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Do Rules Help or Hurt Us?

I have many clients who struggle against food rules. Some are highly compliant in other ways—they wouldn’t jay-walk or cheat on their taxes—while others will push the limit in many life areas, seeing what they can “get away with.” Recently, while emailing with a “nice” girl client about her disdain and subsequent rebellion against food rules, I began thinking about their general evolutionary purpose.
In 2009, I wrote a blog entitled “Structure versus Freedom,” which describes the human need for both structure and freedom and how they play out in adulthood when you have too much or too little of either in childhood. Kids who were raised with excessive structure in the form of rigid do’s and don’ts accompanied by little say in the matter, often grow up to overtly or covertly crave freedom. Alternately, kids allowed too much license may morph into adults who overtly or covertly crave structure.
Implicit in my writing about structure and freedom is the concept of “rules.” What’s your initial reaction to them—appreciative, contemptuous, indifferent? Why do we need rules anyway? We need them to free up energy for thinking about other things in the same way that habits do. In fact, we can’t live without some rules, such as obeying traffic lights and road signage, laws about not drinking and driving, and the need to pay taxes. Basically, rules tell us to do this and not do that. They help us conform and know what to expect of ourselves and others. They’re a highly useful tool for societal cohesion.
Consider this: Do you not like rules or do you not like arbitrary rules? Do wish you didn’t have any guidelines for eating (no appetite signals telling you when you’re hungry or full) or do you not wish to follow someone else’s guiding principles? Are you actually opposed to the idea of eating mostly only when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full or satisfied? Do you have better ideas for eating guidelines? If so, I’d love to hear them and to hear how well you think they’d work out long term.
My take is that you may have a fierce distaste for someone else’s rules—eating or otherwise—being imposed upon you. I get that, really. Well, the good news is that if you didn’t like your parents’ food (or other) rules, you don’t need to follow them any more, because you can now make up your own! Assuming that you believe some eating rules are required, what do you want them to be? Of course, for each, you will need a good reason for having created it and for it to work in your long-term interest. It just might be that by developing your own eating guidelines, you’ll lose your desire to rebel and will be more easily able to follow them into becoming a “normal” eater.