Be Bad Be Happy: Break the Rules

We're not saying you should get arrested or anything. But sometimes the smartest way to cope is by breaking a few rules and finding out what you're really capable of.

Karen Pearson

Generally I'm in favor of laws and guidelines and limits. They're what make relationships—families, groups and communities—work. However, I am also a fan of shaking things up. You know, freeing yourself from the "shoulds," defying group-think, going against the norm. And here's why: When life is stressing you out, breaking through some boundaries can help you snap out of it.

There's more to this than just going rogue for its own sake, though. Indulging in a little anarchy opens a pipeline to who you are, what you stand for and what's fun. "You do yourself a big favor when you step out of your usual patterns," says Rick Foster, coauthor of Happiness & Health (Perigee). "Getting out of your groove actually lays down new neural pathways in your brain, which creates freshness, newness, optimism and hopefulness." That translates into better physical and mental health.

Which is why I let my dog, Shadow, off the leash in the park early on a recent Sunday morning when no one else was around. While she romped and rolled, I did a little deep breathing and gave myself a pep talk—out loud. Watching Shadow made me feel free. Talking to myself made me feel, well, weird. But it also left me refreshed and centered. Our little walk on the wild side showed that while I may be an average suburban mom of three, I am also capable of some surprises. And I went home invigorated, a state that lasted into the week.

It turns out I did myself a more long lasting favor. Daring to break out of yourself can improve your overall quality of life. "The culture around you can make it seem like staying ordinary is ideal," says Robert J. Wicks, Psy.D., author of Bounce: Living the Resilient Life (Oxford University Press). "And sometimes it's a very good idea to hold yourself back and delay gratification. Yet overdoing conformity leaves you merely existing." In other words, if you allow yourself to get locked into habits that no longer serve their purpose, you'll pay, at the very least, with boredom or a sense that something's not quite right. "Being on autopilot can be very helpful," says Katherine Yost, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Bellevue, Washington. "But the brain also loves and needs novelty." You don't have to commit to huge experiments: Just sleeping on the other side of the bed or driving a different route home can light up new brain circuitry, says Foster.

Of course it's not just the strictures we put on ourselves that hold us back. We also deal with the expectations of others. On any given day we are evaluating whether we'll go with the flow or make waves. This could be as simple as stepping outside society's go-along, get-along rule, by standing up in a PTA meeting and voicing an opposing view. It is certainly about holding strong and risking being unpopular with your teen by answering her "But everybody else is" with "That's not how we do things in this family." And it's about sticking to "No" when a neighbor says, "But you've always run the block party! Everybody's counting on you!" Honoring what you value, in the face of social pressure to do otherwise, may earn you the label of "difficult." But long term you'll be a stronger person for it.

That said, you can't just go out and cause trouble—you need some kind of plan or framework. The first order of business is to check your intentions. As long as going against the grain is good for you and doesn't hurt others or the world, go for it, says Foster. Next, ask yourself three questions: Does it need to be said or done? Do I have to be the one to say or do it? Must it be said or done now? If the answer to all three is "yes," you know you're on deck to make your move. Then evaluate potential consequences: For violating leash laws, I could have faced a $25 fine. Taking a stand for an unpopular point of view means you can't let yourself worry about what others think. Finally, remember that a free spirit needs her friends to cheer her on and keep her from going off the deep end.

Your own innate comfort level should also factor in. "Some people have an inherited trait that makes them feel most right and safe when they know the rules and can follow them," says Yost. If you have reservations, think about the worst-case scenario as well as the best. You could discover talents you didn't know you had. Or amaze yourself—and others—by running for school board or campaigning door-to-door for a cause.

When the outcome is embarrassment, take five minutes to feel stupid, then move on. Don't over-focus on a specific result or you'll get bogged down. Enjoy the process. "Breaking rules is liberating," says Michael Finkelstein, M.D., who practices integrative and holistic medicine in Bedford, New York. "You release pent-up frustration and end up feeling proud of who you are."

Even better, it can be fun. "At 18 I went skydiving and hitchhiked around Africa," says Eileen Flanagan, author of The Wisdom to Know the Difference (Tarcher), and mother of two kids, 12 and 14. "When I became a parent, I was suddenly seeing danger around every corner." She now takes a night off from her family every week (her husband gets a different evening), to go to a movie, meet friends for a drink or take a class.

As she breaks the taboo against selfishness, she says, "I get to remember that I'm an adult with my own interests." In the end, only you can decide when, where and how to step out of line. But this much is for sure: When you do, you'll discover more energy, courage and ingenuity—the perfect ingredients for making your life the best it can be.

Moms Who Dare

Readers confess how they take a different path.

  • "When you ask me a direct question you will get a direct answer. I am not rude but honesty seems to have gotten lost in today's PC environment."
  • "In our neighborhood we're different. We didn't buy our child a car the day she turned 16. She has a job to pay for a trip she's taking. Our kids aren't on Facebook… The list goes on."
  • "I do not know how to mind my own business. If I see something that doesn't feel right, I speak up or step forward to help. Sometimes I get in trouble, but I'm willing to take that risk."
  • "I was on a business trip, and while everyone was staying out acting like rowdy kids, I went to bed. People said I was a wet blanket, but I was okay. I knew I wouldn't have any regrets."

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.