Do you find yourself wondering, “Why does life have to be so hard?” Or, perhaps like one of my clients you find yourself saying with a sigh, “I wish life was easier!” Or, perhaps like a friend of mine, you find yourself complaining about the way things are – how his ex-wife is an obstinate bully who goes out of her way to be an uncooperative co-parent.
There are so many instances where life can feel hard, instead of EASY: Perhaps your boss is curt, insensitive and demanding; your friends always run late and make you wait; your teenager tests your patience around curfew or study habits; you’ve lost your job and now have to get out there and job hunt; or maybe a health issue plagues you.
Should = Unenforceable Rule
Absolutely, these events or behaviors can provoke annoyance in us and what makes them feel so HARD is that we think they somehow SHOULD be different than they are.
SHOULD is a word or idea which keeps life from feeling EASY. It sets us up for creating what Dr. Fred Luskin, author of Forgive for Good, refers to as an unenforceable rule. According to Luskin, “a rule is any expectation you have for how something should turn out or how someone should think or behave”. As you can imagine, an unenforceable rule “is an EXPECTATION you have that you DO NOT have the POWER to make happen.”
Consider all the areas of life where we establish rules, like:
How we should be thrifty and expensive lattes are of the devil;
Whether or not ripped jeans and tank tops entail appropriate dress;
Whether or not thank you notes are hand-written or emailed;
How long we should wait for a friend;
Which words are BAD and constitute inappropriate language;
How our kids should treat us or how our spouse demonstrates caring;
How much traffic should be on the road and what the other drives should or should not be doing;
What our relationship with our siblings should be like;
And even what kind of weather we should have on a vacation!
How many of these rules can you really make others obey? Can you really control it if your husband stops for a latte in the morning instead of saving the $4.50 in the rainy day fund? Can you truly control what other people wear or what words fall from their lips? Can you control how your boss behaves or how your kids or ex-spouse treats you?
Our Rules = Our Feelings
The rules we craft for our own behavior and then extend as expectations for other people’s behaviors will, to a large degree, determine how we feel. One quick way to know if you are trying to enforce an unenforceable rule is to check in with how you feel.
Are you feeling significant emotional pain, like rage, deep frustration, or an overwhelming sense of helplessness?
In the case of my friend, he’s profoundly frustrated because he can’t get his ex-wife to respond kindly to him in their email exchanges. He’s angry because he believes a wrong is happening (a disrespectful co-parenting relationship). He feels helpless because he cannot make his ex-wife treat him the way he wants her to; quickly, life feels HARD.
Unenforceable Rules = Crazy-Making
As Luskin points out, “unenforceable rules warp our judgement. We try so hard to gout our rules met we do not see the damage our rules are causing.”
Think of all the crazy-making drama we create as we try to get people to live by OUR rules for living. We get angry because THEY can’t see our way is the RIGHT way. We blame people for breaking our rules. We yell. We call them names. We withhold our love. We sputter empty threats, “If you do this again, so help me God, I will (fill in the blank threat)”.
The one thing we DON’T DO is take a good, close, honest look at whether we are trying to enforce unenforceable rules. Instead, we are busy filling our hearts and minds with helpless anger because our rules are not being followed. Low-level depression is often the result; we feel like we are pushing a boulder up a hill. This constant pushing steals our peace and joy. It robs us of the energy we need to think through our options and determine a more constructive course of action.
Are you ready for life to feel EASY? Drop SHOULD. Turn your focus towards constructive action. Not only will you be able to stop pushing the boulder up the hill, you will begin to feel more energized and alive.
Constructive action requires you to STOP trying to change others’ behaviors and instead, turn the locus of control back to you, as you are the only person on whom you can exert any sort of real control. To do this, you will need to do the following:
1. Pay attention to how you are feeling. Are you feeling angry and frustrated or sad and defeated because people or events aren’t going the way you want them to?
2. Remind yourself: you are feeling bad because you are trying to enforce an unenforceable rule.
3. Recognize the SHOULD tape playing in your mind. What SHOULD be happening that isn’t, or what SHOULDN’T be happening that is?
4. Discover your unenforceable rule by asking yourself the following question: “What experiences in my life am I thinking of right now that I am demanding to be different?”
5. Recognize how DEMANDING things to be different from what they are, is what keeps you stuck and life feeling HARD.
6. Wonder about how you can change the energy behind your demand to HOPING things will be different. This shift from DEMAND to HOPE allows you remain open to the possibility you may not get what you want. However, when you are hopeful for a good outcome you will be eager to put more thought into the many different ways to make what you want happen.
7. Wonder about how YOU can ask for what you want in a more direct, effective way. Instead of yelling or giving the silent treatment, is there a way to appeal to someone’s heartfelt values?
8. Wonder about how YOU can stand up for yourself or set a firm boundary.
9. Wonder about what desire is driving your unenforceable rule? Consider how YOU can go about getting this desire fulfilled in another way; by giving yourself what you need or getting it from someone who will readily give you what you want because your rules for living align with theirs.
10. Wonder about the rules the other person might be living by and recognize how they are different from yours. Are you willing to notice where you have violated other peoples’ rules?
Living a life of ease and peace requires us to take responsibility for how we feel. It means we recognize the control we are trying to exert over the unenforceable. It encourages us to not take the behaviors and actions of others as personally; we realize they are living by their own set of rules. It allows us to EXAMINE OUR OWN THINKING so we can make choices which move us from feeling stuck to ensuring greater EASE and PEACE.
How are you making your life HARD?
What unenforceable rule are you trying to enforce?
Here’s to wishing you an EASY life!