Therapy Skill: Make the Rules for your Life
Don’t bristle at the thought of rules too soon, Dear Creatives- these rules are made by you. Here is a logical concept laid out in print you probably know but may not have taken time to consider or apply, so read it twice: you can set the rules to your own life. One more time: you can set the rules to your life. In psychology-speak, we call these rules boundaries, and they are all yours.
This is a concept worth discussing because every (and I mean every) person who has sat in my therapy chair, has needed to review and address their boundaries. They may have set some rules in their lives, but either they can be added to, revamped, or both. Part of the reason we are bad at this is because it involves change and as such, resistance from others in our lives. Another reason is we may not see that a new rule needs to be set because we are too close to it. Lucky for you, I am not too close to it. I describe it sometimes like this: have you ever stood outside at the base of a tall building and looked up? You can’t see the whole thing. You are too close. I, am across the street. I see you.
Let’s assume that you have identified the need to set some new rules in your life despite some of the obstacles. What does that even mean or look like? We can break it down into categories. You have the right to write the rules for your relationships (romantic, friendship, familial, professional etc), you have the right to write rules for your physical space. You have the right to say when something is emotionally too much or not something you want to handle. In almost every area of your life there is a place for you to design a rule or a limit. Why do we do this? To protect ourselves. If we make the rule that within arm’s length is too close for a stranger to stand to us, we have a way to judge what is safe and can enforce that rule for ourselves. If we have a rule that if we are treated a certain way by a partner then that means we will leave a relationship, we have some groundwork in which to know if we are safe. If I know talking about a certain topic will make me cry and I don’t want to do that, I can decline to participate in a conversation and emotionally protect myself. And on and on.
Like everything else, our personal history including how we are raised and what we have experienced, influence the type of rules we have in our lives. Some of us may have built protective walls that are too strong and become isolating. Others of us may have too few protective barriers and need to build more or reinforce what we have. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Taking time to assess and identify what rules you have for yourself in your life, and how they are functional or dysfunctional (including their absence) for you, is an important goal in therapy that I do in some way shape or form, with everyone.
To help solidify the introduction to this concept, here is a brief art therapy exercise I have asked patients to do in groups and individually. You can repeat the exercise with a variety of boundary types (physical, interpersonal, etc etc). For the sake of this exercise, let’s think about romantic relationships. As always, I don’t recommend doing activities without the guidance of a therapist just in case you open up emotions you weren’t expecting- so give it a try and let’s talk more in session. The exercise:
Draw an object that represents yourself. It can be as simple or complex as you would like. I often draw a butterfly for myself. On the side of your paper, while thinking about your romantic relationships, list some qualities they may have: tumultuous, peaceful, short, long, committed, open, emotional, loving, etc etc. When you feel done, begin to draw around the symbol of yourself a representation of how you protect or open yourself up to romantic relationships. Did you choose to draw an enclosure? Are you using just shapes or colors? Is there a height, thickness or texture? However you create, try to express and explore the feeling you have of exposure or closure and protection in relationships. When you feel finished, look at what you have made. What do you see? Any new or surprising information? On the other side of your paper, list some qualities of an ideal relationship for you. Would you like to be more open or giving? Would you like to be more protective of yourself or your partner? When you feel finished, go back to your drawing and add what you feel you need to create this environment of rules for yourself. Did you patch a wall? Did you lower one? Did you add a door or a lock? Did you add or subtract layers, colors or shapes? When you are done, consider what you have made. The beauty of art is, often we can visually express what is verbally difficult to say. Sometimes the visual serves as a bridge between our feelings and experiences, and active thoughts. Let this project communicate to you and help you understand your relationship rules and boundaries.
Now you have had a quick and messy introduction to boundaries and making your own rules. Maybe you have even bought into that this would be a useful thing to examine and discuss. Believe me- it is important! Come to my chair and learn about yourself. Let’s start creating your happiest life.
(C) 2017 Creatively, LLC
The information provided in this blog is from my own clinical experiences and training. It is intended to supplement your clinical care. Never make major life changes before consulting with your treatment team. If you are unsure of your safety or wellbeing, do not hesitate to get help immediately.