Transforming Survival Rules into Life-Affirming Guidelines: Part 2

A water molecule

A water molecule

Let’s explore the process of transforming survival rules into life-affirming guidelines. Last time we were looking at a specific rule: I must never be angry.  The transformational process is preceded by first self-connecting, which is experiencing one’s core Self and the inherent worth of the individual as a human being and second the awareness and articulation of the rule itself. From here we can explore the consequences of the rule.

Step 1: Exploring the consequence of the rule:

The first step of exploring and understanding the consequences of not following the rule,  both real and imagined, help cultivate compassion for the Self and the survival significance that the rule provided at the time.

“I must never be angry.”

With any rule related to feelings, there are two primary levels from which to understand it: 1. What constraint or limit is there on the feeling of the feeling? 2 What constraints or limitations are there in terms of expression and behavior?

What were some of the consequences of expressing anger in your growing up? (For you it might be a different emotion or feelings in general.)  What happened or what did you imagine happening if this feeling came up? What did you see happening between family members when this difficult feeling was expressed?

Looking and exploring from a place of self-connection, try to complete the sentence:

I must never be angry or else/because:

Some possibilities might be:

I must never be angry or else/because: someone might get angry at me

I must never be angry or else/because: I might be shamed, alienated or worse abandoned

I must never be angry or else/because: I might be bullied physically or emotionally

I must never be angry or else/because: people might get hurt

I must never be angry or else/because: no one will love me anymore/ I will be rejected

The exploration of the rules and its consequences bring up the survival energy that underlies the rule.   Any rule is related to life or death consequences which could be physical or psychological. Let’s look more deeply at this rule for its life/death nature.

I must never be angry or else/because...I will be punished or abandoned.

What could punished mean? It could mean physical beaten.  If a child receives physical punishment or the threat of it, it is not difficult to imagine that they would have a fear of death.  In the case of psychological abuse, neglect or abandonment, the same fear of death exists.

Exploring the dark consequences of any rule and its relationship to death anxiety is an important step in understanding the survival significance of rules.  When I witness and support clients in this process and they experience seeing the rule and reading it out loud: “I must never be angry or else/because... I will die/be killed.” It resonates throughout their body. It is painful to realize the depth of the rule. However difficult, it helps them understand themselves and their attachment to the rule since not following it was meant courting death whether psychological or physical death.

In this process, the individual learns that following the rule was a courageous act that was connected to their desire to survive and live.  It is grounding to return to this primary and positive motivation for following the rule.

The intention is to look with compassion and to create a space that can appreciate the logic and wisdom of the rule in the context it was originally created. This can free energy in the individual that is locked into a pattern of sensing, feeling, thinking and behaving that is governed by the rule.

Therapists need the ability to respect the rules of the people they work with because they have enabled the client to survive sometimes in horrible situations. However, the cost of following the rule becomes so great that it results in disconnection from self and others. For example, the cost of following the rules of not being angry and having a voice may be ulcers, heart disease, disconnection, and anxiety. Over time, any rule that alienates the Self from its feelings and needs for the sake of survival will begin to erode the very life that it is trying to preserve.

I have worked with many men who struggled with their anger which was expressed in aggression behavior who followed a rule of “Happy wife, happy life.” or “I must always do what makes others happy” or “I must never express vulnerable emotions”. The consequence of such rules meant that they did not have ways to make their emotional needs known to themselves and others and that they lived in ways that did not value themselves as equal value or worthy of being heard. They were not safe with themselves to look (to acknowledge what they felt and needed) and therefore they were not able to be safe with others until they learned to let go of rules which limited their awareness, choices, and behavior.

