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How to identify and shed unhelpful psychological rules that are sabotaging your happiness

Updated: Sep 18


What are psychological rules?

Psychological rules are laws that dictate our options, decisions and actions. They are like a rule book, that directs how we function in our world. They shape how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive others, and how we perceive and understand the world around us. Our psychological rules provide the guiding principles that drive our behaviours, and fundamental coping mechanisms which we use throughout our lives.


Psychological Rules and Beliefs

Psychological rules come from the foundations from which each of our beliefs develop. We hold beliefs because we have a certain set of rules that tells us that this “thing” makes sense and is therefore true. So, if the rule makes sense, then it naturally follows to believe that what were seeing, and experiencing is the truth.


Our psychological rules often come from the pain and pleasure response. For example, our brain will ask whether making a certain decision or taking a specific action will mean pain or pleasure. We can then either decide to take action that helps us to avoid the pain, or to gain pleasure. Which choice we make provides an insight into the underlying subconscious belief that dictates and reinforces that particular psychological rule.


Let’s say that you want to make a change in your life because you are unhappy. Making the change seems daunting and will be difficult. You can see there is two possible options. You can either act now, or you can procrastinate and put it off until another day. The first option has the potential to bring you pain and discomfort, and the second option provides some pleasure.


You might think to yourself:

If I do this what will happen?

If I do this, then what will happen with that?


Let’s say you decide to keep putting things off and make the decision to procrastinate by focusing your attention on other things. All of this is relevant because it is your psychological rules that essentially direct the decision you make in this situation. What’s even more significant is that it is your underlying hidden potentially limiting belief that shapes your decision.


That belief could be:

I don’t deserve this …..

I am a failure ……

I am not good enough to do this ……


And, your rules might be:

If I try ….. then I will fail ……

There’s no point ….. because I will fail …….


Thus, the structured rules are a result of the limiting belief that could be:

If I try …… then I will fail (rule) ..... because I am a failure (belief)

There’s no point ….. because I will fail (rule) ...... because I am not good enough (belief)


As a result, of one or more of those beliefs, you make a choice to procrastinate instead of taking steps to change and grow as a person. Therefore, your perception of what gives you pain, or pleasure heavily influenced your decision. The psychological rules prioritize short-term pleasure over long-term pleasure, and this is what directs us to avoid short-term pain, even though such short-term pain leads to long-term pleasure and happiness.


For example, someone who wants to change and has made many attempts at changing will often hold a belief that it is unachievable. E.g. if I try …. Then I will fail. Just the though of wanting to change but not knowing how to succeed generates anxiety, fear and subsequent stress, which on top of the underlying belief e.g. I am not good enough, directs impulsive short-term behaviours like procrastination in order to regulate negative mood states.


However, we all need psychological rules. Rules help us to make sense of your world, allowing us to cope with everyday life. In fact, we all have rules that are built upon our personal beliefs, emotional experiences, habits of procrastination and perfectionism, and our levels of self-esteem.


What this ironically means is that making some adjustments to your psychological rules can effectively help you to better self-manage your emotions more effectively, to eradicate limiting beliefs, to transform unhelpful habits, and to boost your self-esteem. All this is possible if you’re ready and willing to explore this area of your mind.


In summary, rules are not always bad, it’s more important to understand which of your rules are flexible and helpful and which rules are rigid, unhelpful and limiting your potential to change.


Rigid (unhelpful) and flexible (helpful) psychological rules


1. Flexible and Helpful Rules

Flexible and helpful rules often create successful situations. This means that they empower you to make better choices and decisions that will help you to grow and get what you want most out of life.


Flexible and helpful rules are often grounded in reality and, as such are not based on any assumptions and conclusions you may have made about things. They tend to be based on solid facts and objective evidence that builds the foundation of our empowering belief system.


Theses rules are flexible and adaptable because they have worked for us in the past and can be successfully adapted to present situations and circumstances in our lives. This is significant, as there is never any certainty in life and not everything can be controlled and, as such helpful rules allow us to make adjustments, mistakes and bend the rules so that they accommodate the changes that we want to make over the years.


