S3E3 The Rules Dilemma

You see that there? What is the dilemma with rules? Tune in to hear Dr. Rubin talk about how there are some issues with rules, but that we also need them. She schools Dr. Pete, as always, and sheds light onto the importance of rules in behaviorism.




Nikki: Pete, we finally decided to devote an episode to one of our favorite topics, The Rules Dilemma.


Pete: One of your favorite topics.


Nikki: Can I say ours? I feel like you talk about rules too. We both talk about rules a lot on this podcast.


Pete: We talk about them, but if we were to say, who's the bigger rule follower.


Nikki: Oh yeah. I'm a huge rule follower. That's true. That is a hundred percent true but I wouldn't say I deeply love them. I more feel terrorized by them, which is where this dilemma comes in and why I want to talk about it.


Pete: And many of our clients do, and I joke, but also I'm a rule follower. So I think a lot of us, at a certain point, we have a moral compass. Many of us have rules that guide our decisions and our behaviors.


Nikki: Except that I will say to this day, think about this. And I'm sure people will laugh when I say this because of course I'd never heard this before. Pete was the first person to ever share the saying with me, but you know, the saying of “I'd rather ask for forgiveness than permission”. I remember he said that to me once and I was like, “wow, what a guy” and I was like, yeah, because I asked for permission. That's definitely my jam.


Pete: That might just be, because I work in several bureaucratic systems, large ones. And so that's why recently I was like, “I don't want to even have a landlord anymore”. It's really hard to work with other people sometimes.


Nikki: It is, well, it's funny, you're saying this and of course we'll get into some science here in a moment. But I had this realization the other day where I thought, because I worked for myself obviously for many years and I love it. And I always thought it's so funny, I've never thought of myself as having a problem with authority, but apparently I don't like authority. I want to do whatever I want, but that never quite resonated with me. I was having a conversation with somebody about it and it clicked for me that I realized it's not that I have a problem with authority, It's that I so want to follow the rules that when I work for somebody else, it's so stressful to me. So when it's just for me, I feel such a freedom. 


Pete: Yeah. 


Nikki: That's what it is. It's not that I'm like “screw authority”. It's more like, “oh, I want to listen to authority”.


Pete: No. Anyone that knows Nikki knows you never said screw authority. 


Nikki: I've never said that. 


Pete: Never. That may have been the first time those words came out of your mouth.


Nikki: Usually use a different word than screw, but I'm not going to say it on….


Pete: But we have to make sure we don't have to click explicit on our podcast


Nikki: Yeah we don’t want to click explicit on our podcasts services. So the reason we're talking about The Rules Dilemma is that, even if you're a person listening that says, “Yeah, well I am like, F authority or I don't care about rules or whatever”. The truth of the matter is that human brains are really into rules.


Pete: Yeah. 


Nikki: And it has to do with surprise shocker language. [inaudible 3:18] So, we are constantly creating rules for ourselves. So, we've started this discussion talking about the rules groups of humans create in a society. Or like Pete said in a bureaucratic system, but we create rules for ourselves too. And so why do we have this tendency? Well, let's go back to my favorite example. Pete and I talked about this a lot. If somebody, when you were a kid said, told you don't touch the stove, it's hot. Don't do it. So the thing that's helpful about language is that, that rule using language helps us to not have to directly experience the pain of getting burned, to learn, not to touch the hot stove. 


Pete: That's right. 


Nikki: That's an advantage. So we're like, cool, thanks evolution. That really helps us out. The thing is if any of you have ever accidentally touched a hot stove, guess what? You really don't ever do it again. That is what we call in behaviorism, direct contingency learning. So language is an indirect contingency, you’re not actually experiencing something. Directly experiencing something helps you learn it more deeply. And this makes sense because again, our animal friends don't have language, yet they learn stuff all the time. They learn through experience, but humans were like, “Hey, we've got language. Let's just make a bunch of rules and that's going to keep us safe. Like maybe never share my emotions with my partner”. That'll keep me safe like don't touch the hot stove.


Pete: That’s right.


Nikki: So I'm going to pause for a second before we get deeper into rules. Pete, is this something that you talk about a lot clinically? What do you want to add here? 


Pete: Yeah. All the time. And I certainly frame within their rigidity. I think it’s always tough, especially if you think about multiculturalism, which we've done several episodes on how sometimes rules are really based in culture. And so while it might feel like it's really misaligned or unaligned with this person at this moment, there's some real deep sort of rooted belief system there. So I love that work as just helping people understand sort of the root of some of these rules. These rules govern behaviors, as we often talk about within third wave C B T. Did you know that the APA has a psychology dictionary?


Nikki:  I did not. 


Pete: Well, now you do. You're welcome.


Nikki: I hope I like them a little better than you do. 


Pete: You do, because I've given you one or two before….. 


Nikki: I'm like, “Ooh, yes”.


