I am a recovering rule follower. I used to think that following the rules was the right thing to do, and in many cases it is to our advantage to do so. But I took it to the extreme and became legalistic. I viewed rule following as one of the noblest of virtues.
I am happy to report that I no longer hold that conviction in light of the realization that many rules imposed on us by others are not born out of noble intentions. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution of the United States, articulated this well in a speech given at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He cautioned those assembled with this simple statement, “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”
Those words of wisdom have helped me to question and challenge the rules imposed on me by outside powers and authorities. However, I have recently become aware that I tend to impose rules on myself, too. This most often occurs immediately following a painful event in my life.
As I was thinking about this today, I wondered if I operate with the belief that by making a rule, and doing my best to follow it, that I will be able to avoid another painful life event. Yet, there will always be painful life events. We cannot escape them. So, then, what’s up with me making all these rules for myself?
At first, I thought that my rule-making was about learning from my mistakes and growing in wisdom. But now I am not so sure. Now, I wonder if my rule making is me trying to protect myself and feel like I am in control of my life.
As I question these things, I feel the need to try and sort out the differences between self-imposed rules, commitments to myself, and deeply held convictions. In the past, if I broke one of my rules, I viewed it as a betrayal of self. I viewed it as a harmful and bad thing. But, now, I am beginning to wonder if the real betrayal of self comes not from breaking my rules, but from making them. This will take a while for me to ponder.