What if it’s not reality that has you stressed, but the unenforceable rules in your mind?
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I just fired my new tax accountant, Bob. Well, fired may be too strong a word. Let’s say I relieved him of a certain responsibility: Contacting the IRS on my behalf over a bill they’d sent. The IRS likes to send me notices every few years telling me I owe them thousands of dollars. That never turns out to be true, but it does require a phone call to straighten out. The first time, I made the mistake of letting them try to help me solve “my problem.” As the IRS clerk romped merrily through the past 5 years of my tax returns reading me the riot act, and displaying a stunning disregard for my privacy, I broke into a cold sweat. The call ended with a tongue-lashing about my slipshod record-keeping. The entire call was a virtual strip search. Since then I’ve learned to limit the call to the tax year in question and get off the phone fast.
So when Bob told me he was going to handle my latest IRS notice by offering up information about previous tax years, I went berserk. The only thing worse than having the IRS use my personal information against me was having someone I employ helping them.
Even worse was what happened in my mind while I was on hold with the IRS for the next hour and 10 minutes. I had an outbreak of Unenforceable Rules. That’s what psychologist Fred Luskin calls it when we hold ourselves or others to a standard that we can’t enforce. Here’s what it sounded like:
“Bob should really know better.”
Ah – there it is: The word “should.” “Should,” “Always,” and “Never” are 3 words unenforceable rules like to hide behind. Unenforceable rules fool us into thinking something is wrong when it just isn’t what we prefer.. That’s how they destroy our peace of mind.
And they come in so many colors!
We can have unenforceable rules for:
Others – My boss should communicate more, give me the assignments I want, notice how hard I work and offer me a raise. My partner should remember I don’t like lime green, take out the garbage, be kinder.
For ourselves – I should be more disciplined, exercise more, get up earlier, be further ahead than I am.
For the Universe at large – Life should be fair. Evil should be punished. Goodness should prevail.
If you aren’t quick enough to catch yourself saying “should,” there is another way to spot an unenforceable rule:
Reality. The gap between what is happening and what you think should be happening is created by an unenforceable rule. The one you’re using to make yourself miserable. You destroy your own peace of mind when you choose an unenforceable rule over reality. Reality doesn’t care what you think of it. It just goes on doing what it does.
I know that may be a little difficult to accept. Although I bet it matches your experience. The teenager who will pick up their clothes only when you are standing over them. The colleague who says they hate being late, but always is. We cause ourselves so much stress by choosing to insist on a “truth” we’ve never experienced.
Regain your peace of mind and keep your standards high
If I soften the language of my unenforceable rule, my peace of mind floods back in. Instead of “He should know better,” I say “I wish he knew better.” Instead of “My boss should have given me that assignment,” I say “I’d prefer a boss who would give me assignments that challenge me” I can think those thoughts without getting angry. It softens the hold my unenforceable rules have on my thinking and restores my peace of mind. I start to see other possibilities. If I prefer an accountant who responds to the IRS differently, perhaps I’ll go find one.
I think it’s up to each of us
Here’s an experiment I’m currently running: When I react, I stop myself to identify the unenforceable rule that causing my distress. Then I soften my language about it. Instead of “This is taking too long.” I think “I wish this wasn’t taking so long.” So far this is working 100% of the time. If you decide to try this, let me know about it in the comments.