Breaking the Rules Saved My Life


Photography by Annemarieke van Drimmelen for WSJ Magazine

I’ve often felt just a little bit different from the crowds I’ve found myself in. A little more quiet, a little more sensitive, a little more introspective, a little more obsessed with pink kitchen appliances. I haven’t always minded. Being different can be a gift. Ironically though, for years, my inner self was dominated by a bellowing voice in my head that said, “Be different, but don’t differ.”

This message became a tyrannical “rule” that governed my life—so familiar I didn’t realize it was there at all, just like I didn’t realize not everyone operated by this same regulation.

The anatomy of a rule

This “rule” took a variety of forms: “Don’t disagree. Don’t be disagreeable. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t frustrate. Don’t argue. Don’t challenge. And don’t question the reality that’s being presented to you. Especially with the people you care about.”

As with most of the rules we find ourselves ruled by, I’m sure these must have served me well at some point. But, as an adult, they began exacerbating my relationships and, basically, shaping me into a resentful, passive-aggressive, codependent human being who didn’t say what she meant, mean what she said, or stand up for her basic needs and desires.

So that was awesome, for me and everyone else.

As is often the case, it took some major life meltdowns for me to start doing the hard work of recognizing the rules that were driving my behaviors and learning how to shift them. And by “hard work” I mean vulnerable, exhausting, expensive, slow, 100%-worth-it hard work. For me, that involved therapy, support groups, prayer, books, therapy, prayer, grace, patience, support groups, mentors, friendships, therapy, therapy, therapy.

Plus one additional factor: Practice.

And, if I were to give you two words to describe the practice of breaking your own personal rules, it’s this: uncomfortably uncomfortable.

Case in point

Several years ago, I met a guy I really liked. We met online and arranged to meet in person in front of the 10-foot rooster at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market. This was his suggestion, and it’s still the best first date destination I’ve experienced so far. He was tall, handsome, and friendly. He bought me a jar of salsa and an iced tea, and he asked me out to dinner.

Our third date still ranks as one of my all-time favorites: The Minnesota State Fair. We sat with the butterflies. We scurried through the haunted mansion. We ate buckets of French fries. We walked and walked, and talked and talked, for hours. We closed down the fair. And when we returned to my car in the deserted parking lot, I discovered that I’d locked my keys inside.

I was mortified. But as we waited for AAA to arrive, we laughed and talked some more. It was sweet and silly, and I’ll never forget it. I was falling for him. My heart pounded.

But…my gut twisted too.

I’d felt that gut twisting before. Quite a few times, actually. But, for years, I hadn’t paid much attention to it. (Or, more accurately, I’d never known it was something I could or should pay attention to.) In the past, the only things I’d known to listen to were the pounding of my heart saying, “YOU LIKE THIS GUY AND HE LIKES YOU,” and the cacophony of rules in my head yelling, “BE NICE. BE AGREEABLE. BE TRUSTING AT ALL COSTS.”

By this point in my journey, however, I’d learned that my gut was usually dead-on. I knew it shouldn’t be ignored. And, over the course of our weeks together, I’d heard this guy tell me a certain something that just didn’t seem true. More than once. Each time, my gut twisted tighter.

I was pretty sure I was being lied to, but the thing about lies is you either have proof or you don’t. So you can wait around to see if it’s a lie, or you can trust the voice in your head saying, “SOMETHING ISN’T RIGHT HERE” and you work with that.

Oddly, it wasn’t even a big thing this guy seemed to be lying about. I wouldn’t have cared either way about the story he was telling. But that seemed concerning in itself. Why lie about something so benign?

Yet here it was. My heart was pounding and my gut was twisting.

So I had a choice, which was a good news/bad news situation. Good news because I finally realized I had a choice. Bad news because this choice was making me very uncomfortable. My lifelong rules were screaming in my head. My soft, eager heart was pounding in my chest. And this guy was sending me sweet texts and asking to see me again. Why would I want to rock this boat?!

Deep down, though, I knew it was time to practice breaking those rules, or at least bending them. It was time to trust my gut instead of blindly trusting the words I was being told.

The breaking point

So, a few days later, I said something I’d previously thought a nice girl shouldn’t say. Something I’d once believed was rude and insulting and forbidden. Something along the lines of: “I know you said X, but I happen to know Y, so I’m just curious why that seems to contradict. Can you help me understand?”

And that’s when things became more clear.

He was furious. His words were harsh and biting. He accused me of the very things the voices in my head accused me of. He hung up on me.

My heart sank.

I now had more evidence than just my gut. I still didn’t know for sure whether or not he’d lied, but I knew how he responded to someone who dared to question him. It seemed he’d prefer I just follow my old rules.

That was telling.

And so, that day, I walked away from a potential relationship with a guy I really liked. It was hard. My heart disagreed with this decision. I was sad. And I felt shaky. My body wasn’t used to breaking that rule, and I was uncomfortable in my own skin. Plus, I wasn’t certain I’d handled the whole thing very well. (I probably didn’t. After all, I was practicing.)

But, here’s what I know for sure: By breaking that rule and having the courage to ask a perfectly reasonable question, I gained the assurance that I can do life differently—even when decades of ingrained rules, and my own emotions, and a person I like were telling me not to.

The saving of my life

Is it too extreme to say that this saved my life? I’m not trying to imply that, had I not learned to break some rules, I would have ended up with an axe murderer for a boyfriend. What I am saying is that, if I had ended up with an axe murderer, I might have politely stayed.

I do know this: my life—the part of me that is alive and vibrant and vital and in process—has absolutely been saved by this practice of rule breaking. The part of me that is me has been set free from the prison of oppression and silence.

My life—the part of me that is alive and vibrant and vital and in process—has absolutely been saved by this practice of rule breaking. The part of me that is me has been set free from the prison of oppression and silence.

Yes, the work has been hard and messy. And, yes, it’s very much still ongoing. But it’s been oh so very worth it.

I will probably always have to do more work than others to reset my default message of “Be different, but don’t differ.” But, these days, I’m working on following a new set of guidelines: “Be different. Be brave. Be honest. Be you.”

And from here on, I’ll be a rule breaker at heart.

BY Julie Rybarczyk - May 21, 2019

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May 21, 2019 11:02 am

Reading this was like reading my own, very recent story. I understand every single word you write and everything that’s hidden between the lines, and I totally needed to read this right now, struggling with those feelings of loss and sadness, missing him even though my every cell knows it’s better this way.
Thank you for writing this and sharing it with us!

Teresa Maria | Outlandish Blog

May 21, 2019 2:09 pm

This story feels so much like mine, but instead of questioning a weeks old relationship, I decided to confront a three-year situation by finally standing up for myself and my needs.

It was…violent, to say the least. But I’m never going back to my passive, meek, agreeable self. Not when my own life and safety are on the line.

Thank you for writing this.

May 22, 2019 12:01 am

“Be different. Be brave. Be honest. Be you.”

May 29, 2019 1:19 am

“Be Different, Be yourself”.
Thank you for sharing this.

May 30, 2019 9:22 pm

The article is exceptionally good and straightforward. This is precisely what I require.

October 25, 2019 3:02 pm

I absolutely loved this story. Thank you so much for sharing. It sounds like you’ve been though a lot and have learned from it. Keep breaking the rules! You’re most certainly on the right track.

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