Photo by Elliot Erwitt/Magnum



How to relax your own rules

Are you so strict with yourself that it’s become a burden? Gain freedom and flexibility with these therapeutic techniques

Photo by Elliot Erwitt/Magnum





Danielle Doucette

is a licensed clinical psychologist and eating disorder treatment director at Midwest Counseling and Diagnostics in Chicago, Illinois. She works with adults treating eating disorders, OCD, OCPD, maladaptive perfectionism, and anxiety.

Edited by Matt Huston





Need to know

Every one of us has certain rules about how we behave in particular situations, relate to other people, or present ourselves in the world. But rule-following, like anything, can be taken too far. As a clinical psychologist, I often speak with people who have a strong preference for structure and order above all things, and I’ve observed what it’s like to be guided by rules in strict, often burdensome ways. Sometimes, the individuals I work with are not aware of the extent to which these rules impact their life – just as fish do not have a keen awareness that they are swimming in water. It’s just what they know. That is what it can be like for someone who rigidly adheres to certain rules.

If you sense that your own behaviour may be quite rule-governed, chances are you’ve noticed at least some ways that this can create difficulties for you. This Guide will help you reflect on those challenges further, and will also show how you can start safely relaxing your rules. You won’t have to make huge changes; often even a simple, small change can be helpful.

Let’s start by imagining a spectrum, representing the ways you might relate to the rules you have for yourself. On one end, you consider a rule flexibly. This does not mean you completely abandon and break your rule (though, it could), but it might mean that you make your rule less absolute, or decide that you don’t have to follow it all the time. On the other end of the spectrum, you follow the rule rigidly. Life at the rigid end of this spectrum can become disrupted and problematic, even when the rules in question seem sensible.

For example, someone may have a rule such as I must always work hard. They might be fully aware that this is a rule that they abide by, or they could just implicitly follow the rule and consider it unacceptable to not work hard. On its face, it might appear to be a helpful rule that makes a lot of sense. Consistently working hard might help you pass an exam, finish graduate school, or get a promotion. However, what if the rule I must always work hard is followed strictly and regardless of context, so that it means working while on vacation, or while sick, or simply working tirelessly throughout the day with no breaks?

Take another seemingly fine rule: Always be polite. Politeness can help decrease conflict or signal friendly intentions. But what if Always be polite translates to never wanting to reveal disagreement with a close friend, family member or partner? Or what if it leads you to avoid asking for help (even a friendly favour) because doing so might seem ‘impolite’?

Here are a few other examples of rules that may be helpful in some ways but, if followed too rigidly, could have a negative impact:

  • I must finish my to-do list every day.
  • I cannot let others see me upset.
  • I can’t share personal information with others until I fully understand what’s appropriate.
  • If I want something done right, I have to do it myself.

The costs of following rules too strictly

If overly rigid, rule-based tendencies are having a negative impact on your life, you might start to observe your anxiety or distress increasing, especially in situations where it is impossible to follow a rule. You may notice that it feels more challenging for you to adapt to changes. You might also feel an increase in bitterness, pessimism or other negative mood states.

Another common difficulty I’ve observed in my clinical practice is the way that very rigid rule-governed behaviours affect relationships. For example, one might have a rule that they have to finish cleaning up after dinner before doing anything else (such as watching a movie with the family). Or someone’s insistence that things must be cleaned a certain way may lead to re-cleaning after a family member helps out, because their work was not ‘up to standard’. For some, it may seem essential to finish a to-do list before committing to a social event. What might each of these examples signal to other people? Even if it’s unintended, these behaviours might suggest arrogance (ie, ‘My way is the best way’), or that spending time with others is not a priority. Moreover, not everyone in a person’s life necessarily accepts or wants to follow the same guidelines.

The downsides of rigid rule-adherence can also show up in work settings. For example, if a person has difficulty delegating tasks because they require things to be done a certain way, this could signal a lack of trust in coworkers. Over time, colleagues may learn to stop offering to lend a hand. This could, in turn, lead to isolation or resentment.

