Life would be so much easier if everyone played by the rules. Then you wouldn’t be angry as your are waiting yet again for your friend who is perpetually late, because she would be following the rule about showing up on time. And you wouldn’t be frustrated by your husband’s messy office, because he would be living according to the rule of neatness.
Unfortunately, just because you have an expectation about how someone should act or how something should turn out doesn’t mean everyone else has the same expectation. And herein lies the rub. When other people don’t behave according to our rules, we tend to get upset. We consciously or unconsciously expect everyone to act based on our set of standards, and we overreact when they don’t – resulting in feelings ranging from annoyance to powerlessness.
The first step in regaining a sense of control is to recognize that you are trying to enforce rules that are unenforceable. Like it or not, you have no power over another person’s behavior, preferences, values, or standards. Common unenforceable rules include: “People have to tell me the truth.” “He’s not treating me fairly.” “My husband shouldn’t criticize me.” “You shouldn’t judge me.” When you make a request or express a preference or desire, and then expect that the request will be honored, you have actually turned the request into a demand, creating an unenforceable rule. The umbrella unenforceable rule in this situation would be: “If I ask you to do something, you should do it.” Or, put another way, “If you loved me, you would….”
The primary fallout from trying to enforce rules that are in fact unenforceable is internal and interpersonal conflict and tension. To help lessen this fallout, here are some options you might consider:
- Have no further interaction with the rule-breaker. This would certainly be a viable option if the person broke a rule that is a “deal breaker.” This might include having an affair, looting your bank account, lying about an important issue. Essentially, these circumstances are violations of your essential, bottom-line values. It might also be an option when it comes to workplace expectations, such as not getting a promised raise.
- Practice assertive communication to influence the outcome you desire. While there is no guarantee that you will receive the desired outcome (i.e., your rule will be followed), you can communicate your distress and ask for a behavior change. It is best to approach the conversation when you are calm and to use a version of assertive statements. (Click here to learn more about assertive communication skills.)
- Shift your expectations. When you feel your blood start to boil or your find yourself going into a tailspin, stop and ask yourself if there is an unenforceable rule at play. If so, recognize that you are producing your own distress about the situation. See if you can articulate the unenforceable rule and remind yourself that not everyone is going to play by the same rules. Remember, do not take it personally. Think of this as a difference in preference, values and standards – not as a personal affront. When you let go of the expectation that things should be according to your desires, you are more able to relax and let things unfold. You can review your own rules and find a way to live with the other person’s standards and behaviors.
Take a moment the next time you find yourself in a tizzy because of someone’s actions to ask yourself, “What unenforceable rule is operating right now?” You might be surprised by the answer. You may be trying to create a sense of powerfulness by focusing on another’s behavior or on external circumstances when the real source of power comes from your ability to choose your responses.