Breaking the rules of belonging

This Christmas many of us will spend time with the most influential human system we have – our family of origin. We’re shaped by the norms and emotions around us when we grew up. One question worth pondering this Christmas might be this: “Which emotions were allowed in your family of origin and which emotions were not allowed?” As you consider this, you’ll begin to identify the so-called ‘rules of belonging’. One rule might have been ‘never be sad’ or ‘always put a brave face on it’. We bring these (often unspoken) ‘rules’ into our adult life and this is where it gets tricky. As we’re exposed to different human systems such as our partner’s family, university, workplaces, clubs etc, we come across different rules of belonging, some of which conflict with those of our family of origin. In order to grow, thrive and develop strong adult relationships, we must understand how these engrained rules help or hinder us. We can then make choices about whether we are to stay loyal to the original rules, or break the rules. In breaking the rules we risk alienation from the original system, but we also have the promise of new experiences, relationships and growth.

Take attitudes to money as an example. Did you grow up in a family in which the norm or ‘rule’ was to watch every penny, never be frivolous? What then happens when you’re faced with a great business opportunity that involves taking some financial risk? Do you stay true to your family’s rule and turn down the opportunity? Or do you ‘break’ the rule, take the financial risk in the hope that it could open the door to many wonderful opportunities and experiences?

Something I’ve come across in some organisations is the unspoken rule that says ‘we never admit to mistakes’. Business cultures where this rule is prevalent display a macho, blame culture. Mistakes are repeated and levels of innovation and trust are low. Even those who can see that this rule is killing the company continue to conform because they risk becoming the odd one out, they fear conflict or looking stupid. Courageous leaders take a stand against the rules of belonging that get in the way of business success by role modelling alternative behaviours and by encouraging conversations about these unspoken rules. Check out the wonderful Margaret Hefferman’s TED talk on Daring to Disagree.

We are hard-wired to want to belong, so it takes courage to break away from the norms of the system we’re in, whether that be of our family or our organisation. However this is exactly what we need to do to learn, grow and open ourselves up to the diversity of human experience available to us.

I’d love to hear your stories of the times when you’ve been courageous enough to be disloyal to an unspoken rule of belonging. What drove you to break the rule and what were the consequences?


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