Although not everyone who rigidly adheres to rules has a mental health condition, there are several specific conditions that are associated with this tendency. One is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) – which is estimated to affect at least 2 per cent of people and may involve excessive perfectionism, a desire to control, and a need for orderliness. Another such condition is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is reported to affect about 1 per cent of adults in the US, and is characterised by obsessive thoughts or impulses as well as compulsive behaviours that serve to temporarily stop or neutralise obsessive thinking. Some eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, are associated with rigid, rule-governed behaviours related to, for example, what’s acceptable to eat, eating in social situations, or exercise.

Researchers have also identified a ‘coping style’ that is related to rigid, rule-governed behaviours: overcontrolled coping. This pattern of excessive self-control is a main target of the evidence-based treatment called radically open dialectical behaviour therapy (RO-DBT), developed by the psychologist Thomas Lynch. RO-DBT has been used as a treatment for people with chronic depression, OCPD, anorexia nervosa and other conditions where we may find this overcontrolled coping style. In addition, in individual therapy, RO-DBT focuses on targeting five themes found in individuals with overcontrolled tendencies, one of the themes being rigid and rule-governed behaviours.

So there are established ways to practise being more flexible with rules, and they can be helpful whether or not you have a clinical diagnosis. In my work, I’ve seen that people who develop an openness to breaking or relaxing their rules often report improved relationships and overall mental health, an increased sense of belonging, and the ability to adapt more effectively to changing circumstances.

You, too, can learn to cultivate a more relaxed stance toward personal rules. In the rest of this Guide, I’ll be drawing from RO-DBT, as well as another evidence-based therapeutic approach, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), to share exercises for becoming more flexible and open about not always following your rules. As you’ll see, rules do not have to rule your life.

What to do

Recognise signs that you follow rules rigidly

I am sometimes asked: ‘How do I know if I’m following my rules in a rigid way?’ Here are a few ways to determine whether this is a tendency for you.

First, consider the language that you might use to describe one or more of your personal rules. Does it include absolutistic ideas, such as: ‘I must…’, ‘I have to…’, ‘I can never…’ or ‘I should always…’? Rule-governed thinking along these lines can trigger inflexibility, and is sometimes referred to as all-or-nothing thinking. Recognising this type of language and thinking style helps to build an awareness that can prompt you to practise being more flexible with your rules.

Second, ask yourself if you have any inflexible patterns of behaviour and whether you experience negative feelings if you need to change what you do. For example, do you follow the same exact morning routine every day? Is it difficult for you to do something different with your routine? Do you notice any anxiety or irritation if someone asks you to do something in a different way than usual (eg, at home or at work)? Increasing awareness around your behaviours and the ease with which you can shift behaviours can help build insight into whether you are heavily guided by rules.

A third way to recognise if you are adhering too rigidly to rules is to start listening to and considering feedback from others. Note that this feedback, especially from close others, is usually informal and may be shared more frequently than you realise. Do others tease you or joke that you are a perfectionist, that things need to be done a certain way, or that you need to be in control all the time? These can all be forms of feedback. One individual shared that it was difficult for him to not re-clean the dishes after his room-mate cleaned them. His room-mate would laugh and joke: Oh no, I’d better not wash the dishes – I just don’t think I can get them clean enough!’

If you have repeatedly received feedback about certain rule-governed behaviours, that could be a sign of too much rigidity. Here are some questions you might ask yourself: Have I received similar feedback from others before? Am I wanting to dismiss this feedback? Is the behaviour I’m getting feedback on negatively impacting my relationships? If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, it’s worth reflecting on whether it could be beneficial to practise relaxing your rules.

Create distance between you and the rule

Rather than attempting to change rules outright, I typically teach people to respond differently and more flexibly to rigid, rule-governed thinking. What if you could cultivate a new way to relate to rules so that they do not automatically determine what you do? A skill called ‘defusion’, derived from ACT, can help with this process. Keep in mind that the focus here is not on changing the rule itself.

