Does sticking to the rules get you stuck?

May 8, 2015

Stuck moment: I’ve lived in this building for eight years, and I like the place just the way it is. But now this idiot — who moved in, what, last week? — is campaigning to have the lobby redone. No, thank you. Everything is perfectly fine as it is. Why can’t people leave well enough alone?

*   *   *

We all like a sure thing. Sure things mean safety and comfort and confidence and success. But sometimes, when we hang on too tightly, we get stuck in a sneaky way.

It usually happens when someone challenges — intentionally or otherwise — the way we believe things should be. It hits us in the gut. Puts us off-kilter. Maybe even threatens our security. A chorus of “No! That’s wrong. That’s not how it’s supposed to be,” rings in our head. In our heart we wonder, “I’m following the rules, so why aren’t you?” Our body might stiffen a bit. Our pulse might quicken. Whatever is being said, we can’t really hear it because our insides are screaming.

In this moment, we look to our unwritten rules for guidance — we know they work! — and we expect everyone else to live by them too. This reaction stifles our ability to discover new and better ways of going about our lives. It makes us defensive, hypercritical, uptight even. We’re less able to adapt. Less able to empathize. Less able to build the connections needed for strong relationships.

While we may not always respond so vehemently, or so stubbornly, even the occasional rounds of resistance can lead to a rigid tendency. And that’s when following the rules starts working against us.

It takes some bravery to admit you might be too much of a stickler. The alternative, however, is gradually backing yourself into a corner socially and professionally. With that not-so-pleasant image in mind, see if any of these scenarios sound like you.

Why change?
• You have a new boss and she wants to run things completely differently. You think: What’s wrong with the old way? It worked for me.
• Your roommate says she wants everyone to stop wearing shoes in the house. You think: No way. Why should I change how I live just because she bought into some article she read online?
• You’re desperate to leave your job, but you just can’t because your current gig is the devil you know. You think: What if they do things differently? I might not succeed.

Why not do it “right?”
• She showed up late. Again. Before you scold her, you think: This is unacceptable. Didn’t anyone ever teach her common courtesy?
• You’ve had countless conversations with him about each doing your own dishes. You think: Eat. Wash. There’s no excuse. If you’ve agreed to something, do it!
• Your coworker is getting under your skin. There’s a super-simple system for submitting reports. Yet, more often than not, you have to correct his. You think: It’s baffling how some people just can’t follow directions, even when it’s spelled out for them.

Why do people act like that?
• When you make a mistake, it feels like people really enjoy calling you out on it. You think: What is their problem? I hardly ever make mistakes.
• Friends don’t always include you when they’re planning group trips, and you feel left out and kind of annoyed. You think: Weird, considering how good I am at planning.
• Lately your team members seem impatient when it’s your turn to talk. You think: All I’m doing is clarifying the way things have always been done, so why do they act like it’s such a huge objection?

If two or more rang true, we applaud your honesty. And before we ask you to alter your ways, here’s a taste of how being more flexible can transform your life.
• First, your imagination will soar. You’ll find multiple ways to solve problems. You’ll be able to spot opportunity in change. You’ll welcome new ideas, build on what you’ve known all along, and learn from what you don’t. (Here are some tips to practice creativity.)
• Then, your relationships will thrive. Your friends will welcome your openness. They’ll appreciate that you give others a say and forgive human error. Just as important, you’ll start intuiting where people are coming from instead of feeling perplexed.
• As a result, your reputation will get shinier. You could become the go-to person for all kinds of things because people will know you’ll give them a fair shake.

Ready to spread your wings? Here are 10+ ways to loosen your grip.

To see the positive potential in change…
• Join an activity-based group that’s new to you. Be open to the idea that there’s more than one way to do any given thing, and have some fun in the process. If you’re really daring, and want to make this extra challenging, try an improv class.
• Tweak a set routine for a week. Maybe it’s giving yourself a day that’s free of plans, maybe it’s doing a chore differently, maybe it’s taking a new way home. (If you have the free Unstuck iPad app, use the Shake Up Your Routine tool to come up with your change.)
• Think of three mistakes you’ve made and what you’ve learned from them. Inspiration bonus: Some of the world’s greatest discoveries were made by accident.

To let things go…
• What’s something that you always do yourself because you want it done the way you like it? Ask someone else to take a turn at it. And let them.
• Play a game that you’re good at winning. Observe how others handle losing. If you lose the game, do it graciously and notice the winner’s response.
• Set a “let things go” quota. For example, let something slide once a day. Or once a week, don’t do something you normally would.

To embrace another point of view…
• Compliment someone who suggests a new idea, regardless of whether you agree with them or not. “Oh, that’s pretty innovative,” “Hey, that seems like an interesting direction,” “I would never have thought of that.” You don’t have to go overboard. Just have an open mind and be nice about it. Do it daily if you can.
• Ask another person for their opinion. You may not think you need it, but you do need to create an avenue for mutual engagement. So let people in on something you’re considering and be receptive to their responses.
• To increase empathy, “interview” someone who baffles you. Ask them to coffee and do your best to get to know them and understand what makes them tick.
• Keep practicing: Repeat the above and try the additional exercises in our post on empathy.

More Unstuck Advice

How to use positivity to transform difficult holiday celebrations The holidays can be tough. Sure, there’s pie and presents and fa la la la la, la la la la. But there are also difficult family dynamics, often left ov...
20 tiny ways to kick-start a change When you’re longing for a change, it’s time to build your enthusiasm with any of these 20 change kick-starters. There’s no reason to wait — that perfe...
Getting unstuck from parenting power struggles Meghan is the parenting columnist for the Washington Post and a certified parent coach. She is the mother of three daughters and lives with her family...