Have you ever been in a situation where following the rules felt wrong? Maybe something about it just didn’t sit right with you, or perhaps the wrongness was blatant. What did you do?
We’ve all been raised to follow the rules. Whether at home, work, or school. While driving or shopping, socializing, and of course, government laws. Most rules are there for a reason and bring order to what would otherwise be chaos. There’s a reason we see rules literally everywhere. Personally, I find it amazing we remember all of them. But what happens when what you’re told to do conflicts with what you feel you should do?
Rules are Everywhere
Rules single-handedly shape everything we know about life. We all know following the rules is supposed to be considered right, while not following the rules is wrong. With the exceptions of math and science, rules can be broken, but they don’t disappear unless they’re replaced with new ones. Despite the occasional inconvenience, rules make our lives easier and appease our fears of the unknown by letting us know what to expect.
Think about it this way, every aspect of your life and how you go about your day is defined by deciding which rules to follow — otherwise known as your choices.
In most cases, we follow the rules without realizing we’re making a choice. For example, you’ll show up on time and do your job, if you don’t want to get fired. It seems like a no brainer, yet you get up every day and make the choice to do your work instead of calling out sick or no-showing.
Similarly, our experiences shape our opinions of what’s right and what’s wrong. I hate being lied to, for example. In my experience, lying tarnishes my relationship with the offender. Lying makes me question things I thought I knew and impairs my ability to trust in the future. So, honesty is a rule people need to follow if they want a relationship with me. In other words, honesty is one of my values.
And unless you’re a sociopath or psychopath, watching someone inflict pain on someone else doesn’t sit well with you. In fact, witnessing such an act might cause you physical pain too. You might flinch watching someone get beaten and your stomach tightens when you see an abused animal. These sensations are known as empathy — an integral aspect of what it means to be human.
When you were young, you were taught to say please and thank you. Doing so is the most basic form of showing respect during an exchange — as opposed to taking whatever you want, whenever you want.
Understanding this simple concept sets the groundwork for human decency. The same can be said for holding the door open for someone to walk through or referring to elders as ma’am or sir as a sign of respect. These lessons are social constructs, as in guidelines humans created, to live in what’s known as a civilized society. Put simply, they create our morals.
Every organization from a business to religion has its own organized standards and rules of what’s right or wrong. Your employer has rules for customers and how to treat employees. If you’re religious, the script or God you worship has its own definition of right and wrong, including how to treat others. As does your school, club, and government. These rules are called ethics.
When Rules Conflict
Sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where the outer rules don’t line up with our inner rules for what’s right. Also known as an ethical or moral dilemma.
I used to work as an aid for a physical therapy clinic where I learned the owner and physical therapist purposefully provided subpar treatment to clients with good insurance. The idea behind their plan was to slow down and drag out the client’s recovery, so the clinic could make more money off them. Which would keep them in business longer.
Then they filled the client’s appointments with expensive forms of therapy so the clinic could charge more per appointment. The rules of my job said not to tell the clients of their mistreatment or I could be fired for going against the profit of the business. But my inner rules said it’s wrong to take advantage of hurting people.
Deciding What to Do
Like snowflakes, every dilemma is unique. Circumstances vary for every situation which makes it difficult to create a precise formula for success. If there was such a thing, then our problems would be a thing of the past instead of something we face on the regular.
However, there are three tools you already process which will help you figure it out. Your ability to reason, your empathy, and your values.
In my work example above, the ethics of the business I worked for conflicted with my values and empathy. Following the ethics of my workplace meant I’d be participating in preventing clients from achieving better health by omitting the truth behind their sluggish progress.
In my opinion, omitting the truth is still a lie. This means by continuing to work there, I’d be lying every day. Some might argue there are exceptions for when it’s appropriate to lie, and I agree. But since I was a massage therapist at the time, lying in this situation also went against the sole reason I worked there — to help people. Which leads to my other conflict, my empathy.
I spent a lot of time with the clients who were being taken advantage of. Most came in two or three times a week, often with two or three-hour appointments. I got to know them as humans, not just a number. I empathized with their pain and frustrations while their health stagnated. It was even worse knowing they weren’t getting the care they deserved.
My reasoning skills allowed me to weigh each case, while also understanding the financial ramifications of walking out and becoming unemployed. In the end, I decided staying wasn’t worth betraying myself. I waited to quit until I found another job and was honest about why I was leaving during my exit interview.
The best way to solve a tough problem is by understanding it. Though even after you understand the problem, it doesn’t mean the answer will be easy to accomplish. What it really comes down to is, what you can live with and who you are.
I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I had stayed, which meant more to me than staying. But maybe you feel differently. Perhaps you’d stay and warn clients about what the clinic was doing — which I did before leaving. It’s possible you’d follow along to avoid conflict, or you respected the clinic for doing what they thought was necessary to stay in business.
These moments define you. The answers aren’t black and white with any specific right answer. It’s up to you to choose what you feel is right, and your actions show others who you are by choosing it.
Choosing what you feel is right, won’t always align with someone else’s definition of right. Often you’ll be pressured to choose the option other people want. We all know peer pressure is hard to say no to, but the alternative is worse. Going along with something you don’t agree with is how you end up living a life with good intentions but little to show for them.
You can along with the status quo — or you can view these dilemmas as opportunities to check in with yourself, and decide the kind of person you want to be.