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Surfacing the hidden rules of life

Lately, my daughter has been enjoying the series Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls. It's about an 8-year-old who keeps a book of rules to acclimate in life. Each chapter title is a rule. For example, "Rule #11 When You Finally Figure Out What the Right Thing to do is You Have to Do It, Even if You Don't Want to."

Throughout the book, Allie recounts different struggles and experiences as lessons that inform her book of rules. She has quite a comprehensive list of rules. But following them doesn't always play out the way she expects.

I recently was talking with a friend who shared a rule of life she learned growing up. "If you can't solve your problems yourself, you're a loser...Asking for help means you're a loser."

But this rule hasn't been working for her. She feels stuck and dejected. She wants more for herself but doesn't know how to make it happen.

My friend is in that in-between spot where she's reaching out for help then recoiling back. It's awkward and uncomfortable. But the discomfort of following the rule is far greater than rebuking it, so she's willing to experiment with a different approach.

These are the kinds of rules we need to surface and talk about in the workplace because they impact how people show up. Whenever I hear a leader gripe about the same problem over and over again I often wonder, how might someone's worldview be at the root of this problem?

I had one client who struggled to get the high level of performance needed from his Program Coordinator, which was a great source of stress and concern. I met with them both separately to learn more about their individual experiences. From his perspective, she continuously dropped the ball and therefore he couldn't trust her. She felt like he was constantly undermining her and not giving her the autonomy needed to do her job.

As we continued to process what was informing their experiences together we uncovered their hidden rules of life. Growing up he was taught not to trust anyone - as a result, he approached their relationship always on edge, ready to defend himself. Whereas she was taught people will always try to get more out of you than they deserve and so she was guarded, giving the bare minimum and no more.

Both of their rules hinged on a desire to preserve and protect themselves, yet neither was succeeding in their efforts.

Surfacing these rules allowed for more open conversation between them, which shifted their dynamics. Instead of being caught in a frustrating loop of finger-pointing, they were having honest conversations about their thoughts and assumptions. That set them up to co-create what a high-performing working relationship looked like and how they would achieve that together.

While the Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls series is a funny and whimsical novel for elementary-aged kids, the underlying message is quite profound. Children internalize their experiences creating their own rules of life regardless of whether they overtly write them down like Allie does or not. And we were all children once.

Left unexamined, our childhood experiences are directing our behavior and choices in powerful (often harmful) ways as adults. One of the rules I internalized as a child was that people only like happy, smiley Ariana. However, it's impossible to deal with my problems when I hide the less than happy parts of myself. Especially when I'm working with a mentor or coach - I need to be real with them, otherwise, I'm missing the deeper opportunity for growth.

Naming that rule, then taking steps to debunk it has paved the way for me to gain meaningful support while experiencing transformational growth. Rather than festering and draining myself trying to present as someone I'm not, I've embraced my own vulnerability in relationship with others.

In certain relationships where I have established trust, I won't force a smile and act like everything is great when it isn't. Instead, I might say, "I'm struggling lately." Which paves the way for a deeper connection as they ask with genuine concern and interest, "What's going on?"

As a result of these efforts I've written a new rule for myself, I can do hard things and I have the support I need when I need it. I no longer see my emotional state as a sign of my worthiness or lack thereof. This shift reinforces the scaffolding needed to believe in myself and the value of my work regardless of how I feel in any given moment - a profound and necessary reframe.

At 8 years old, even Allie Finkle knows it's ok to rewrite rules. Over the course of the first book the rule, "You can't let your family move into a haunted house." Became, "Don't judge a house by how it looks before you fix it up."

Over the years I've helped many clients surface and rewrite their unspoken rules of life. Here's a sample of some of the initial rules we've surfaced:

  • You can't trust anyone

  • Everyone's out for themselves

  • People are stupid so they'll do stupid things

  • Never question authority

  • Asking for help means you're a loser

  • It's more important for people to like you than to speak up for yourself

  • Private matters are to be kept private

  • Don't let them see you cry

  • People will get as much out of you as possible

  • Other?

What rules of life are you grappling with?

Have you reflected on 2021 yet? Are you ready to start 2022 strong? Check out our next Leadership Circle with Ariana (formerly Journal Jams) on Wednesday, December 15th 9am MST. Enjoy camaraderie with like-minded change-makers while leveling up! More information and registration is available online here

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