Despite being a level headed person most of the time, I get a creeping anxiety when someone fires up their vocal chords at the dinner table. For me, it’s the equivalent of nails down a blackboard. Should their display of theatre continue beyond a few seconds, this anxiety rapidly turns into internalised protestation – do they not realise how rude it is to sing at the table? You can only imagine my angst at birthday parties…
Until two years ago this ‘life rule’ was just one of many I lived by and never questioned. Assuming it was a universal truth, I thought anyone violating the rule was simply uneducated in basic table manners. Armed with decorum, I would offer gentle guidance. As you’d imagine, this didn’t often go down well.
Many a theorist has defined these ‘rules’. Carl Rogers, the Grandfather of client-centered psychotherapy called them “introjects”. Eric Berne, founder of Transactional Analysis (a theory of how we interact with each other) called them “life scripts”. To the layman, they are the rules that we were governed by in our formative years and in my experience, they often go unchallenged by their latest enforcer – you.
After a ribbing from a friend who once paid witness to my discomfort at a dinner party, I decided to check in with my Mum about the “no singing at the table” rule. I wanted to understand the rationale behind it. Here’s what she said:
“When you were 4 years old, you loved Thomas the Tank Engine. You insisted on singing the theme tune, repeatedly. I told you it was rude to sing at the table in an attempt to get some peace and quiet.”
I felt crestfallen. I pride myself on having good manners, and in the past I’ve judged others for not having the same, even extending pity on occasion. But this ‘manner’ was based on my Mum’s dislike of Thomas the Tank Engine theme tune! I’m not seeking to berate my Mum here – I’m pretty sure every parent has offered up some kind of spurious ‘house rule’ to encourage desirable behaviour. The point is, I’d accepted this rule as fact; it caused me anxiety when it wasn’t followed. And yet it turns out the only rationale behind it was a stressed Mum seeking some quiet, 28 years ago.
Many of these life rules are lurking in our subconscious. I spend much of my time with clients bringing them into awareness, and critically challenging them. Some are useful – “look both ways when you cross the road”. Others less so – “don’t talk to strangers” (what do most of us have to do every day in our work?).
These rules often hold us back from achieving our true potential. So here’s an exercise you may like to consider:
What are your life rules?
What evidence supports them?
When was the last time you challenged them using your logical, balanced mind?
Speak to your friends, family, colleagues and partners. They may be able to help spot ones you can’t. Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments, or just grab a pen and do it privately. Either way, let me know how you get on.