good?
Does this rule serve me well?
Does this rule serve the greater good?
How could I adapt this rule to different situations and scenarios?
While answering these questions, have a think about your ability to adapt this rule to different situations. If the rule isn’t flexible enough to adapt itself into your life in a variety of ways, then think of another more flexible rule that you could potentially use. Express this rule using words that provide you with enough flexibility and options that will help you to adapt it to a multitude of scenarios.
The final step in this process is to put your new rule into daily practice until it becomes a habit-of-mind.
Take time to lay out on paper how you will need to act and behave in everyday life in order to put this rule into practice. This will of course require developing a new set of behaviors that will help support the adoption of this psychological rule into your life. To help you with this, pretend for a moment that you have been living with this new helpful psychological rule for several months. Now ask yourself:
How have I managed to put this rule into daily practice through my decisions and actions?
How do my behaviors reflect this new rule?
What new ways of behaving have allowed me to make positive changes in my life?
How do my thoughts and self-talk reflect my assimilation of this rule into my life?
What else have I noticed about myself?
How can I use this knowledge and insight to help me make positive changes in my life today?
It’s now up to you to commit yourself to acting in exactly this way. By acting as if your life is this way already, will help make the transition easier in the weeks ahead.
It is however necessary to point out that your transition to this “new you” may not be easy. You may experience difficulties and resistance. You may in fact even fall back to your old patterns of behavior dominated by your unhelpful psychological rules. And that’s okay. As long as you realize this and then get yourself back on track as quickly as possible. In the end, it’s not how many times you fall down that counts, it’s how many times you bounce back up again that makes all the difference.
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
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