I grew up breaking rules. One of the worst incidents I remember was at the age of 7. We were in Michigan for the summer as usual, and in the small town where our lake cottage sat, there was a small grocery store. That summer, the 4H Club prize winning bull was on display in a pen outside the store. The owner was a girl a few years older than me, and she was in the pen with her bull.

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My mother told me that, under no circumstances, was I to go into that pen — so of course, I did. That 2000-pound bull backed up and put a hind foot right down on my foot, leaving me to limp home in excruciating pain, faced with an important decision: Do I tell my mom? Pride won out in the end, and I elected not to mention the incident. The next day however, when my foot had increased to about 3 times the size of the other, the jig was obviously up.

Breaking rules as kids is a part of the “testing” we do as we try to become independent – that’s what child psychologists say. But as we become adults, we find ourselves more and more bound by rules, and most of us abide by them. When we do break them, we find ways to justify our actions, even when those justifications are really just excuses. There are actually three kinds of rules – those imposed by government that we call laws, those imposed by society as a whole and the sub-groups to which we belong, and those we set for ourselves.

Government Rules

There really is not much discussion to be had about government rules. In theory, they are imposed for the orderly running of a city, state, or country. Some are never questioned, such as stoplights and speed limits, although they are broken quite often. Others are questioned depending on one’s politics, but for the most part, people follow the law and, if caught breaking it, have consequences.

Societal Rules – Ethics & Religion

These get a bit trickier, because they depend upon so many sub-populations within a society. The general, larger ones are usually outgrowths of government rules, such as respect for the property of others, treating each other fairly, and, in a “free” society, respect for the beliefs and customs of one another. Within the sub-populations, however, rules vary widely – what we can eat, how we dress, how we worship, etc. On and on these rules can go. Schools have rules too. People generally follow the “rules” of their societies and sub-groups because of what psychologists call “social conformity.” A number of studies have been conducted on this phenomenon, probably the most famous being those of Solomon Asch in the 1950s. People had such a need to “belong,” they were willing to go along with obviously incorrect answers to questions. This has also played out in studies of adolescents who will engage in obvious bad behavior in order to be accepted by a group. It is the psychological basis for gangs.

Rules We Make For Ourselves

There is a wonderful poem by Jenny Joseph, titled, “Warning.” The first stanza is the following:

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WHEN I AM AN OLD WOMAN I SHALL WEAR PURPLE
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit

This stanza and those that follow poke fun at all of the rules we make for ourselves for no reason other than the need to have a personal code of conduct – an additional layer of our own unique rules. And if we break them, we feel guilty. Psychologists say we do this to ourselves in order to impose some kind of control over a world we do not always see as safe and secure. Whatever the reason, they can be both horribly limiting and the cause for stress and anxiety.

Rules That Limit Us

We all struggle with the conflict of freedom and security. Most of us choose security, so we set “rules” for our lives:

  1. We will find a job that provides a good salary and stick with it for the security it brings
  2. We will not take big risks that might jeopardize our current comfort
  3. We will be responsible adults who get to bed on time
  4. We will find moderation in all things
  5. We will manage our finances carefully every month and do without luxuries so that we save for our future
  6. We will associate only with people who share our values and beliefs
  7. We will not “rock the boat” at home or at work

Now think of truly accomplished and successful people – they didn’t follow the rules listed above. They knew that to do so would mean not going after the big goals and dreams that they had. They had to strike out on their own, take risks, be irresponsible and extreme at times, hang out with people not like them, and definitely rock the boat.

We can all take a lesson or two from these giants in all fields of endeavor and from Jenny Joseph’s poem. If we restrict ourselves by our own rules, here is what will happen:

  1. We won’t grow
  2. We won’t have new and wonderful experiences
  3. We won’t discover who we can really be and what we can really accomplish
  4. We may live what Thoreau called, “quiet lives of desperation”

Take A Chance

No one would suggest that you throw out all of your “rules” right now and try to become a totally different person. That will never work anyway. But the Earth will not stop spinning on its axis if you break a rule every now and then. And as you break those rules, you will discover that new people, things, and ideas are not to be feared. They can be embraced as life enrichments. Indeed, breaking those rules may send you on an entirely new path – one that is fuller and richer than the one you are on.

It’s okay to pop that bubble you have around yourself.


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