How Breaking the Rules Taught Me to Trust Myself

breaking the rules

Remember that fable about the Emperor’s New Clothes?

In it, a pretentious emperor who is overly in love with himself and his finery is fooled by shifty tailors who make a fortune tricking him into believing he’s wearing the most exquisite finery in all the land. In fact, it’s so exquisite, only the most educated and refined people can actually even see it.

The emperor can’t see it, of course. But his pride doesn’t allow him to speak that truth.

Instead, he orchestrates a parade so he can prance about before the commoners in his charge.

Until a kid at the parade, seeing the emperor’s bare behind, exclaims, “But he’s NAKED!”

I’m that kid.

I’m the strange one in my family. I don’t always follow the rules. In fact, sometimes I’ve intentionally set out to break them. Because I think some of those asinine rules, are sort of – well, asinine.

And, if they’re dumb enough and they continue to hurt or limit me, I simply let them go, and live my own beautiful life.

Here are some of the rules I’ve broken over the years:

Get a Good Solid Job and Keep it. FOREVER.

A lot of people find success with this model. Not me, though. Nearly 30 years ago, I graduated at the top of my class and was hired by IBM. I HATED that job. But, everyone said it was a good one. In fact, they told us that 3000 people applied for each spot that they filled.

Did I mention that I HATED that job? It was such a bad fit. But the “world” said I should be grateful. So, I stuck it out.

Until a good friend was diagnosed with cancer. At 25. Her tumor was spotted by her Labor & Delivery nurse when she was delivering her son.

The very next day, I quit what was, at that time, the most secure job in the universe. Oh, by the way, within a few years, IBM announced its first EVER reduction in force. Many of my former colleagues lost their jobs.

Lesson in Self-Trust: Follow your heart. The security you think you feel from your current circumstances is just an illusion. Nothing stays the same. Everything and everyone dies. Live your one beautiful life today.

Don’t Tell

If ever a rule was meant to be broken, it’s this one. Nevertheless, for generations, it’s been a pervasive socializing message we pass on to our children.

There are many wonderful people in my family. But, for generations, our story has been riddled with alcoholism. We do lots of good in the world. We’re loving. We can be lots of fun. But, many of us drink. To the point that some of us die.

Like my father.

But, we don’t talk about those things.

So, I didn’t. I grieved in isolation until a high school reunion a decade or two later, when I found out that several of my “best friends” also grew up with alcoholic parents.

For YEARS, we sat together, ate lunch together, were in marching band together.

But, none of us broke code. Every one of us suffered in silence. What a waste!

Lesson in Self-Trust: You’re as sick as your secrets. All around you people are hiding their pain. Stop comparing your insides with everyone else’s outsides. Instead, be vulnerable. To be free of the feeling of isolation, you have to take a risk. Intimacy begins with me.

Don’t Cry Out Loud

Along the lines of “don’t quit your day job” and “don’t tell anyone what’s really going on,” is the message that you do not show your “negative” feelings. Instead, you suffer in silence. Forever.

In fact, merit badges are awarded for lifetime achievements in martyrdom.

Remember that song by Melissa Manchester, “Don’t Cry Out Loud?” . . . “just keep it inside, and learn how to hide your feelings.”

Well, when I listened to that song, I really, truly thought Melissa was giving me my very own personal marching orders for life.

I was thirty years old before I realized she was being ironic.

Because my baby died. And I simply had to cry out loud. For a long, long time. My grief was so powerful there was no way to hold it in.

Over time, though, I saw that expressing my feelings was actually the key to healing from my devastation.

But there was more – Because my daughter’s death was so incredibly devastating, it unleashed all the buried sorrows from the years before. In fact, part of my daughter’s legacy is that I had the opportunity to grieve every silenced loss that had come before. I cried. For all of it. Out loud. Until I didn’t need to anymore. And then, I was healed.

Lesson for Self-Trust: The only way out is through! Feel your beautiful feelings. Don’t let anyone tell you your feelings are “wrong.” Or even “right” for that matter. You feel what you feel and that is that. You don’t need to justify your feelings to anyone. Oh, and here’s a bonus tip – you don’t have to ACT on your feelings either. You can just open up to your own beautiful truth, feel your feelings, then let them go.

Breaking the Rules. Sensibly. Or, not.

