I've always had a bit of a complicated relationship with rules. As a child, I was so averse to conflict that even hearing raised voices could send me into a tailspin. "Anna doesn't like shouting" was a commonly accepted story in my family. Looking back now, when "grown-ups" shouted, I took that to mean rejection - as the youngest of four siblings by quite a long way, that story in my head played out pretty regularly.
So I did what a lot of sensitive kids do - I created a very complex set of rules for living that would "keep me safe". I thought that if I knew exactly how to act, then everyone would be happy with me. I'd turn myself into the most "loveable" child around.
Now, adult Anna can see a lot of flaws in that logic. Starting with the fact that teenage brothers can be pretty noisy, and that in our busy house everyone's moods did not revolve around me! I am very loved by my family, and there's plenty of evidence to show that too. I also know now that anger does not directly lead to "unloveable".
The problem was not the shouting, it was what I made it mean. When we experience events, either as children or as adults, we don't process them as logical and rational beings - our emotions, beliefs about the world, body feelings, cultural expectations etc all come into play. We take experiences, tell ourselves a story about what they mean, and then file that in a little unconscious filing cabinet of "rules about life".
My first big rebellion
By the time I reached 30, my filing cabinet was practically ready to burst with all the rules I had created. I knew exactly how I "should" behave to please people - following them made me feel like the perfect wife, daughter, Speech Therapist, line manager, friend... In any situation, I had a long list of "I should..."s to draw on.
Trouble was, those "shoulds" were crushing me. I was burned out, experiencing trauma, letting my colleagues down, and barely in contact with any of my friends. My big attempt at leading a team of really talented and enthusiastic colleagues had imploded and I'd changed jobs feeling like a failure in need of an escape route. I can see now that I was passing forward all my rules onto them - setting unrealistic standards and getting frustrated when they weren't met.
At the same time, my marriage was spiralling out of control. In my experience, when a "rule maker" and a "rule follower" come together, it leads to an avalanche of ways to "mess up". Each time there was conflict, I tried to follow a new rule. Even if it contradicted a previous one. Even if it was unreasonable. Even when it was damaging my mental health to an extreme degree. The rules were doing a terrible job of keeping me safe.
So I made a choice to break three big rules:
I must hide my sexuality
Until death us do part
Put on a good show so no one knows what life is really like.
It was terrifying. It set me free.
What helped me follow through on breaking the big three rules was the support I was getting from my coach and my local Women's Aid service. I was learning from the support workers at Newcastle Women's Aid how this pattern of rule making/following happens within romantic relationships, and at the same time my coach was helping me identify the rules in my head. When we recognised one, I got to decide whether to mark it as "useful" and put it back into my imaginary filing cabinet, or to release it and create the next layer of freedom for myself.
Being a changemaker
That was me, four years ago. Three big rules broken, and setting off on a journey towards freedom.
This is me now, with four years practice in rule-breaking and in supporting other people to break their rules too. My partner Mel didn't know me back then, but whenever she sees a photograph of me, she says it's like looking at a whole other human. She's not altogether wrong.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a friend about the changes I've made, and I heard myself say "I play by a whole new set of rules now". My first thought was "past Anna wouldn't believe the changes I've made". But my next thought was "why am I still setting rules for myself?!"
I think we all do it - our brains like to make things nice, neat and organised. Rules help us predict what life will be like, and at some level predictability is reassuring. It feels safe knowing that the sun will rise in the morning, our alarms will go off at the "normal" time and we'll go about our routine until it's time to sleep and repeat.
Predictable, yes. But I wonder - when we are following a set of rules, does it keep our brains thinking inside the box where the rules and structure is? I've been getting really curious about how "the new rules" show up in my life, and found some sneaky "I really should" and "I need to" beliefs in there. The rules felt safe, but they also interrupted the magic.
I'm excited take a new step towards fully embodying my inner changemaker. I'm going to spend July breaking some rules, and seeing what kind of magic happens when I do - for me, my people and my wider communities. I'll be sharing the magic on my social media, and I'd love to hear from you all along the way. Maybe you'll even break a few rules or two along the way...