The rules we are exploring are taken on unconsciously. They need to be unearthed consciously as the process we have been describing demonstrates.  By creating guidelines from the rule, the price I pay for following them is minimal and the benefits are maximal. The goal in transforming rules is to form guidelines that help serve and enhance your life rather than being a slave to rules which reduce our experience and connection to life.  The unconscious adherence of rules results in a reduced ability to be aware, creative and wise since the rule takes precedence over everything else even when it doesn’t fit to follow a rule. On the other hand, the guidelines we create empower us to be present, flexible, aware, responsible choice-makers.

Step 2: Choicefulness: From “must” to “can”

One of the primary functions of a therapist is to help people learn to be their own choicemakers and to define the boundaries around which they can decide for themselves. Satir liked to say “even when external change is not possible, internal change is always available” Rules that live in our minds and bodies are an example of something over which we have choice.

The power of choicefulness was demonstrated by Victor Frankl in his exploration of meaning. Here we are exploring another form of consciousness, rules, which shapes the meanings we create.  

It is a choice to look and become aware of ourselves, others and the context.

It is a choice to choose and be responsible.

It is a choice to feel instead of denying, ignoring, or projecting.

It is a choice how you act.

It is a choice to listen and see to how others respond to you in the present moment without making it up on your own; that is, really being present with others.

All these choices are examples of choices that empower us. Rules like “I must never be angry”  reduce our ability to look, choose, be responsible, act, and perceive.

Rules appear in the form of I must never/must always/I should always/I should never/I have to such as:

I must never trust others they will hurt you.

I must never forgive others they will hurt you.

I must always think of others and not myself.

I must never hurt anyone’s feelings

Rules can be transformed to guidelines such as:

I can forgive others sometimes when...they apologize and demonstrate change

I can forgive even when they don’t change and I can choose to let it go and keep a healthy space between us

I can forgive when they apologize and don’t demonstrate change and I feel I can accept their limitations.

Let’s return to our example of: I must never be angry.

Reflect: Have you been able to live a life in which you were never angry?

Has it been possible?

Probably not. Any time someone disappoints you or perhaps betrays your trust or threatens or hurts you in some way anger, irritation, frustration are likely to come up. However, living with this rule we try to act as if we could live without anger. So the answer is you can’t uphold the rule but you try.  And so projection, ignoring and denial come into this and we start to twist ourselves to keep an impossible rule in the interest of survival

Reflect: Is there a kernel in the rule that might help you? Even though the initial form of the rule is limited and mostly unhelpful, learning to cope with anger is an important skill for living and

Satir liked to say that she never took anything away from anyone or asked them to get rid of anything they had. Whatever they had were some tools they had in their toolkit. What she liked to think of is that she was adding something like you might add ingredients to a soup. By adding more ingredients you get a richer and more complex flavour.  The transformation of rules is the addition of awareness, choice, wisdom, and courage.

First, change the “must” into a “can”. (Transitioning from compulsion to choice)

This is the transformation that adds the resource of choice. We move from the compulsion of the rule towards choice in a guideline.

I must never be angry becomes:

I can never be angry  (implicit to this is “I can not have my feelings and I can never have an angry reaction.”)

Reflect: is it true that you can never be angry?

We know that because anger is a natural human emotion it is impossible to never feel anger. For the person with this rule to consider feeling anger, they would need to acknowledge the feeling as a feeling and distinct from the behavior that comes as a result.  Introducing the word “can” is an invitation to seeing feelings as a resource as well as introducing the resource of choice regarding anger. The other word that would change is the word “be” since a person cannot be angry -unless they are that red character from the movie Inside/Out with the flammable head! To be angry means to act out behaviorally in anger. It could also mean to feel the anger, but one cannot be anger.  In this case, we need to consider specifically whether the rule is dealing with the fact of feeling anger or how that anger can be expressed in behavior.

Second, change the “never” to ”sometimes”.

As discussed, rules are framed in absolutes.  Changing the word from never to sometimes opens to the door to considering the details of context and of unique individuals.  

So from “I must never be angry “ we now have  “I can sometimes feel angry

Whatever rule you are transforming, repeat these new words to yourself and feel in your body (your head, your heart, and your guts) if it feels true or truer than the original rule.