Though it may sound like it, I’m not a casual or frivolous rule breaker. When I’m considering a major life change, I don’t leap and then look. And, I don’t buck the system just to be ornery.

On the other hand, when something is “off” in my life, I no longer pretend that everything’s just “fine” over here.

Your One Beautiful Life is entirely too precious to waste being untrue to yourself and others. If you can, when you can, speak your truth.

Start small. If you don’t like broccoli, for heaven’s sake stop filling your plate with it at Thanksgiving! Don’t smile when you’re angry. Don’t say “it’s okay” if it isn’t.

Speak your beautiful truth. Trust your beautiful heart. Take up your own beautiful place in this world.

Trust yourself. The Emperor and his finery are just an illusion. Cloak yourself in your own beautiful humanity and, if the “rules” are killing your beautiful spirit, let them go. Spread your beautiful wings.

Look once. Maybe even look again. But then, LEAP like it’s nobody’s business!

We make our choice. And then?

We make our choice right.

Photo by Jane Rahman

47 thoughts on “How Breaking the Rules Taught Me to Trust Myself”

  1. “If you don’t like broccoli, for heaven’s sake stop filling your plate with it at Thanksgiving! Don’t smile when you’re angry. Don’t say “it’s okay” if it isn’t.”

    Thank you. Great article.

    Dan Garner

  2. This is absolutely what I call the happening of “miracle moment”. The time when we realize that the rules we broke just made us strong. People might sound sympathetic and respectful for one who follows the rules but after all, what people really care and love in your is how long you travelled breaking the old rules and myths to make their lives more happier, loving and fun!

  3. Oh yeah!
    I have always seen things ‘oddly’ in many people’s eyes (read ‘wrong’) and it’s taken me years, but I now celebrate myself and am pretty darn happy letting others be who they are too… If people find following the rules gives them their peace and happiness, no problem, but if they wish to break one, two or a gajillion…and find happiness – fine too :-) same goes for me.
    I read a note today that said ‘your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behaviour does’ and I think this thought fits in well here too – too often we mistake the value of the first for the value of the latter…like you say, be your own beautiful person!

  4. Thank you for sharing your message so beautifully. I’m often aware of the self- imprisonment I have made for myself being a rule follower and the creative rebel inside is screaming and beating on the bars. The few times I’ve broken my rules have been the best decisions I’ve ever made.

    I’m going to check out your website since I’m searching for more of my midlife mojo:)

    1. You are so welcome, Sara love. I’ll be the complete stranger who gives you permission to go and live your one beautiful life — beautifully. Next week, you get to give it back to me. Okay? Love, Jen

  5. Thanks for the post!

    “Until a kid at the parade, seeing the emperor’s bare behind, exclaims, “But he’s NAKED!”

    I’m that kid.

    I’m the strange one in my family. I don’t always follow the rules. In fact, sometimes I’ve intentionally set out to break them. Because I think some of those asinine rules, are sort of – well, asinine.”

    I feel the same way. I feel like I’m the only one in my family and group of friends that does this. And when I do they either shake their heads or gasp. So it’s nice to read this and find that there is someone out there similar to me.

  6. A fabulous post and I can totally relate to the Job at IBM, but my relation to that was School. I was taught nothing at school that was any real use to me in the real world with the exception of Maths & English.

    Obviously I had to see school out otherwise I would have been breaking the law as well as the rules. I also never took the 9-5 route, to limiting :)

    Great post


  7. Nice one Jen. We were meant to use our intellects to make sense of our world. Sometimes the rules are good, make sense, keep us safe. At others the rues can oppress us, depress us and cause us to be less than we truly are. Strategic rule breaking is the path to a truly happy and successful life.

    1. I remember once hearing a woman talk about her adventures in losing weight. With respect to weight gain and her choices around food, she said, “When I eat more calories than my body burns, I gain weight. The laws of physics apply to me.”

      I hate that rule.

  8. Awesome post! I love the part about following your heart. I’m learning how to do that now after following too many people off the cliff of their expectations. I’m climbing back up toward my own beautiful life and leaving all those standards in the dust behind me.

    1. Hi, Nicole. That’s usually how empowerment begins. Someone throws off the cliff one too many times and we finally see that we didn’t have to go the edge of the abyss with them and place ourselves in a position to be harmed.

