Why Do We Get so Emotionally Attached To Rules?

And is that really how we want to live?

No matter how grounded I become, I still get a little nuts when people show no regard for rules.

Not all rules, mind you. I myself tend to need a reason to follow a rule. I resist doing things simply because somebody said so.

But I’m a big fan of the kinds of rules — whether overt or unspoken —that exist to benefit the greater good.

Some examples that come to mind are walking on the right side of the sidewalk, passing in the left lane on the highway, and moving your shopping cart off to the side of the aisle. Ok, so apparently I really like when people follow traffic rules…but I also like when things begin and end on time. As I learned from planning my wedding, some etiquette conventions fall under the greater-good category as well. While most wedding no-no’s seem to have a sort of circular, exclusively emotional logic to them —

“You can’t wear white to someone else’s wedding!”


“Because everyone will think it’s rude?”

“But why?”

“Because everyone knows you can’t wear white to someone else’s wedding!”

— I learned the hard way that certain things like timely RSVP’s are actually “just good manners” for very good reasons. (Price-per-plate aside, I had no idea just how many hours go into accommodating a last-minute guest. Please don’t ever do that to someone.)

Plus, some rules are just downright dangerous to break — like driving the proper way down one-way streets.

However, the fury I feel when someone breaks a greater-good rule is almost always — except in life-or-death situations — disproportionate to the logistical consequences.

Having to go around a pedestrian walking head-on toward my bicycle is almost entirely uninconvenient actually. If it weren’t for my thinking about how annoyed I am that I had to go around this person, the event would be a barely noticeable blip on my consciousness.

More recently I’ve started laughing at my own reaction to rule breaking. I still experience the rage bit, but I move more quickly into thinking I’m ridiculous.

And yet, a piece of me still stamps her foot in the back of my mind, saying, “But really, though? What’s wrong with that person? Why can’t people just follow the rule?”

I was reflecting on this today as I swam upstream through Costco. I could hardly stand how many people would leave their giant carts smack in the middle of the aisle to peruse the vacuums or canned beans or whatever at an absolutely glacial pace.

“I could really use an insight about this right about now,” I thought. “I’ve clearly got a pretty strong neurological connection between the Broken Rule Trigger and the ensuing Self-Righteous Rage Response, and I’d like to be free of it.”

And then an insight came:

Attachment to rules is really just a fear of uncomfortable experiences.

When we get emotionally attached to a rule, what we’re really attached to is our own psychological comfort.

We don’t want to deal with any number of uncomfortable psychological experiences that might come from the rule being broken: feeling like an inconvenience, feeling inconvenienced, feeling shame if criticized, feeling afraid to communicate your needs to others, feeling rejected if others don’t respect your needs, feeling shame for having needs.

We’re really just afraid of our feelings. It’s not the logistical issue it appears to be. If it were really about the logistics, we wouldn’t get so upset.

When I’m enraged that that person didn’t follow the unspoken rule of keeping her cart out of the aisle, I’m actually upset that they’ve put me in the position of having to be assertive — a position I generally find uncomfortable. Sometimes, I’m upset they’ve done something that reminds me of past incidents of being de-prioritized, which puts me in an emotional state I find uncomfortable.

Either way, at the root of things, it’s always my own emotional discomfort that I’m blaming on the other person.

On the one hand, though, if we could somehow all just agree upon and follow a set of social rules, everything would be smooth and polite and cheery. Why not save each other from psychological discomfort as much as possible, right?

On the other hand, so what, y’know? What’s so great about everything always being so polite and cheery?

I wonder, where might we find more connection — more freedom, more of life’s colors — in fearlessly facing the emotional consequences of broken rules? Why not reduce the number of rules we follow and expect adherence to (especially the exclusively-emotional ones)?

Since I’m never going to live in a world where everyone follows my favorite rules, anyway, I’m going to try this new perspective on for size.

“Doesn’t she just look wonderful?”

As I say often, it sure can’t hurt to try.

1 thought on “Why Do We Get so Emotionally Attached To Rules?”

  1. I get blind sided by those types of things all the time. The shopping and driving examples are great because we all experience them. Why is that person going so slow is almost always my first thought. Then I feel the anxiety start to flare up. Noticing that feeling and deeply knowing that feeling is coming from my thinking is an automatic trigger, like waking up from a dream, for a new thought to come in. I wonder if they are lost, I wonder if they are focused on something else important to them, I wonder if they are old and that is as fast as they can safely go. All of this wondering doesn’t help me see the beauty in the world or be more present, but it does keep the anxiety away and stifles the urge to pass them illegally!

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