To practise this skill, you can identify one or more rigid rules that pop into your mind and that you have a hard time not following. Then choose one to focus on. Let’s say the rule is I must do X a certain way, where ‘X’ is a daily chore or another activity. To practise defusion, you might say to yourself (either out loud or internally): ‘I am noticing the thought that I must do X a certain way.’ Here, we are attempting to create some distance from this thought. Here’s another way you might put it: ‘There it is again, the I must do this a certain way rule!’

Other ways to begin a defusion practice include:

  • I’m having the thought that [insert rule here].
  • There my mind goes again; I’m noticing the thought that…
  • I am aware of the rule that…

Go ahead, give it a try and see what you notice. Most people say that it helps them find a moment of pause and, in that moment, some space is created that allows them to act differently in response to the automatic rule. Once you apply this to one rule, start using defusion with other rules that you have identified wanting to be more flexible about.

Practise urge-surfing

Urge-surfing is a mindfulness-based strategy used to help manage and delay responses to urges. You can ‘surf’ anything from the urge to smoke a cigarette to the urge to stand up and yell during a meeting, and you can also use this strategy when you have the urge to follow a rule.

You can practise urge-surfing at any time with the following steps:

1. Begin by noticing your breath. Focus your attention on your inhales and exhales.

2. As you practise noticing your breath, begin to be aware of any urges that arise. For example, maybe you notice an urge to tap your foot, to scratch an itch, to stand up, or to review your to-do list for the day.

3. Practise not responding to whatever urges show up. For example:

  • If you notice the urge to tap your foot, keep your foot still.
  • If you notice the urge to scratch your itch, do not give in to the urge to scratch it.
  • If you notice the urge to review your to-do list, practise bringing your attention back to focusing on your breath.

4. Do this for a few minutes, allowing urges to come and go – just as waves crest and fall in the ocean.

5. Finally, if you do decide to act on an urge (and scratch that itch, for example), then do so with an awareness of the action that you have chosen to take.

This is urge-surfing, and it takes practice. I often recommend practising it for just two to five minutes a day, and doing so with any type of urge – it doesn’t have to be with rules initially. Urge-surfing allows you to see that, if you do not respond to an urge, even if the urge increases in intensity for a period of time, it will eventually pass.

As an example of how it could work, after noticing a very strong urge to tell people to arrive on time for a social event (to follow a rule that people must always be on time), one could use urge-surfing to inhibit that urge, and then instead decide to say something like: ‘You are welcome to come anytime in the afternoon.’ This represents a flexible response with regard to a rule.

Try not doing what you say

Can you think of a time when you persisted in doing something even while having a thought that went opposite to your behaviour? For example, perhaps you’ve had the thought that you couldn’t go to sleep unless you finished a certain task, but then you went to sleep anyway. The fact that you can have thoughts about what you ‘must’ or ‘must not’ do, and then not behave in accordance with those thoughts, is important to realise more fully.

Don’t do what you say is a lively ACT-based exercise developed by Jean-Louis Monestès and Matthieu Villatte, and it can be useful for people who follow rules in a rigid way. To see how it works, I invite you to say the following, out loud: ‘I cannot speak out loud.’ Look at that! You can have a thought, you can verbalise it, and you can then behave in a way that is independent of that thought. You can have some fun with this: I invite you to say (verbally or silently to yourself) ‘I must touch my nose’, and at the same time gently place your hand on the top of your head for a brief moment. Try this out a few times (I suggest up to 10 times in different ways; tell yourself you cannot stand and then stand, etc) so that you can really feel what it is like to do something different to what you are thinking or verbalising.

You can apply this to rules in a way that helps you practise being more flexible – to not respond to every rule as if it’s something that must be followed. For example, the next time you notice the urge to rigidly follow a rule, such as having to finish your to-do list every day, remind yourself of this exercise. I suggest to people that I work with that, when they notice the rule, they can simply touch their nose while saying I must listen and touch my elbow as a powerful reminder that you do not have to do what you say. Silly? Maybe, but it’s another way to change how you relate to a rule.

