Since Summer is almost here, I bought a new pair of sandals the other day. I wore them for the first time today and as I was walking out of work admiring them, it reminded me of a rule I used to live by.
It used to annoy me that the weather was often so bad in Ireland in the Summer, so I decided that from May to September I would wear sandals and short-sleeve tops and “make my own Summer”. My thinking at the time was sound. I figured that since I couldn’t control the weather (regardless of how many saints I asked over the years), I could control my own experiences and make a Summer experience for myself by wearing sandals and summery tops for four months of the year. In that way I would have my Summer regardless of what happened outside. This is how I imagined it…
I did this for a few years. As anyone who lives in Ireland in the Summer can appreciate, the experience wasn’t great. My experience was more like this…
One particularly windy and rainy morning, I noticed that I was putting my lovely sandals on with dread. In that moment, I realised that my idea of wearing sandals and short-sleeved tops was not actually making me happy, but had instead become an unhelpful rule that was making me unhappy (and having a detrimental effect on my relationship with my sandals).
I thought about it for a while and realised that I wasn’t dealing with the situation effectively. I decided I needed to do something different and called to mind a skill I had learned many years previous called “Radical Acceptance” (Linehan, Marsha 1993). Radical Acceptance is a Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) technique, which involves accepting things as they are, not as you wish them to be or how they were in the past. It means that you stop fighting reality and instead wholeheartedly accept life as it is. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like what is going on, rather that you accept it in order to work with it more effectively.
I made a decision to radically accept the weather in Ireland and also to radically accept the fact that I don’t cope well with the cold (I actually get quite miserable when I am cold). I decided to throw away my Summer rule and instead would look out the window in the morning and be compassionate towards myself by wearing whatever was suitable on a given day. I (and my feet) have been much happier getting dressed since.
Now, while this true story is lighthearted, it did get me thinking about the rules we make for ourselves. Often these can start out as attempts to make ourselves (and other people) happy, and take the form of commitments to ourselves, such as “I’ll walk home from work every day”, “I’ll keep in touch with my parents more”, “I’ll eat healthily from now on”. Over time and with regular practice, these ideas can become rules we live by. If these rules are helpful and continue to make you happy, that’s wonderful. However, if your feel you “have to” live by your rules and don’t feel able to deviate from these, even when you don’t think it’s helpful or effective, then it might be time to radically accept the way things are and have a review of your rules.
So, maybe have a think about the rules you live by, big ones, small ones, important ones, not such important ones, and ask yourself, “Do these rules bring me towards the life I want or further away?”. Once you figure this out, I suggest you hold on tight to the ones that are moving you in the direction you want to be and consider chucking the others out... In my case, my feet thanked me for it!
Dr Róisín Joyce is a Clinical Psychologist and Director at Evidence-Based Therapy Centre, Galway. She uses compassion-focused approaches to understand people’s difficulties and promote self-acceptance, self-compassion and meaningful living.