When the therapist/coach/mentor asks the individual to check in with changes in their body they are grounding the change experientially.  Satir would often ask the individual to state the original sentence and the new one and to feel how each feels and she would observe from the outside any differences in their eyes, skin tone, muscle tonus, breath, etc.  This is an important part of working through the rules in an experiential way and not just as a cognitive exercise.

I can sometimes feel anger ...

Virginia would as the individual to connect to their bodies and breath and read the three sentences and feel their response to each change, particularly in their stomach area.

  • I must never be angry

  • I can never be angry

  • I can sometimes feel anger

One additional element that I would add is the word “choose” making explicit the resource of choice: I can sometimes choose to feel anger.

One could argue that this process is a simple matter of semantics, but our words are tied to our tongue, our limbic system, and our nervous system. When we use words that take us to the choice level we begin to let loose. That is why when I guide people in this process I ensure that they are first connected to themselves and grounded in their bodies. I will also invite them to stand as they express the words so they are rooted.

After transforming rules that restrict the experience of anger, there will likely be rules related to the behavioral expression of anger.  We will limit our discussion here to the rule about feeling anger, but it would also be important for the individual to learn what specific forms of anger are acceptable to them, what boundaries they would like to create, how they would like to communicate about their anger. Some possibilities are:  I can choose to sometimes let people know I am angry when I am able to own my experience and needs as my own and not get stuck in blaming, as long as I know I am responsible for my feelings and am also willing to understand any other emotions that are associated with it. There are many skills associated with being able to express anger healthfully which involve managing one’s physiology and creating expectations, beliefs, and rules that support the congruent expression of anger. Transforming rules is a great initial step but it is not enough.  The rule is a root, but not the whole.

Step 3: Add when you might make the choice. Add at least three specific contexts in which you would feel you could make that choice.

Virginia Satir often said, (paraphrased) “Two is a dilemma, one is the one right way. You need three to get unstuck and to truly have choice and the awareness of many more choices would help you become aware of the many possibilities of choice available to you.”

Here are six examples from the guideline we are working through:

  • I can feel my anger sometimes....when I am grounded in my Self,

  • I can feel my anger sometimes....when a boundary is crossed and I need to learn about what I need to do to cope with a situation

  • I can feel my anger sometimes....when I am prepared to look,

  • I can feel my anger sometimes....when I trust that it is safe to do so,

  • I can feel my anger sometimes...when I have the time and energy,

  • I can feel my anger sometimes...when I have the support I need to look

The magic is not the content or the words, but in the consciousness of choice that the individual moves themselves through in this embodied process as they go from the tyranny of the rule which is either-or, (or the one right way) towards hope and possibilities.

The final step would be to connect to your breath, which is a way of Self-connecting and read each of the transformations with their unique contexts.  

Satir talked about this change occurring at the deep level of the brain, the limbic system. A deep neurological change was important because the transformation of the rule is an opening up of what is humanly possible to experience and do. This was a primary driver for Satir; that is, to help people get unstuck from that which was inhuman to what was human and to move constantly in a direction of growth. The transformation of rules to life-affirming guidelines is one expression of what melting the iceberg looks like: to move from a stuck, rigid, closed-form to an open, fluid, choiceful, flexible form that is deeply connected to Self.

In this writing, we have explored how to become aware of our use of words and thoughts as rules and how this cascades into our feelings, perceptions, expectations, and behavior.  With awareness, we can then add in the ingredient of choice and use our Self to explore all of our possibilities and potential.

On February 8 to 10, I will be hosting a three day Self-connection workshop that will explore the various ideas and practices in this post. A retreat format will provide a supportive context within which to learn and practice the skills of Self-connection. For more information and to register, please visit:


The Teachings of Virginia Satir Series 1/2 Avanta The Virgnia Satir Network. CD collection CD 4: Survival Rules