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Navigating your own life rules


What are life rules?

Elephants are kept in place with a cuff around their lower leg attached to a rope or chain which runs to a stake, maybe 3 feet log, driven into the ground.  This seems a small problem for a huge animal that can pull trees up with their root systems.  How come they can be held in so easily?  I have heard that trainers take baby elephants and cuff and chain them to a stake in the ground, only the stake is connected to a huge concrete block.  The infant pulls and struggles for hours or days before quitting.  Once it quits, it doesn’t try again.  In captivity, elephants often pull the stakes up from the ground by accident, even in their sleep!  However, they stay in place.  I have been told that elephants have stood and burned to death in fires, chained to a little stake in the ground; they are that completely convinced.  We aren’t very different when it comes to our own life rules. While learning about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, we were told about a soldier who had recently come back from a combat tour in Vietnam.  During debriefing, one of the questions he was asked was:  “how do you enter a house?”

His answer was “Run up, kick in the door and throw in a grenade.”  They reminded him that he was back in the U.S. and wondered if he had any other ideas.  He could not creatively come up with one.

I remember wondering about him; I would bet that he hadn’t thrown grenades as a 14 year old.  However, we had put him in a world with different rules.  In the combat zone, you didn’t light cigarettes after dark and you didn’t walk in the middle of a path and you didn’t knock on doors and wait for someone to answer.  If you did, you died quickly.  These are called survival rules, and we all have them.  If you haven’t been in a truly traumatic situation, they may not be as firmly rooted; but over time, we develop strong rules to survive the world we grew up in.


When life rules hurt us

Perfectionism, being too critical or easily angered, keeping people at arm’s length,  can all be skills we learned to survive.  They can be very dear to us, but as we saw in the soldier’s case, a rule that keeps you alive in one world can get you killed in another.  The rules helped you as a child may be destroying your marriage. 

Look around… Anything you do that you don’t know why you do it?  Habits that don’t make much sense?  Ask yourself why you learned them. 

Then ask yourself if you still need them. 

One woman had an eating disorder that had virtually kept her alive in her abusive family.  Without its false sense of control, she might not have made it!  However, as a healthy woman, she didn’t need it anymore.  We celebrated its role in keeping her alive and bid it farewell.  It took time, but eventually she pulled up the stakes and stopped tossing in grenades and was able to embrace her roles as a great mom and wife. 

Look around, see any three foot long stakes in your life?