invisible rules

How to Identify Your Invisible Rules

Imagine if we had to talk out everything to make sense of things. We’d be exhausted by 9:00 a.m! Fortunately our invisible rules act as guideposts to help us get through life. When it works, it’s fantastic. When it doesn’t, it can be a disaster. However, since our rules are invisible, it can be tough to know when they are at work. So how do you identify your invisible rules? Let’s look at that now.

Here are some invisible rules that are common in America:

  • Look people in the eye when you talk with them (or else you may project low self-esteem).
  • Be on time (or else you show disrespect).
  • Walk a line between modesty and being boastful. (Confidence is good. Arrogance is bad).

Most people agree with these, so they aren’t things we generally think about or discuss. We also all have invisible rules that apply to us and perhaps a few others. Here are some examples.

  • If someone is upset, being a good person means I have to do something to fix it.
  • If you don’t stand up for yourself, you’re fair game to be taken advantage of.
  • Only people who drive nice cars are worth my attention.

Clearly these are not rules that apply to everyone. They don’t even really make a whole lot of sense, yet we all have rules just like this that jam up our lives. So let’s look at how to identify these programs.

Something’s Not Working

The first tip off comes when something is not working. This could show up as being irritable, feeling stuck, or not getting the results you want. When this happens, ask yourself what invisible rule was violated. Another way of looking at this is to ask yourself how did you make meaning of events.

Run a Chain Analysis

Next is run a chain analysis. Basically that means write down what happened, what preceded it, and what came after. With hidden rules you could run in a lot of circles, so be prepared for that. Let’s look at an example.

  1. I’m at a restaurant looking forward to a romantic dinner with a new partner.
  2. He calls and says he’s going to be fifteen minutes late.
  3. I feel irritated and disappointed that he’s not on time. Then I feel relief that he called to let me know. I wait.
  4. Ten minutes later, he calls again to say it will be more like twenty minutes late.
  5. My irritation is growing. Now I am questioning whether or not he’s telling the truth about why he’s late. I am wondering if he’s coming at all. I ask myself if he even cares to be with me. Then I start getting pretty worked up. I’m asking myself if I should stay or go.
  6. It’s now twenty minutes after our meeting time. I get a text saying he’s on his way.
  7. Now I am really fuming.
  8. Just as I am getting up to leave, he comes in with a big smile, hug, and apology.
  9. I stay throughout dinner and sulk. Fire comes from my eyes. I am miserable company. Any thought of romance is ruined because he needs to pay for disrespecting me. This is not what I want, but I don’t care.
  10. Neither of us have a good time. We eat, share a tepid hug, and depart company.

What made that a miserable time? Was it that the guy was late? Was it that I was impatient and unforgiving? Did feeling mistreated change things? All of those things happened, but what made it unpleasant was my invisible rules. I have a choice about how to think and feel about every step of that interaction.

At step nine, I say, “Any thought of romance is ruined because he needs to pay for disrespecting me.” Invisible rules are always an “If this, then that” type of statement. In this case my invisible rule is “If I am disrespected, the guilty party has to pay.”

Another way to do this is to brainstorm. Write down “I get angry/irritated/disappointed/anxious when…” and then write the first things that come to your mind. It could look something like this: I get irritated when I get cut off in traffic; I get put on hold; people take a long time to get to the point; when I ask a question and it’s not answered; when I see things on the floor that people haven’t picked up.

Now look at the list and write down how you’re interpreting that event. For example getting cut off in traffic means that people think that I am a bad driver. Now ask yourself what does that mean. That could mean that people think I am not good enough. When you get to the bottom line, you have the “if” and “then” of your hidden rule. In this example it is, “When people cut me off in traffic, it means that I am not good enough.” When you put it this way, we can usually see how nonsensical our rules can be.

When I am running programs like those, there is nothing left for me to do but be miserable. It’s a one way, dead end street. Being in the moment allows me to make choices all along the way. Having affirming rules means that I have many ways to be happy. So why not choose affirming rules that promote happiness? Those could be things like:

  • I will stay as long as I am having fun.
  • When someone can’t be on time, I will move on happily and save us both time because we are just not a match.
  • If someone calls and texts, then they care.
  • If I get a sincere apology, I can wipe the slate clean.

We all create our own hidden rules. When you come across one that leaves the control with something or someone else, change it! For example, if it’s sunny, I can enjoy the day. Or I can only be happy if she is smiling at me. If I can only be happy when something outside of me happens, I don’t have a lot of options for happiness. Take back that control!

If your rule is impossible to meet, change it. For example, I can only feel lovable if I get twenty flirtations each day from really attractive, fit, rich men. Or I will feel like a success when I have $X, a happy family, and feel fulfilled inside. Ooh! The bar is really high. Why not choose something easier like I feel lovable just because I am alive?

When you come across an invisible rule that is disaffirming, change it. This could be something like, to feel free, I must have a job that gives me control over my work pace, environment, income, and pays me 25% over my current needs to feel secure. Why not just feel free now? Or why not make a rule that says something like when I clock out from work, I feel free. That’s a whole lot easier to make happen. This means I can feel free every moment I am not at work! Happiness, success, and love are easy with rules like that.

Does this mean you can just run amok and do whatever you want? No. You still have to live within your own value system and the law. But this gives you a whole lot more latitude to live in ways that affirm you. So take the time to identify your invisible rules, then change them to things that are easy and validating. What an easy life hack!

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