From Would Like to Should – The Unenforceable Rules

I was asking a friend of mine about what I could write about this week. He suggested, “What about resentment?” I hadn’t thought about this for a while but it’s a significant problem that does wear us down.


There are many reasons for resentment. I think the essence of it is the word, “should”. Dr. Fred Luskin in his book, Forgive for Good, presents a concept that has had a major impact on me. He uses the term, “unenforceable rules.” There are many behaviors that irritate us daily and a can consume a lot of energy. Most of the frustrations arise from situations that we have little or no control over, such as other’s behavior. Dr. Luskin points out that it’s fine to wish someone would behave differently, but when that wish becomes a demand in your mind then you are wasting your time and destroying relationships. Thinking, “I wish my son had better manners” is much different than, “He has to act better and I am going to have a say about it.”

This type of thinking can pervade almost every aspect of our lives and the closer the relationships the more intense the interaction. I think it’s universal. I have my own list about how others should act and the bigger problem occurs when I actually act on it in the form of unasked for advice. Maybe a more concise word would be criticism.

My list is endless and the problem is that I become judgmental, which is not an endearing trait in any relationship. Each person is programmed by their past and has a specific life outlook and opinion about almost every scenario. We tend to think that our life outlook is the most valid and we keep re-interpreting daily input through our own filters. We become more entrenched in our opinions with age – unless we take specific action to reverse this trend. Eventually, you can become more and more resentful from two directions. One, is that no one seems to be taking your “wisdom” seriously. In other words, you are not feeling listened to and that doesn’t feel great. Maybe more of a problem is that you are continually frustrated by your partner’s ongoing advice about how to live your life. Or you have behaviors that existed long before you met him or her that are almost impossible to change but that doesn’t stop the endless critiquing. The conversations around the issues also become ingrained and you can almost script them word for word. Nothing gets solved and resentments can build.





As I have worked family dynamics into the DOC healing process, I’ve seen that these issues are magnified when a family member is suffering from chronic pain. In the best of families, resentment is an issue that may not be acknowledged because they are able to keep it under wraps. Almost by definition resentment is contained within the person who’s experiencing it. However, when it does break through, it may not be that pretty and at a minimum takes the luster off of laughter and enjoyment of your family. My personal scenario is that I am “Mr. acceptance” and feel I can generally go with the flow. Suddenly, I’ll get upset over a little situation that shouldn’t even elicited a reaction. It’s completely out of proportion to the incident and is incredibly disruptive.

If you’re critical, either openly or silently of your close relationships, you’ll foster resentment. The people you are critical of are not any happier about being criticized than you are when you feel judged. What makes all of this more ironic is that when you are judgmental, you are just projecting your own opinion of yourself onto others. As you can see, this is a tangled mess.


I have as long a list as anyone about things I wish were different in people around me. Although I intellectually realize that I am projecting my own issues on to them, it still feels like they are the ones with the problem. I don’t think that feeling is going to change. I am not going to propose an easy solution to this scenario and will just share some strategies that I have found helpful.

First, I have learned that everyone sees the world from their own perspective and it feels like the “correct” one. I understand that my perspective is only mine and it has become more important for me to listen and even then, I need to understand that I am still interpreting others’ words through my filter. I don’t need to give people unasked for advice. (I wish I was better at this).

Second, I keep reminding myself of the “unenforceable rules”. I have essentially no control over most of the situations that irritate me. I often find myself trying to control people attempting to control me. All of us have “control issues”. It is how we stay alive. We control our environment to meet our physical needs but it also carries over into our emotional needs, which is a problem of human consciousness. It’s a learned skill that can slowly improve with repetition. That is to train yourself not to react when you feel judged and become aware of when you are judging others by your standards.

Third, everyone’s perspective is valid – especially your children’s. One book that has had a major impact on me is Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon. It was first published in the 70’s. He was a child psychiatrist who presents remarkable insights into how your children are viewing your behavior and words. One of the more powerful sections of the book is where he presents “Your child’s bill of rights”. Adults assume that because they are older that they are wiser. That’s not necessarily true and often a child can see a situation more clearly than a parent who is upset. It’s critical that a parent practice listening and understanding the needs of their children and not assume anything. One piece of advice I give my patients who are struggling with pain and its disruptive effects on their family is to go home and only listen to their children for a month. Don’t give ANY advice. I have them go a step further and ask them to look at their relationship with them and work on it. Play with them.

Finally, let go. Just enjoy your day with whatever tools you have. All these patterns and reactions are almost infinite and have no endpoint. Quit trying to “talk it out” and realize that anytime you are anxious or angry, you’re in a survival reactive pattern that isn’t subject to rational interventions. The longer you remain upset, the longer you will be exposing your body to stress chemicals that increase the speed of nerve conduction. So, you will feel more pain. The metaphor that has recently come to mind is that of boxers locked together in the ring. The ref often has to say, “Break”.

All of the strategies I’ve presented center around awareness. It’s critical so see when you have gone from, “Would like” to “Should”, let go and then move on. You’ll have a greater capacity to listen and meet the needs of those around you. I was putting up our Christmas tree yesterday and the strings of lights had become tightly tangled. As you well know, the solution is to loosen it all up and slowly unravel it. I got a little frustrated and started to yank on the wires and of course made it much worse. Understanding how you have become ensnared in your own life outlook is a critical step in untangling it.




She just Let Go is a poem that I have referred to several times on this website. It was sent to me by a patient and I occasionally re-read it to remind myself to just let it all go.

Enjoy your day today.