Unlearning our rules for living

A short list of things I believe:


As soon as we become aware of ourselves and others, we begin to learn and accumulate rules for living. We learn what to judge as “good” and “bad,” what experiences to seek and avoid, what parts of ourselves to play up and disown, what roles to rehearse and reject, what values to defend and discard, and what expectations to uphold and abandon.

Our unspoken rules become our invisible armor. Living within them, we feel constrained, but safe. Even if we are uncomfortable, the familiarity of our discomfort is comfortable. Even if our rules clash, the familiarity of that inner conflict is somehow reassuring.

What is familiar feels safe. All of us want to feel safe.


I believe we grow and change when we begin to give ourselves permission to question what is given, i.e., our rules for living, and wonder how we learned.

(When we’re not quite ready or supported, perhaps that is one definition of a crisis.)

Who or what taught us which rules, and when?

Some possible “teachers” in our lives include: concepts, cultures, and institutions (e.g., capitalism, patriarchy, feminism, racism, compulsory sexuality, religion, generation, national identity); learned history and mythology; family and inherited stories; specific individuals (e.g., actual teachers, role models and heroes, antiheros and villains, authors, other persons of influence and authority); personal and professional experiences and relationships, whether positive, negative, or traumatic.


I believe we underestimate the strength of the rules we continue to accumulate throughout our lives. Even as we (painfully) outgrow our armor, we continue to varnish it with lessons learned from our adult life experiences. Some of us are such adept translators of experience into rule that we hardly notice what we’re doing. 


Some hard work: Can we empathize with all the different and former parts of ourselves for learning what they learned and enforcing the rules they enforced?

Can we appreciate what those rules have granted, and also mourn what they might have taken or kept away from us?

Can we welcome back the parts of us we might have given up for lost along the way?


The joy: Discovering our secret power to unlearn our own rules for living.

Then, we come alive.

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