The importance of rules and rituals

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When are your rules constricting, and when are they helpful? Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

You may think that you are only interested in emotions, and what people are really, genuinely like.  You may feel that rules and regulations are for control freaks.  You may think that people should be free to be themselves.

But maybe that’s missing something.  What if rules and rituals are a necessary part of existence, something that we can’t really do without?  Furthermore, what if they are necessary for our own emotional regulation, and for healthy relationships?

We think we love freedom.  But freedom, arguably, can’t exist without the opposite of freedom.

USING RITUAL FOR EMOTIONAL REGULATION

Here’s an example.  A child is growing up.  In their household, everyone does what they want.  If Mum feels upset, she gets upset; if Dad feels sleepy, he goes to sleep.  There are no rules.  That child growing up has two things to worry about:

1. What am I feeling, and how shall I express it?
2. What is everyone else feeling, and how might I affect them?

Not having any rules might seem the kind thing: everyone in the family can just be themselves and do what they want.  But, without any rules, a child growing up in that house has a constant dilemma: the argument between 1 and 2 above, between self-expression, and other people’s reaction.

The child will experience conflict between self-expression and others’ reaction, and will have no rest from that conflict.  Without rituals, there is never a time when everyone is expected to behave a certain way.  A safe environment is what that child craves, somewhere away from chaos, somewhere orderly.

THE IMPORTANCE OF ORDER

Alternatively, some families get themselves into some kind of order.  They have rituals, certain things happening at certain times, and in certain ways.  The relevance of this order to emotional life is this: in an orderly environment, the individual does not have the burden of having to maintain peace with their actions.  The environment does it for them.

In society, the existence of predictable law and order takes away from citizens the constant anxiety of worrying how their actions might affect their environment and each other.  Peace is more likely, because individuals do not have the violence of direct, unintermediated interaction.  The rules and regulations step in between everyone, and make it easier to relax.

DISADVANTAGES OF ORDER

However, in more developed societies and families, order can go beyond its peaceful function, and start to cause trouble in and of itself.  Originally its function may have been to facilitate peace.  But eventually, without being moderated, the world of order can become over-dominant.

Thus, in some societies, leaders and governments turn themselves into dictatorships, or perhaps technocracies.  Orderliness becomes more important than anything else, and divergence from what is argued to be ‘rational’ or ‘obedient’ is punished furiously.  In families, perhaps in the hands of an over-dominant parent, rules become so harshly enforced that everyone suffers.

FINDING A BALANCE

Have a look at your own life, and decide for yourself what role orderly rituals and rules perform for you.  You may find it useful to split things into 3 categories:

1. Areas of your life which have no order, rules or rituals.  These are often private aspects of your life, such as your emotional life.  You may have grown up on a diet of pop songs which encouraged you to be ‘free’ with your emotions, to express yourself liberally.  You might have misunderstood this to mean ‘inflict your emotions on others, whatever effect it has’.  In these areas of life, you and others will have constant meltdowns, because there is nothing keeping you orderly and solid.

2. Areas of your life which have too much order, too many rules, are too ritualistic.  These can be habits, obsessions, clubs, religions, cultures – anything where your own private emotions are over-dominated by the fear of repercussions if you truly expressed yourself.  Here, you might have grown up on a diet of social rules which you had to apply without thinking.  In these areas of life, you and others will become quiet and depressed, because there is no outlet to express how you truly feel, and find some freedom and creativity.

3. Areas of your life where you have a balance, or a flow.  You will recognise these areas, because they are characterised by times when you are without fear because there is enough structure, but you are also without fear because there is enough freedom.  The absence of fear is what characterises peaceful societies, peaceful families, and peaceful people.  And fear is absent when there is a balance between discipline and freedom.

AN EXERCISE

Look around you and observe where you see rules and rituals.  You may have to look hard, as many rituals we don’t even notice because they are second nature.  Notice people obeying those rules and rituals.  Notice whether they are having a good or bad effect.

Then look into yourself and observe where you see your own rules and rituals.  What do you always do, and when?  Do you notice these rituals helping you to have an orderly life?  If so, are there any rituals which make your life too ordered, and make you feel constricted?

Maybe decide for yourself how you might relax the rules in some areas, and bring in some rules in other areas.  Develop a sense of how it feels to achieve the ‘right’ amount of discipline-freedom balance.

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SUMMARY

It is a mistake to think that life can be all freedom.  As children, as adults, and in society, we need some rules to provide safety.  However, if the rules and rituals we invent become too dominant, people start to feel punished for being themselves, and life starts to lose its fun.  Now and again, ask yourself which areas of your life need some new rules, and which areas need some relaxation of the rules.  Find a balance.

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