Pete: Yeah. You've actually liked these better. Rule- “a guideline or standard that is used to guide responses or behavior, or that communicates situational norms”.


Nikki: Correct. All for you in this situation APA. Well, to that point where you're talking about culture, really we could expand this. Its context, humans create rules. We create; I'm going to put in quotes. If you're watching our YouTube channel, you can see me doing my air quotes, norms, quotes. Standards in quotes. And you know, some of those are helpful and some are not. Like don't touch the stove it’s hot. 


Pete: Helpful.


Nikki: Helpful. Don’t share your emotions with your partner….


Pete: Unhelpful. 


Nikki: Unhelpful. Disregard this other group of human beings because of what they believe or how they look. Unhelpful right? So it's really just helpful for people to understand that the rules are constructs that our brain creates. 


Pete: So what I hear you saying Nikki, would you say rules create dialectics? Do they force people sometimes into dialectics?


Nikki: Oh, I would not say that. I would say rules force people down the opposite path. 


Pete: Oh, Okay. So I'm saying the same thing I just said at the wrong way.


Nikki: Oh you are? Okay. 


Pete: So rules are like the [inaudible 7:33]


Nikki: Okay, sure. We could say it that way.


Pete: So like right or wrong? It’s almost like people are forced into that.


Nikki: Yeah. But I guess I wouldn't say they're forced into dialectic because I think they're forced into the rule. They're forced into doing what the rule is saying. I think it might be helpful to focus on a clinical example. 


Pete: Right. 


Nikki: So let's say that somebody comes in with a rule that they have…


Pete: What's your example you're going to do?


Nikki: Oh, actually, I didn't have one. I was thinking on the fly. It was percolating as you were talking. You have one.


Pete: I have one, but I don't know if it's a good one. Because I feel like there's so many rules. Maybe we'll come up with three. So maybe a rule would be like “I can only have sex with one person if I'm married”. Is that a rule or is that a more like…..


Nikki: No, that's a rule. 


Pete: That's a rule. 


Nikki: No. So rules are just exactly what you said. They're saying this is the way it is and let's be clear to everybody listening. It doesn't mean you shouldn't follow or have rules. We're not saying that we're saying rules can serve a function. They can be helpful. Where we get stuck is then we believe whatever rules our minds have created or societies created or your family or whatever it is that those have to be followed. 


Pete: That's right.


Nikki:  And that's where the problem was. That's what gets in the way of psychological flexibility. 


Pete: So, I can only have sex with one person in a relationship. I can't eat Oreos when I'm stressed.


Nikki: Right. Or I can't eat Oreos. Right?


Pete: Period.


Nikki: I can't eat Oreos or when I'm stressed. I should get straight A's.


Pete: Got it. Okay. So that's three.


Nikki: There are three. And we could go on and on and on with rules. 


Pete: Countless. 


Nikki: Countless. And maybe this is important to say too, these are sort of like little clues that something is a rule. So, if we go second wave of CBT here we would say they're like assumptions or rules like should have to’s, must need to’s. I like supposed to’s, which I call fancy shoulds, because patients get wise to it and they'll be like, “oh yeah, I know. I'm not supposed to say should. I'm supposed to”, I'm supposed to get straight A's I'm like, yeah that’s a fancy should. 


Pete: Same.


Nikki: Same function. 


Pete: Probably on synonyms.


Nikki: Right. But other assumptions might be here's a rule or an assumption /assumptions, like femininity is weakness. 


Pete: Boys don't cry.


Nikki: Boys don’t cry, exactly. So, as we are saying these things, I want listeners to think about how that impacts what we do.


Pete: Correct. The behavior.


Nikki: The behavior. So, that's why in act we talk about what are called rule governed behaviors, meaning behaviors that are governed by the rules our minds have created.


Pete: Boys don't cry. That was your dissertation?


Nikki: Basically. Yes. 


Pete: Well break that down.


Nikki: So, that's a cultural rule that exists in many cultures. I wouldn't say most, if not most that men are not allowed to experience sadness, and also anxiety. That's another one. I work with a lot of men that struggle with anxiety and a lot of shame about that. 


Pete: I’ve never had anxiety. 


Nikki: No, never, me neither. And so what's that going to do? So think about somebody. So if you are a man and, let's say a really meaningful relationship ended, or you just lost a loved one and you feel immense grief and sadness and you start to feel tears, but your brains like, no, boys don't cry. What are you going to do? Have you experienced that Pete?


Pete: Last week.


Nikki: Last week? Were you like shut it [inaudible 11:42]


Pete: Yeah. I didn't shut it. Because I let it comes but it's really validating to hear because it's a lot. I love that you went to this really deep example of losing somebody, I'm also just thinking like the coach yelled at me, I lost the game.


Nikki: Right, that too.


Pete: My girlfriend cheated on me. You know something that's less sort of serious if you will. 


Nikki: Right. Sure. 


Pete: But then they push the emotions away, absolutely.


