Your Zesty Self

New perspectives on freeing yourself from shame and building self-esteem.

Should Everyone Play By Your Rules?

It's frustrating when people don't meet our standards.

Did you ever try to get a squirrel to eat an acorn with a knife and fork? Probably not. You haven't tried to enforce an unenforceable rule of behavior on the squirrel. So you probably haven't gone around feeling resentful toward squirrels with bad table manners. Why? Because no one can enforce impeccable table manners on a squirrel.

With people, it is often more difficult to tell the difference between what we have the power to influence and what we don't. And, if we are not clear about the limitations of our power, we expect the impossible from ourselves. The result is exasperation, helplessness and resentment. All of which drain our zest.

A common source of personal power leakage is in trying to enforce our standards, and our rules, on other people. We may, consciously or unconsciously, expect others to live by our own rules and standards.

An example of trying to enforce an unenforceable rule is when we expect a chronically late person to be on time when meeting us. Another example is expecting a messy person to straighten up their office for our visits. In each case, the other person chooses how to live their life and we have no or very little ability to make them follow our rules for timeliness or cleanliness.

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We have several choices when we are constantly distressed by another's actions or inactions. One of the choices is, of course, to have no further interaction with the other. Another, is to communicate calmly and clearly your distress and to ask for a behavior change. When all else has failed, and you don't want to leave the relationship or keep harping on your request, adjusting your expectations is necessary.

Common unenforceable rules include the following: People have to tell me the truth. They have to be fair to me. My parents have to stop criticizing me. Other people shouldn't judge me. Life has to be easy. My partner has to give me an anniversary card. She has to care for me the way I want to be cared for.

Annie * discovers of one of her power leaks and gains her freedom.

A client told me this story. She was employed by an art gallery owner; one of her duties was to prepare copies of artist's paintings. "I had worked all weekend on the woman's painting--on my own time--not getting paid extra. When she came to pick up the painting, my boss actually sat there and told her that HE had stayed up late last night and gotten up at 5:00 am to finish it for her. And he had not made one brush stroke on that painting! I had to inhibit my mouth from dropping wide open right in front of the woman. He told her that right in front of me.

"It was a moment of such clarity for me. I realized that he's just going to do what he does. He just is not going to do things the way I've wanted him to. But in a flash I was freed. I just let go and felt such relief! I saw that that is just the way he is. I can't get him to be the way I want. Wow."

How to Challenge Your Unenforceable Rules for Others

Here are 7 steps to follow to improve your power leakage.

1. Acknowledge that you are upset and name what you are feeling: possibly hurt, angry, depressed, hopeless, and alienated. Annie used to get anxious when her boss ignored her needs. Then she would feel shame as if there must be something lacking in her for her boss to treat her that way. She later learned that she was angry--a feeling she previously did not allow herself to feel.

2. Recognize that your upset is partly because you are trying to enforce an unenforceable rule. Annie realized that, "He just is not going to do things the way I've wanted him to. "

3. Realize that you, more than the other person, are the one with the distress about the problem. Annie remarked, "He was going to take credit for what I had done. Again."

4. Articulate the unenforceable rule that is at the core of your upset. To find the rule, ask yourself, "What experience am I demanding to be different?" Annie understood that she was expecting him to behave the way she would.

5. Commit to consciously change your demands demanding and shift to thinking about what it is that you want or need. One way to find that want or need is to say to yourself, "I wish___", or "I hope__" or "It would be nice if___." In Annie's case, her first wish was to cut down on her hours of unpaid overtime work. Her longer term goal, she expressed as, "This is confirming that I need to go into business for myself. I guess I always knew, but was too scared to admit it."

6. Focus on finding your positive intention behind the demand or grievance. To help yourself find the positive intention, ask yourself the following questions.

• "How would my life be better if my desires were met?" Time and energy for her own painting, and more time with her husband were what Annie wanted.

• "What were my reasons for being in this situation in the first place?" Annie realized that she had previously felt that she needed her boss's view of her as an artist. She hadn't had enough confidence in herself.

• "What is my goal, expressed in positive terms?" "Going out on my own is what I have always wanted to do, but was too scared to do before," was Annie's happy conclusion.

7. Now work towards accomplishing your goal. The day after Annie made her realization, she contacted a web designer to start her own website. She's progressing beautifully.


Just ending a power leak by going for what you want and need and not trying to enforce your rules on others can increase your Zest Factor enormously.


* Names and other identifying information are changed to protect client confidentiality


To learn more about assertiveness skills, click: http://www.dr-jane-bolton.com/assertiveness.html. For self esteem skills, click http://www.dr-jane-bolton.com/self-esteem.html

Jane Bolton, Psy.D., M.F.T., is a supervising and training analyst and adjunct professor at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.

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