Transforming Survival Rules into Life Affirming Guidelines part 1

Rules are the explicit and implicit ideas and beliefs that shape how we understand ourselves, others and the world and how we can behave.  They are thoughts, however unconscious, that constrains, dictates or limits the experience an individual can have. If we are unaware of the rules which govern our behavior then the rule is disempowering us because it is occurring outside of our awareness.  These were described by Virginia Satir as ‘family rules’ as we learned them as we grew up in our families. Rules govern how understand and experience emotions (if we experience them at all), if we can comment on what we feel and sense, whether we can ask for what we want/need, how we interact in relationships, what is allowed and what is forbidden.

Rules typically come in the form of all or nothing thinking: “That’s just how it is!”  Often this comes from a specific part of the psyche and relates to survival needs (e.g., the need to avoid rejection, conflict or abandonment). Awareness and choicefulness around rules is an important process for freeing the individual from rigid patterns that are unconsciously governing their lives. Rules are a significant element that creates rigid experiences which repeat.  I call experiences that repeat and which limit our Self-expression icebergs because all the energy, all the water molecules are trapped in a particular form.

For example, a woman I worked with had a rule that he should never do anything to upset anyone.  This meant that she had to hide her feelings from her family and never ask that her needs be met.  This also meant that she was intolerant to others when they had to make choices that disappointed her. The intolerance for being upset as a rule increased her reliance on the defensive coping of denial and ignoring. The cost was she was unhappy in her relationships with her partner and children and overworked as a result of not having clear boundaries at work.  The love that she had inside of her for herself and for others could not be expressed because the rule constrained her voice.

Here are some additional characteristics of rules:

Rules mostly likely direct our lives and energy when we experience threat and stress.

Rules have to do with rigid judgments about what is good/bad /right/wrong and have a survival connection meaning not following them is a matter of LIFE/DEATH at the very least emotional life or death.

Rules create a rigid filter from which to experience the world (all or nothing)

Rules originate from the modeling that we saw going on around us in our family of origin. They are internalized unconsciously.

The rules we take on for ourselves we also expect others to adhere to it.  For example, the woman who had a rule not to upset others learned that she also expected others to not do things to upset her.

How to become aware of your rules

I will describe the process of rule transformation generally here and the further down I will walk us through what the process looks like in its entirety. Rules are one entry point into the iceberg (iceberg being a metaphor for a survival reaction including feelings, feelings about feelings, beliefs, perceptions, roles, expectations, and meanings). A therapist working with a client can join the client with any form of consciousness that seems most available. For some people, these are feelings, for others it is thoughts and for others still it is concrete behaviors. This is why there are so many forms of therapies (EFT, Behavioral, CBT, experiential). The Satir model does not prioritize any one form of consciousness and is flexible enough to engage at any level of experience a person may be having. Part of the effectiveness is the therapy interventions aim at being experiential, which means including many layers of experience (a sense, a thought, a feeling, and action).

A therapist that is helping a person with unhelpful rules would have familiarity with rules and be able to see how they underlie the feelings, behaviors and relationships issues the individual is having.  Often these rules relate to what a person can feel, what they can say, what they can ask for.

Example of a Rule:

Take a person who denies their anger and feels deep shame whenever they react angrily. They may have a rule that says: I must never be angry because people will get hurt.

With a  rule like this, everything you do is always conscious of anger and you will see that above any other thing. Because what you’re not supposed to see, you see it everywhere and energy goes to deny and suppress it. The individual will not have ways of looking at their anger and making conscious choices about what to do with the anger that is present.  I have seen this rule in many men I have worked with who generally push their energy towards being highly rationale and deny their feelings until they are no longer able to suppress their feelings. Anger is usually the first feeling to come up because they have not given their feelings (or more accurately they did not know ways to give) any space to be heard, seen and understood. They need to rationalize it away because it’s not supposed to be seen.  

Another thing to consider is why a rule that suppresses anger needs to exist at all or any negative emotion for that matter.  I believe this stems from a human tendency to attach Self with experience; that if I feel bad, then I must be bad. Our experience must never define our Self, but often it does because the emotions can be overwhelming and all-consuming. In light of this confusion, it makes sense to have rules which avoid or deny the existence of negative feelings.

The purpose of the rule is often our survival, but the effect is often a shrinking of energy, a reduction in self-expression and negative experiences such as anxiety and depression. Rules often involve a trade-off of avoiding experiencing difficult feelings in the present for what eventually becomes chronic states of pain and suffering.

If we have a rule that restricts our ability to feel our feelings, express them and ask for something we need, then the consequence is we shrivel our energy because there is energy in every feeling.  It takes energy to suppress the emotion of anger. Anger turned towards the Self can become depression. The rule disempowers us to see what we see, or at least to comment on what is seen. Rules that interfere with our ability to sense, feel and communicate, will make people less competent in their ability to resolve problems and conflicts.

The foundation of any growth process is Self-connection

There are many techniques in the world of therapy, but the process of transforming rules demands that the person facilitating must be rooted in themselves and engaged in their own growing process.  Since rules reflect a person’s deep beliefs which limit how they use their sense, feelings, and choices, it makes sense a person working to help empower would not just know about the impact of rules but also done their work to free themselves from their own limiting rules so they have access to their own resources of seeing, hearing, feeling, communicating, sharing, and risking.

Self-connection is the basis for any technique and any process. It ensures that if I am in a helping role, I am with you as a Self to Self and not trying to fit you into a mold of a technique. It allows us to follow the present moment and to be creative. To see/hear/feel what is present and to work with that energy which is the fullness of being.

When engaging in any kind of change process, it is important to first root within your Self. This means acknowledging the living breathing, pulsing, digesting, feeling, sensing and thinking being you are with the proper level of wonder and dignity. It can be helpful to engage such a process with a trusted support person like a therapist or a close family member or friend who can be present and witness you as you explore this process.  Close your eyes and experience your breath. The fact that you are reading such an article points to the energy of self-love that exists inside of you. Why else would you want to learn about connection, Self, and transforming rules if you did not have love for yourself? I would go one step further and say if you were not a manifestation of love itself. Whether I am helping someone engage in a process of change or I am doing it for myself, beginning with self-connection forms the base for being able to engage fully and not just intellectually.

Part 2 will explore the specific process of transforming survival rules into life-affirming guidelines.