The Psychological Necessity of Breaking the Rules

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“We see you as an artist,” he said. His hair was long, thick, and wavy. His face thin and defined. His gaze intense and gentle.

Sixteen of us sat around a big solid wooden table, eating a meal together. We were all part of an Artist Residency at the graduate school I attended.

Somehow I ended up among them.

I didn’t think of myself as an artist. Though I studied music composition in undergrad, I always felt a bit like I was faking it— everyone else had a much greater mastery of their instruments and musical concepts.

I thought my main focus for the week of the Artist Residency was going to be writing music. It turns out it was something much deeper.

His words to me around that table were part of shift in how I thought of myself. It may seem small from the outside, but on the inside it was big. And risky.

I didn’t spend time around artists in my younger years. My family didn’t have a category for them. None of us were artists. In fact, I don’t know that I could find a single artist in my family tree.

We’d go to art events, but there was always a sense that those people weren’t our people. They were misunderstood and called “artsy-fartsy”.

Artists may make pretty things, but they didn’t seem to belong in our family.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties that I began to embrace the fact that I really am a creative at heart, and that making is a big part of who I am.

Every group of people has rules.

Every group has a code of conduct for how you belong to it. Whether it be a family, an organization, a cult, or a culture, and whether they are spoken or unspoken, subtle or overt, they’re there.

Just look at communities and sub-cultures around you and you’ll quickly see them:

  • As sports fans, we wear the colors of our team. We chant the chants and idolize the players.
  • As citizens of a country, we sing the national anthem and place a hand on our heart.
  • As participants in a church and religion, we perform rituals and hold certain things sacred.
  • As member of a company, we fill out the report, go to the meeting, and get promoted for displaying and embracing certain qualities.
  • As members of a family, we act a certain way and have certain preferences that are particular to our family unit. Things like: don’t text at the table, always work hard, always be polite, never cry in public, etc. We do these things because “that’s what our family does.”
  • As members of a friend group, we act a certain way and have certain preferences. We laugh at the same jokes, share some similar interests, complain about similar things, spend our money in similar ways.

The rules draw a line in the sand, differentiating who is in and who is out.

To follow the code of conduct is to belong. To violate the rules means you do not belong. And the cost of not belonging is some sort of punishment:

  • Break the rules in school and you’re sent to the principal’s office.
  • Break the rules at a concert, and you’ll meet the security team.
  • Break the rules of a religion, and you’ll be called a heretic.
  • Break the rules in a family, and you’ll be sent to your room.

The punishment reinforces the rules and increases the commitment of the community. They say that there is a way to belong and a way not to. There are those on the inside and those on the outside.

For much of our lives we are taught to belong— to fit in, keep our heads down, don’t stand out, don’t question the rules, don’t push the limits.

But there comes a time when limits need to be pushed. Beliefs need to be questioned. Rules need to be broken. Friends need to grow. And family needs to change.

In order to create change, you have to break rules.

While some of these rules are overt and spoken, the more insidious ones are those that are not. These are the rules that are assumed, and that we often take on without realizing it.

These are the rules that we live by without knowing it. These are the rules that keep us stuck.

For me, one of those rules had to do with being an artist. To let that be true of me was to accept that there are parts of me that my family won’t be able to understand. In fact, they may even reject those parts.

Have you thought about your rules and where they come from? Have you considered how your rules help you and how they hinder you?

If you feel stuck in some way, it’s likely a result of your desires competing with some rules you have for yourself. To get unstuck, you must put language to them and explore them.

In the comments, share a rule that you once held but have chosen to break.

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