A very close friend of mine, Pádraig, was celebrating the christening of his daughter. Louise, my then-girlfriend and now long-suffering wife, and I were invited back to his place to continue the celebrations. Pádraig and I first became friends when we met as fitness instructors at a gym in Dublin. I left the industry, but Pádraig went on to become one of the foremost fitness experts in Ireland, lecturing in Trinity College and having a starring role in a long-running and successful television programme called The Health Squad.
Now. as you can imagine at an Irish christening, there was a large spread of delicious food. Cakes, muffins, biscuits, pastries… it seemed endless! Unfortunately for me, I was on a bit of a diet, which largely consisted of no junk or sugary foods.
“Go on, have a bite.” Louise held up a banoffee pie. “It’s got a chocolate chip base, and it’s so delicious,” she teased. I was really struggling, counting down the minutes until the suffering would end.
At that moment, the proud father, Pádraig, saw what was going on and came over. He asked why I wasn’t eating anything. I explained that since getting an office job, I was letting myself go a little and wanted to get back into shape.
He nodded in agreement. “I understand,” he said. “I watch what I eat too. In fact, only if I work out really hard every day and watch what I eat during the week will I allow myself two biscuits after dinner on a Friday evening.”
I was waiting for the wry smile that signified he was having me on, but it didn’t come. Two biscuits!
I didn’t know it at the time, but what Pádraig was articulating were his personal rules for health. Personal rules are similar to beliefs, but closer to the surface than our unconscious beliefs. We have them for every aspect of our lives. We have rules around our relationships, communication, how we drive, what we wear, our bodies, timekeeping, happiness… the list is endless. They act like shortcuts in the brain and tell us what’s good and bad, what’s right and what’s wrong. Our personal rules enable us to make snap decisions about situations, people, and ourselves.
The Problem with Rules
Our personal rules can be helpful, but they are a double-edged sword and can also lead to misery. Conversely, understanding our rules and formulating them in a positive and meaningful way can lead to a life of happiness and fulfillment.
Sometimes, people put themselves under tremendous pressure that can lead to unnecessary stress because of their personal rules. Examples might include:
- I must be perfect.
- Everyone must always appreciate me.
- My meetings must always go smoothly.
- Other people must always support my initiatives.
Albert Ellis, one of the pioneers of modern psychology, labelled this kind of thinking as unrealistic personal rules, or ‘musterbations’; i.e., things we feel we must do because they are part of our Ought Self, or even just irrational thoughts that go unchallenged.
In his book Practical Counselling and Helping Skills, Richard Nelson-Jones lists several perceptual errors that can be caused by unrealistic personal rules.
- Tunnel vision – Focusing on only a portion of the available information regarding a problem rather than taking into account all significant data.
- Magnifying and minimising – Magnifying or exaggerating the qualities and significance of other people and events, or minimising them.
- Negativeness – Overemphasising negative aspects of people and yourself and minimising positive aspects. Always searching for weaknesses rather than for strengths. Applying negative labels to yourself and others, for example, ‘I’m a loser’ or ‘My boss is impossible.’
- Selective inattention – Overlooking or being inattentive to material that may cause you anxiety. Denying and distorting information through defensive thinking.
- Overgeneralising – Making sweeping generalisations unsupported by evidence: ‘All my meetings go swimmingly’ or ‘My work colleagues never stick to the point.’
- Catastrophising – Making highly negative predictions unsupported by evidence: ‘My first day at my new job didn’t go well, so I’m not going to do well in this organisation.’
- Polarised thinking – Perceiving in either/or and black-and-white terms (an over-developed superego): ‘Either work colleagues are very cooperative or very uncooperative.’
- Self-rating – Going beyond functional ratings of specific characteristics to devaluing yourself as a whole person: ‘I’m having difficulty influencing my colleagues. Therefore, I’m worthless.’
- Mind reading – Believing you can tell what people think without having collected adequate evidence or checked your conclusions.
As you can imagine, this type of thinking tends to spiral downward. It can only lead to emotional pain, for the person with these rules and those around them. As leaders, it’s important for us to be aware of these rules in ourselves and in others. Ellis categorises unhelpful personal rules into three categories.
- I must do well and win approval for all my performances.
- Others must treat me considerately and kindly.
- Conditions under which I live must be arranged so that I get practically everything I want comfortably, quickly and easily.
Nelson-Jones goes on to list some of the main characteristics of unrealistic or self-oppressing personal rules. You may recognise some of them in others… or even yourself.
- Demandingness – Thinking of things you want or desire as demands rather than preferences.
- Perfectionism – Putting pressure on yourself and others to be perfect. The reality is, nobody’s perfect.
- Self-rating – Rating your self-worth based on accomplishments or how well you do performing a task.
- Awfulising – Thinking it is absolutely awful if you, others, or the environment are not as they should be.
We’ll discuss how to deal with unrealistic personal rules that lead to stress and other unresourceful emotions in Part 2, when we delve into resilience and how to overcome adversity.
This article is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of “First, Lead Yourself” by Cillín Hearns.
If you’d like to know more about how your rules can impact your decisions, or if you’d like to explore how coaching can help you become a better leader (of others or yourself!), or even if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.
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