      Good for you for being a truth-teller.

  9. What a wonderful post!

    As you so eloquently demonstrate, everyone has a story. We keep these secrets stored up inside us but if we took a leap of trust and shared our stories we would find we’re not really all that alone.

    Thank you, Jennifer. This was a great read.

  10. This is such a valuable, not-talked about topic Jennifer. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Have you read any of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work? He talks about breaking the rules to test reality. To challenge and tease it apart.

    It sounds like you did just that. : )

  11. Another powerful reminder by one of my favorite writers as of late… Jennifer, your ability to distill 50 (?) years of living and lessons learned into a meaningful post just floors me.

    You’re ability to show vulnerability is so admirable, and brave.

    I’ve had it up to about HERE with those stupid-ass, outdated and outmoded “rules” of life engagement. Hahahah. I know, they only wanted us to be SAFE.

    Safe sucks. Leaning into the wind at the cutting edge is where we belong. There’s no life manual for any single one of our Singular Brands of Crazy.

    hahaha. THANKS FOR THE REMINDER. You rock, Jen.


  12. Inspirational! I come from an extremely catholic family and was trained to lead my life “following the rules.” Because of it I chose the wrong career, the wrong partner, etc. I am 40sh now and I feel like a little kid no wanting to shower at times. I quit a $100k job because I cannot longer pretend that “it’s ok.” My family and friends think that I am going mad for leaving a “secured job in such a bad economy.” When I read stories like this and others comments I feel less crazy and lonely. Thank you.

  13. Great job Jen. Your post is a reminder that nearly every common “truth” we accept can be seen as a rule of some kind. So, when we blindly follow the traditions that society and family and teachers and even our own experiences have ingrained in us, we subject ourselves to suffering.

    Life is about change and uncertainty, not rules! Now, some of the time we love rules because we seem to find safety and comfort in them. And I suppose that’s okay. But I believe that if we embrace uncertainty and “rule-breaking” we’ll find more peace and joy than ever because we’ll all but eliminate disappointment.

    So, I’m also waving “bye-bye!”

  14. Really helpful post. So many conventions that we feel we have to comply with mean that we can often go through life literally trying to be someone else, trying to remain in control with “self management” and hard work. Thanks for encouraging us to confront the rules and help us to be a bit more human.

  15. Thank you for adding the lessons in self-trust. We get so used to not trusting our self and not actually feeling the way we feel that we forget to do those things after awhile.

    That’s why everything is such a big secret these days. No one like to share their true self because they were told over and over again not to.

    We should all just live openly and stop hiding then we’d be able to heal.

    Thanks for this post Jennifer.

  16. Hi Jennifer,

    Brilliant article and you are totally speaking out of my heart. I have always broken the rules and therefore, was always the black sheep in my family but I am a lot happier today then they are and I have taught them so many things now. I am happy I always question everything and everybody and on top of all I love trusting and following my instincts. They have always led me onto the right pass for me.

    Thanks for sharing this.


  17. Jennifer,
    I am so sorry about your daughter.. what a heartache. Thank you for sharing so much of your soul in the article. I loved, loved, loved it! I was always a rule breaker, but now I find myself going along with the job, the responsibilities, and doing what is expected of me. I feel like I am trapped inside of myself and trying to claw my way out. Thank you for the motivation to be me again!

    1. Hi, Jenn. It’s such a darn process, isn’t it. We learn something and we swear we’ll never forget that lesson. And yet, somehow, we find ourselves adrift again. My personal newest idea about that is that we’re supposed to stay close to Spirit. I only forget to remember not to forget what is best for me when I’m running my own show — which is, by the way, not an altogether unusual experience.


  18. It is such a change to read an empowering article which is actually cool! The article is not like an advice, it is the author is talking to the reader, like sharing your experience & what helped you get through!!
    I cannot believe i’m seeing this article only in 2013!!!
    I especially loved the line — “If you don’t like broccoli, for heaven’s sake stop filling your plate with it at Thanksgiving! Don’t smile when you’re angry. Don’t say “it’s okay” if it isn’t.”
    This kinda explains the whole article in one line.
    It is like saying “Screw it, lets do it”!!
    Lovely writing Jen!! I hope to see a lot more writings like this.

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