Nikki: Yeah. And so there becomes this problem where a person is now not allowing themselves to experience the fullness of being a human. So in this particular example, like when I share, when I'm working with male patients, I'll say, look, you and I both have human brains. The difference is you are told a story that you’re not allowed to have emotions like sadness. And I'm told a story that I am. And so that's going to impact what we do in different ways. 


Pete: Yeah. 


Nikki: So this episode we're calling it The Rules Dilemma. So it's a dilemma because our brain, I guess I'll pose this question to you, Pete. 


Pete: No. I was going to pose it to you. I was literally just thinking that.


Nikki: All right, fine. Pose it. Go for it.


Pete: So go, I mean, what's the dilemma with rules? 


Nikki: Well, the dilemma is that, rules in the short term often keep us safe. That's why it evolved. Don't touch the stove it’s hot, look both ways before you cross the street. Don't go out into that field saber tooth tigers are wandering out there. 


Pete: Don't cry. Because if you live on the street and someone sees you cry, you're then seen as weak.


Nikki: Yes. And so we can't judge our brains for trying to, again, as we always say to protect us. Most functions that don't work that well overall have some utility at some point along the spectrum. At some point they're trying to protect us. We just want to be able to recognize that, when are these rules not working anymore? Like when is it not working? Look both ways before you cross the street for the most part is going to be workable in almost all contexts. But even that I'll say to somebody I'm like, “what if you're in the middle of nowhere where, let's say you're on an island where there's no car. I've been to an island where there's no cars and there's literally no people, no humans. I'm not saying don't look both ways, but I don't know. Is that rule really that helpful at that moment? Probably not.


Pete: Right. I like that one.


Nikki: Well, because the idea is that in concept of trying to move towards psychological flexibility, it’s like getting curious about what behavior is actually workable and can we get kind of wise to this tendency of our brains to say no, follow what I'm saying? Like, I hear what you're saying, but is that behavior like not crying, not eating the Oreo, getting straight A's like, is that actually working for me?


Pete: Right. So clinically you help people. Because I know I go in and I just help understand how they align with values, really understand some of the roots of it. I think cognitive therapy sometimes were judged for not going down to some of the roots of issues or what whatnot. 


Nikki: Which is not true. Punchline not true, but yeah.


Pete: And so here would be a place where we would really go down, we would really want to break down, understand these rules, break them down. What are the assumptions that are underlying these rules and then the certain behaviors and consequences that are created from these?


Nikki: Yeah. Exactly what I would do. And I think I spend quite a bit of time though, really helping people. Well one understands why we even have rules, and then I guess it's important to also help them understand that, you don't have to do what the rule says. These are like little 20 minute on average bite size podcast episodes. We can believe rules really deeply. I mean like the vulnerability thing, I don't know a human that doesn't have some rule around, like don't be vulnerable. We all are afraid of that.


Pete: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean, it's constantly the work that I do and that's why I was referencing your dissertation a bit. Because you did just for listeners, it was about depression with men in a very general sense. And so because I work predominantly with men, I see it all the time where we're so afraid and I'll just share. I know we're almost getting out of time, but what I referenced last week was just having to attend a funeral. And I felt very off for a few days after I learned of this loss. And then I attended the funeral, which was really healing for me. And the moment that I felt the tears coming, I felt like I wanted to run out. I felt like how uncomfortable it was. And then when I allowed them to be there, a couple moments later, it was just really such a beautiful experience and one that I was really thankful to have. 


Nikki: Thank you so much for sharing that Pete, and I know how difficult that was for you. I think what's helpful about hearing that is to say that, look Pete's brain has a really overlearned rule that’s been culturally reinforced throughout his life. Boys don't cry, especially in public. 


Pete: Especially in public. I'll just put myself out there. Nikki and I are psychologists and so I feel that we're sort of expected to either have the answers or to be able to, my favorite word control our emotions and yet it's just human.


Nikki: It's just human. And so by choosing in that moment, like he said, you were noticing to engage in the rule government behavior, which is like run away from this don't show this, don’t feel this. Pete chose to instead allow. He allowed himself to contact that. And so this comes back to experiential learning that when we actually allow ourselves the opportunity to do the opposite of what an unhelpful rule is telling us to do, our brains actually learn more deeply that these other behaviors are more workable for us. But it requires a willingness to take a leap and try something that is going to feel really unpleasant. Thank you so much for sharing that example, Peter I really appreciate it. 


Pete: Thank you for your wisdom.


Nikki: Oh, well right back at you here. So listeners just consider The Rules Dilemma. Get curious about what are the rules your mind has created for you individually. Maybe get curious about the rules you experience in your family and your friend group and your culture and your country, any of the context that you move within and just know that not all rules are designed equally. Not all of them are helpful. And can you choose to move away from ones that don't work for you? This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.


Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou, be present, be brave. This has been when East meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.


Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.