Whose rules do you love and live by?

Listen to Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.

Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child, Anything can be.  
-Shel Silverstein

I’ve shared this poem several times recently. Resolving inner conflicts like the one Shel describes is key to attaining the lives we most want. Even the simplest of life choices, like being optimistic or pessimistic are too often emulations of those who raised us. They are not chosen in the full light of day.

As my friends in recovery say, “What we lived with we learned. What we learned we became.”

Our ability to achieve significant changes in our way of being often hinges upon separating what we were taught as children from what we might consciously choose as adults today. Most of the unhealthy things we do are chosen subconsciously. They’re what counselors refer to as, “learned behaviors” that are founded in “false beliefs.” Examples:

– “Stuffing” our emotions = I got over it.

– Defusing conflict before it starts = Conflict will always lead to confrontation

– Blaming ourselves for the ways in which others fail us = I can control everything.

– Be above reproach/Perfectionist tendencies = No one will be angry with me

– Beating ourselves up/being overly self critical = I am not good enough

No one ever sits down and says to themselves, “I think I’ll reflect on my recent experiences, consider how bad I feel about how others have treated me, and find a way to blame myself.” Yet folks like me do that readily when we’re not on point.

We who grow up in addicted and/or abusive environments learn what researchers like Claudia Black called “The rules of an alcoholic family”: “Don’t talk. Don’t feel. Don’t have needs.”

We learned ways to compensate for the dysfunction of our families. These became patterns of behavior so basic as to be unexamined and salient. Years later we find ourselves chronically frustrated and unsatisfied. Only when we come to acceptance that fundamental aspects of our way of being cause us to suffer, will we examine them and seek change.

For most of us this occurs at the half way point in life. We spend our 20’s trying to figure out who we are and what we want. We spend our 30’s trying to become and attain. We get into our 40’s, feel our mortality coming on and we’re forced to acknowledge,

“This shit just isn’t working out.”

Therapy is a great place to discover the exact nature of everything that doesn’t work. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to know that what we were taught wasn’t true. We then have to choose what to believe and put into practice. Common suggestions I offer to my clients:

– It’s not selfish to take care of yourself. It’s necessary.

– It’s good to be assertive and to speak truth powerfully

– You have a right to set boundaries and to have limits

– You don’t have to apologize for having needs and feelings

Because it is always my goal to put myself out of a job, I try to limit my recommendations and encourage my clients to discover their own truth. Like Shel Silverstein, I urge folks to notice the inner critic that tells us what we should, shouldn’t, must, and must’nt do.

Then tell it to shut up and take the advice of Bob Dylan:

“Everything passes. Everything changes. Just do what YOU  think you should do.”

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.