In my 30s, I started seeing a therapist to help me figure out why I couldn’t manage to maintain a long-term relationship. I’d been married and divorced once and had been in a half a million relationships since then.
At one point in one of my early sessions, I was running down a list of complaints about my current girlfriend. Specifically, some things she was doing “wrong.” (I know, I was an idiot then.)
The therapist turned to me and asked, “So you wrote the book?”
Her comment stopped me dead in my tracks. I remember looking at her filled with puzzlement. What the heck was she saying?
Sensing my confusion, she repeated the question.
“You wrote the book of life?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You wrote the book that prescribes how people should behave.”
I remember being shocked and suddenly acutely aware of one of my most significant character flaws.
At home, I began to think about the issue. Like most people, I had formulated a set of rules that dictated how other people should act. I was deeply involved in environmental protection, so a lot of what I prescribed had to do with protecting the Earth: How people should recycle trash, conserve energy, save water. But my list extended to all aspects of human behavior: How people should treat one another, speak, think, drive, and eat.
These rules I had adopted I had learned from my parents as well as a long list of rules I had adopted as I became acutely aware of the mess we were making of the environment.
Here’s what so difficult about being human and why it takes us so long to get our lives back on track. (I say back on track, because as kids, we do a pretty good job. Our lives become more and more dysfunctional as we grow older.) While I understood the concept my therapist was trying to make I rebelled at the notion. It suggested a flaw in me. And, it suggested that all I held dear — my cherished rules — were flawed. So, I could intellectually see how imposing my rules on another could be a stumbling block, I wasn’t willing to change. I had written the book of life and followed my advice fairly reliably. On some levels, it was working.
Unfortunately, it took me many years to truly appreciate how controlling I had become and how I was totally screwing up my life by judging others against my rule. I struggled with this issue well into my 50s. (I’m a slow learner.) Each new relationship seemed so wonderful, but as I got to know a woman, I started adding up the infractions and quickly became disappointed, disillusioned, and distant. Each time, my critical nature kicked in and I began to extricate myself. For those I hurt, I am truly sorry. All promise was shattered by my rather abrupt extrication and must have seemed like a horrible betrayal.
My partner Linda, whom I’ve been with for 16 years, suffered under my rule book for many years early in our relationship, but she helped me see the light and change my ways. How?
She helped me learn to focus on the positive in her — and others.
That simple change revolutionized my life!
You may be laughing at my foibles, but truth be known, you probably have your own book of rules by which you judge the behavior of friends, relatives, children, and loved ones. It is only natural. Moreover, it is only natural to think that whatever is inscribed in your book is gospel.
Go ahead, think about it.
If you are honest with yourself, that set of rules is probably tripping you up on a daily basis. It is interfering with your relationships with your significant other, coworkers, friends, and acquaintances.
Most of us judge others critically. We either stand in judgment of others or try, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, to impose our ways on others.
Your imposition of the rules you’ve adopted may be as insignificant, yet still troubling, as the type of margarine you use in your home — or whether you use margarine or butter.
It could be more serious, too.
I came into conflict with those closest to me on the way they used energy and handled waste. I was a bit of an eco-Nazi. Fortunately, I didn’t say much to others, I was too polite, but differences in environmental ethics and actions created rifts between me and others. I found it difficult to be with others who didn’t live up to my standards.
The action of the week — and for the rest of the year — is to listen to suspend judgment. Stop imposing your rules on others. Live and let live.
Reminders of your New Years Revolution:
Week 1: Give compliments more freely!
Week 2: Learn to discern between First World and Third World Problems.
Week 3: Stop imposing your rules on others!
Contributing editor Dan Chiras is a renewable energy and green homes expert who has spent a lifetime learning life’s lessons, which he shares in his popular blog, Dan Chiras on Loving Life. He’s the founder and director of The Evergreen Institute and president of Sustainable Systems Design. Contact him by visiting his website or finding him on Google+.