Helpful rules are often quite specific. For example, they may apply to one particular situation but not another situation. We, therefore, don’t treat all situations in exactly the same manner.


However, unhelpful rules often force us to use one rule that applies to many different situations. This cause us to totally disregard all other possibilities and allows no “wiggle” room to accommodate the necessary adjustments that would help us to adapt and succeed.


The rigid rule could be:

I must do it perfectly …….


This rule isn’t flexible. It may work as an incentive towards motivation, competition and standards, but in reality, there is no such thing as perfection, it is a mistaken belief. A more helpful and flexible rule would focus on being more specific.


This rule could be:

I will always work to the best of my ability whenever I’m playing sports ….


This helpful rule is quite specific as it focuses on a particular situation and does not encompass your whole life. It also allows flexibility, because at times you might have other things going on in life that means your unable to perform to the best of your ability. Thus, it is not realistic to expect that you will not be at your very best all of the time.


If you pay attention to the way you speak to yourself, internally, you can start to recognise helpful rules when you use words such as:


Would like …

Prefer …

Sometimes …

It would be nice if …

Some people …

It is good to try …..


These rules do not lock you into one way thinking. They are flexible and adaptable to different situations that can provide you with numerous perspectives that can then be taken into consideration.


For example, a helpful rule that suggests:

It would be nice to try and get a minimum of 30 minuets of walking exercise each day during the week …


This rule is helpful because it is flexible. It gives you preference and allows you to make a choice, as it instructs you to either choose to do it or choose not to do it. Therefore, when using a rule such as this, if you don’t walk for 30 minutes every day you don’t end up feeling guilty about not exercising.


2. Rigid and Unhelpful Rules

Rigid and unhelpful rules often create failure scenarios. Failure scenarios are hopeless situations where no matter what you choose to do you will likely fail.

These rigid rules are often unrealistic, excessive, unreasonable, and unadaptable to changing situations. They can hold you to excessively high standards that are almost impossible to live up to on a consistent basis. Furthermore, they have a tendency to demand that you behave in a very particular way all of the time, and when one of these rules I broken you end up feeling very disappointed. This is certainly not the way to live your life.


Some rigid rules comes come from childhood whereby they may well have severed you well in the past. However, since then your life has change and you have changed, but the rules may remain the same. Those rules that worked in the past may no longer work now, but those rules are continually used because they are familiar and feel comfortable, or because you have never had the time to stop, listen to your inner speech, and question the assumptions that those rules support.


Each and everyday you are making certain assumptions and drawing certain conclusions about your life’s experiences. Some of theses assumptions may be justified, however, many others have little basis in reality and, as such are only supported by conclusion that have been drawn from your imagination about things. It is these conclusions that are in fact stopping you moving forward in your life.


If you pay attention to the way you speak to yourself, internally, you can start to recognise helpful rules when you use words such as:


Never …

Always …

I can’t …

I must …

If I don’t …. then ..

I must … or else …

I should never ….


These rules clearly demonstrate that you provide yourself with minimal options moving forward. When you say to yourself that you “must”, “have to”, or “always” do something, you are being extremely rigid, possibly unreasonable, and most likely incredibly unrealistic. It is theses type of words that are often at the core of unhelpful psychological rules which are influencing your daily choices and decision.


3. Swapping Rigid Rules for Flexible rules

Now you understand these rules, first start by noticing which rules you use and the try swapping them for more flexible ones.


For example, swap:

Rigid – Locked in Flexible – Provides choice

I must …. I would like to ….

I always …. I prefer to ….

I have to …. I may ….

I can’t …. I could ….


4. Practise using more flexible rules

Rules and subsequent behaviours can only be changed through practise and repetition. However, it is important to point out that your transition to more flexible rules, "inner speech" may not be easy. You may encounter difficulties and resistance. You may in fact even fall back to your old patterns of behavior dominated by your unhelpful psychological rules. And that’s okay, as long as you realize this and then get yourself back on track as quickly as possible.


In the end, it’s not how many times you fall down that counts, it’s how many times you bounce back up again that makes all the difference.


Copyright © 2020 | Cultivated Minds

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