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Rules to Live By

When I was born, my parents were in their 40s, my brothers were adolescents, and everyone was tired of child-rearing. By default, in order to guarantee a sense of order, I had to make my own rules. Most of the early ones were related to the neatness of my desk at school, my binder and the little plastic case that held my pencils and erasers. But I also taught myself to polish my shoes early on and approached them a bit like an army recruit in boot camp.

What I learned in the creation of my little regimens was that it was really important to me to feel like I had control over something. My dad always laughed about having to force my brothers to do their homework but that he never had to even mention it to me. I just did it on my own. Are you kidding? Doing my homework every night was tantamount to everything turning out okay because I was following all of the rules. Like many kids, I couldn’t influence much else.

Relaxing is a gateway drug to spending the rest of my life on the couch eating bon bons and watching the Kardashians.

As I got older and more confident, I wasn’t nearly as concerned about having every little thing in place. But I still made rules for myself. When I was a first in college, I remember not allowing myself to read the comics in the newspaper until I’d read at least a couple of news stories. And many of the guidelines I established for myself were like this. I created rules that would keep me from having too much fun, I’m sure because on some level I wasn’t confident enough to believe that I deserved it.

A therapist once asked me why it was so hard for me to just let myself relax and enjoy things. Even the thought of relaxing and enjoying things made me nervous, so I figured she had a good question. The answer is always the same: Relaxing is a gateway drug to spending the rest of my life on the couch eating bon bons and watching the Kardashians. Seriously, vigilance is at the core of every rule I’ve ever had. So much so that, in a weird twist of irony, I’ve even made a lot of rules to make myself rest and relax, usually to no avail. No matter how many times I have written “Meditate” on my to-do list, it is a rule I’ve mostly broken.

What’s interesting about getting older, though, is that I find myself loosening up on all the regulations. I trust myself so much more now that I’m relatively sure I’m not going off the deep end any time soon. And how bad could it be if I ate a bowl of ice cream and didn’t go running? I’m beginning to believe that it doesn't mean my downfall as a human if I eat leftovers and read People instead of a gourmet meal and The New Yorker.

It’s nice to let the world unfold without quite so many protective regulations. And as anyone who doesn’t live by all of these rules will tell you, it’s a whole lot easier. Plus, the world doesn’t actually fall apart if I sleep in, or don’t do the dishes before bed, or read only the comics. The added benefit of having swept out the cobwebs of mandated procedures is that there’s a lot more room in my head for what’s really important. Even though they still come in the form of “ways to be,” I’m focusing these days on what makes me feel most connected to myself and other people.

I’m trying to keep it basic, too. I no longer feel the need to complicate my brain with strict rules that I’m relatively sure I’m going to break. Be present, I’ve been thinking to myself when I get out of my car in the morning. Listen closely, I remind myself when someone comes to talk to me about something I’m not dying to hear. Trust yourself, I say when I’m nervous about starting a new project. The reminders help and the result is almost always a true sense of connection. This week, I posted a note in front of the desk where I sit to do my work. Have fun, it reminds me and, for the moment I’m reading it, I'm remembering the value of kinder rules.

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