Simply knowing that you do not always have to do what your rules say can help you behave differently, especially when you notice that rigid, rule-governed behaviours are getting in the way of things you care about.

Practise breaking your rules

As you become more aware of rigid rules, you may gain insight into how certain rules are not as effective as they once seemed to be, or how applying rules in every context is not always helpful. There might be moments when a rule is effective and in line with your valued goals, and other moments when compromise and flexibility are needed.

In this step, we’ll play to one of your strengths: we are going to use your superior ability to follow rules to help you break them! I’m going to ask you to create a rule around breaking a rule. This could be something like: I must break one rule every day. Then, you’ll decide ahead of time what rule you are going to break. If someone has a rule that they must cross everything off their to-do list each day, breaking this rule could mean that they leave at least one or two items unfinished. Another example would be to ‘go opposite’ to a rule that you want to relax – eg, deliberately arriving to an event a bit late, rather than ensuring you arrive early.

The idea is to try, in small ways, to practise breaking rules. The key word here is ‘practise’. You may find that you have to think intentionally about breaking a rule most days, and that is OK. But know that, over time, doing this can help build psychological and behavioural flexibility, so you should start to find it easier to break a rule when you notice rigid rule-following getting in the way of work, relationships or overall mental health.

Breaking rigid rules and behaving differently may make you uncomfortable or anxious at first. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help deal with that discomfort. Let’s turn to these next.

Manage distress by calming your body

Sometimes, distress and anxiety result in unpleasant bodily reactions such as an increase in heart rate, shallow breathing, sweaty palms or tightness in the chest. The following skill helps you manage that physiological reaction. Observe what happens if you practise this with your body:

  • Take a deep breath by slowly inhaling and exhaling, and simultaneously…
  • Engage in a closed-mouth smile (turn up the ends of your lips and stretch your lips over your teeth). Note that this type of smile activates the muscles around your eyes (where you typically see wrinkles). If you try this smile and only the bottom half of your face is moving, you may be practising what’s referred to as a half-smile. Ensure that you activate the muscles around your eyes.
  • Raise your eyebrows for a moment.
  • Additionally, if you are sitting in a chair with a back, then lean back.

This is an RO-DBT skill called ‘the Big Three + 1’, and it can help to calm down those anxious bodily reactions described above. Most people I teach this skill to find that, while it may be uncomfortable, awkward or just unfamiliar at first, with practice, it makes them feel more open, at ease, and a bit more relaxed – even if just for a brief moment. Importantly, if the experience of calm is indeed brief, then simply practise the Big Three + 1 again and again. These facial and body movements activate muscles that signal to the anxious part of your brain that all is OK, even when you’re in distress.

An added benefit that’s highlighted in RO-DBT is what you signal to others when you lean back, raise your eyebrows, and/or smile. If you are breaking one of your rules while around other people and you practise this skill, take note of its impact on how you relate to others. Raising your eyebrows and smiling are friendly, inviting signals and, if improving your interactions with others is part of your motivation for relaxing your rules, this may be an important skill for you to try.

Remind yourself why you’re relaxing your rules

Another way to respond to the anxiety or resistance that might result from trying to be more flexible is to reflect on what you value. If someone tells me: ‘Dr Doucette, I’m too anxious to break the rule,’ I ask them the following question: Why did you want to work on this in the first place? I might then hear things like:

  • ‘My loved ones are frustrated with my rigidity.’
  • ‘I know that it’s making my anxiety more intense.’
  • ‘Working on this will help me improve my relationships.’
  • ‘I want to teach my children flexibility.’
  • ‘My rigid tendencies have prevented me from getting promoted at work.’

How might you answer my question? What you are essentially doing here is identifying what you value. What is important about who you want to be or how you want to interact with others?

Calling this to mind may or may not, on its own, decrease your distress around breaking rules. But remember this: while you may feel distress as you practise being more flexible about your rules, you will also experience distress and negative consequences if you continue rigidly adhering to every rule. Which of those paths gets you closer to what you value? Most of the time, people prefer to act based on what is most important to them, even when it’s difficult to do.

