Why Do We Love Rules So Much?

Much of the mess and chaos we see around us in contemporary discourse stems from our relationship with rules. And some of the frustrations we might experience when it comes to making meaningful changes in life are underpinned by how we hold the seen and unseen rules in our lives.

Humans love to know the rules. As a social species, it makes sense. They are a vital part of our deep biological operating system. They give us information and filters necessary for safety and survival. Many are unspoken, but you’ll soon know if you break them.

Our intrinsic desire for rules is also big business. Our bookshelves and social media feeds are full of them.

We want rules for life, advice on how to live, and commandments for success, creativity, and even punks.

Rules are (Not) Meant to Be Broken

The creative human spirit flourishes through our relationship with rules. When we have a healthy relationship with them, rules become tangible boundaries to bend, play with, question, and push back on, if necessary, to find better options and possibilities following their purpose.

They become the points of friction we rub along with to discover who we are and what makes us tick.

Our Rules Concerning Rules

If we relate to them from a state of healthy connection, rules give us a license to grow in creative and innovative ways. We choose how to engage with them. We might accept them, push back against them, use and build on them, or find alternative ways to address the issue they are created for.

On the other hand, if we have an unhealthy relationship with rules, they become existential threats or unquestionable protectors. Commands to subvert or follow, no matter what. You probably know people who fall on one end of this or the other. Either they reject anything perceived as a higher authority telling them what to do, or they can’t function without knowing exactly how to act, what to wear, and who to judge for getting it wrong.

We might have inadvertently developed some rules when it comes to the rules:

  1. Rules are bad – They are there to control us – break them to stay free
  2. Rules are good – They are there for a reason, and even if we disagree with them, they should be followed because authority is authority

Both reflect a hierarchical way of structuring the social order in our mind. Viewing our status through comparative competition against others, we see people less as people and more as symbols of the position or identity they represent. Our self-concept depends on us knowing where we sit relative to others. We might think of this as an adaptive social survival mechanism.

This vertical (hierarchical) social perspective makes mindless rule-breaking or indiscriminate compliance a go-to defence pattern. Different sides of the same coin stemming from our biological imperative for safety. To fight or flee from authoritarian control (a threat to my freedom) or something to go along with to remain inconspicuous.

Contrarianism and Compliance

Sometimes, a person might say they’re looking for rules to follow. But a pattern soon emerges, where they resist and reject anything resembling a “rule”. They are stuck in a loop, looking for rules to help them escape their current frustration, but unable to settle on a path for long before it becomes something against which to rebel. It feels like a looming authority figure backing them into a corner. They are often master self-saboteurs because they shut the door on progress at the slightest whiff of feeling told what to do, even if the person telling them what to do is themselves.

Other people might move in the opposite direction, looking for the correct way to do everything. Their creative muscles become stiff, and they might experience a conflict between what they want (to express and explore themselves and the world creatively) and what they seek (blueprints and instructions to avoid getting it wrong). Rules for writing? They can often become very successful but might give all their time and energy to things they don’t care about, believe in, or have any passion for.

Constructing, Deconstructing, and Reconstructing The Rule Book

Rules help us grow. Not because they’re correct. But because they give us scaffolding around which to build.

In a world without rules, we will create them.

  • They provide tracks for momentum with a community’s vision, values, and needs.
  • They give us a pathway to follow to achieve a specific outcome.
  • They allow creativity to rise and reconnect with the progressive spirit in the foundations of orthodoxy (i.e. how current rules started as ideas that transcended old dogmas).

I wonder if we have entered another dogmatic chapter in history, where many people seek leaders, movements, and organisations to give us rules to follow. This could be interpreted as an explicit desire for certainty in an uncertain world. Or a need for moral guidance in a world where integrity and social conscience are lacking in leadership.

But our quest for rigid rules and someone or something to tell us how to live and what to think could also be understood as a quiet call from the creative spirit within. The part of us needs rules to connect with ourselves, one another, and the future more meaningfully and creatively. We want to move forward; for that to happen, we need rules to lean against, resist, and break.

Without rules, we become groundless. We lose the conditions for meaningful progress.

But it’s not all good news for those who love creating and enforcing rules they think people should follow. Your rules are helpful because we get to explore, bend, and break them. Some are timeless, others will work well, at least for now. And some provide a catalyst for innovation and change. Your rule book may become outdated very soon. That’s just the nature of the rules.

We All Need Something To Rail Against

When they’re doing it healthily, formative authority figures understand their role in this process. For example, parents, teachers, community elders, and politicians ought to be willing to be disliked by those they are responsible for. They reinforce rules even if it makes them unpopular. They recognise their responsibility to raise the next generation of critical thinkers and well-functioning subjective individuals by presenting regulations and, without saying it out loud, encouraging room for them to be played with and perhaps even broken.

We can’t underestimate the importance of rebelliousness growing up. Holes in the system that allow us to bend and break specific rules. For healthy growth to occur, those in charge quietly want us to find these sites of transgression to find more of who we are.

Rules Provide Friction For Growth

It’s not helpful to be told, “Do what you want” without limits. There are no points of friction that allow character and personality to be formed in a healthy way. This might transform into a quest for dogmatic moral frameworks to categorise the world and carve a sense of self-identity.

It’s not helpful to be told, “Do what I say, don’t question my authority, I’m correct no matter what”, without reason or explanation. Our self-concept is under the shadow of an authority that moulds us into (and reproduces through us) its likeness. We might subconsciously turn this on its head and fall into indiscriminate patterns of rebellion and cynicism, making us insufferable to others.

In some ways, coaching is about raising awareness about our relationship with rules. What are the patterns we follow without thought or question? Why do we reach a point where we can never break the resistance? What rules have we set about ourselves, our potential, and the pool of options we must limit ourselves to when crafting and carving the future?

Over to you

What is your relationship like with rules? Do you tend to see rules and want to break them? Or do you tend to see rules to follow? Maybe it depends on the context.

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