By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
As children, people learn ‘rules’ that dictate how happy they are with others and themselves. I’m not talking about a set of laws, such as that it is illegal to steal; or moral imperatives, such as ‘honor thy mother and father.’ Rather, the rules I’m referring to are usually implicitly communicated about the nature of people. They relate to how people perceive themselves and others.
Rule #1: People who are happy live by the ‘rule’ that they are worthy of love and respect. It is based on a view of them as having value just for being them. According to it, their thoughts and feelings matter under all circumstances. Even if they overreact and make no sense to anyone (including themselves) in a particular situation, or they are totally wrong in their beliefs, they are no less worthy as a person. So, they deserve to be treated with respect.
Rule #2: A corollary to this rule is that they are competent, capable human beings. This means that they have respect for themselves even during difficult times. It’s not that they are good at every skill or always know what to do, but they have faith in themselves. They value who they are and the things they can do, accept their limits, and can ask for help without feeling lesser as people.
Rule #3: Happy people also live by a ‘rule’ that people who care about each other are generally there to support and encourage each other. Living by this rule means that they expect close friends and loved ones to respond to them in this manner. In addition, they value their loved ones in their lives and treat them in these positive ways, too. When two people have learned to live by this rule, they do so even when they disagree with each other. They find a way to hammer out differences without hammering each other.
Many people (maybe even you) do not learn these rules. Instead, they may have learned that they have no value. Or, perhaps, they only have value when they are serving the needs of others. In either case, they often feel flawed and unworthy, leading them to sense that they must earn the love of others.
In addition, they may have learned not to expect supposedly caring others to be there for them during times of need. Instead, they learned to be almost solely self-reliant. They have high expectations for themselves to be in control and on top of whatever challenges or difficulties come their way. While they might achieve wonderful things, they are at risk for always falling short in their own eyes. This can be a lonely and ungratifying life.
Because these rules are learned implicitly, they are difficult to see – and they might be making you very unhappy without you even fully realizing they are there. So, if you resonate with the unhealthy rules I am describing, think about them. Consider how these rules affect the ways you think about yourself and others.
By getting to know the rules you live by and how they create unhappiness in your life, you are free to challenge them. You can look for how others see value in you – and not just when you are meeting their needs. You can look for how others are there for you – and not just the ways they have let you down. Finally, by focusing on the implicit rules you live by, you are free to create a new, happier relationship with yourself and those you care about.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.