Key points – How to relax your own rules

  1. Personal rules can be followed in flexible or rigid ways. A rule such as I must always work hard may be sensible, but can be taken to the extreme if you try to follow it perfectly.
  2. There are costs to following rules too strictly. A pattern of overly rigid adherence to rules may increase distress, make it harder to adapt to change, and cause difficulties in relationships.
  3. Recognise signs that you follow rules rigidly. All-or-nothing thinking (eg, ‘We must always…’ ‘I can never…’), discomfort about altered routines, or informal feedback from others can serve as clues.
  4. Create distance between you and the rule. Use the skill of defusion and observe a rule at arm’s length, such as by saying: ‘I am noticing the thought that I must do X a certain way.’
  5. Practise urge-surfing. Focus on your breathing, notice any urges that arise, and decline to act on them for a few minutes. This practice can show how the urge to follow a rule will pass if left alone.
  6. Try not doing what you say. Practise behaving at odds with your thoughts or words, such as saying aloud ‘I cannot speak out loud.’ It’s a reminder that you can think of a rule without having to follow it.
  7. Practise breaking your rules. By deciding to not follow your rule to a tee, or even ‘going opposite’ to the rule, you can build psychological flexibility for the future.
  8. Manage distress by calming your body. ‘The Big Three + 1’ – taking slow breaths, smiling, raising your eyebrows and (if sitting) leaning back – may help you feel more open and relaxed.
  9. Remind yourself why you’re relaxing your rules. Reflecting on who you want to be, or how you want your relationships to be, can motivate you to keep practising flexibility even when it’s challenging.

Learn more

Seeking therapy for rigid, rule-based patterns of behaviour

If you feel like you are chronically struggling to relax your rules, or you would like more support to practise these skills, you have further options. The therapeutic modalities mentioned in this Guide – acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and radically open dialectical behaviour therapy (RO-DBT) – can both be used to address rigid, rule-governed behaviours, though they each have different mechanisms of change.

With RO-DBT, the focus is on enhancing interpersonal connections with others. It works especially well with people who might rigidly apply rules and at the same time report that they also feel lonely and isolated. It has been employed with individuals who have OCPD, anorexia nervosa, chronic depression and autism spectrum disorders, among others. These conditions are sometimes referred to as disorders of overcontrol. If you want to feel more connected to others and improve your relationships, RO-DBT could be a helpful treatment approach. A trained RO-DBT professional can help you understand if you might benefit from this type of therapy; a list of where to find RO-DBT providers across the world can be found here.

With ACT, the goal is to increase what is called psychological flexibility, with a focus on building skills to change how you relate to difficult thoughts and feelings – especially if those thoughts and feelings keep you from living in accordance with your values. Important themes include acceptance, mindfulness, making commitments to take action, and values-exploration. With ACT, you learn how to act in a way that is based on what is important to you (your values) rather than based on strict rules. There are a lot of ACT workbooks and self-help materials that take readers through these skills and concepts (see the Links and Books section below), and which can complement individual therapy sessions or help you explore whether you might like to work with a professional who uses this approach. If you are interested in finding an ACT-trained therapist, you can see this listing of providers.

Links & books

The TEDx talk ‘Mental Brakes to Avoid Mental Breaks’ (2016), given by one of the developers of ACT, Steven C Hayes, demonstrates some of the skills mentioned in this Guide, including defusion. Hayes discusses the science behind this and similar ACT-based interventions. I also recommend his book A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters (2019) as well as his earlier workbook Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (2005), co-authored with Spencer Smith.

The Radically Open blog is a fun resource for writing on topics related to RO-DBT, provided by expert RO-DBT clinicians and people who have worked with them. In this Guide, I shared the observation that rigid rules can negatively impact relationships. The post ‘Rules!’ (2021) further explores the effects on relationships by considering how rules influence social signalling.

This episode of The Skillful Podcast, featuring a conversation between RO-DBT-trained therapists Neil Howell and Marielle Berg, provides a great overview of what it means to be ‘overcontrolled’.