Book: Rewriting the Rules by Meg Barker

This is a review of the book “Rewriting the Rules” by Meg Barker (who I have met briefly, now calling themselves Meg-John Barker). I’d recommend it to anyone trying to sort out their thinking around relationships, sexuality and gender.

This book is aimed at everyone who is interested in examining themselves and their relationships. It is not a specialist book aimed at therapists although I think most therapists could learn a lot from it. Meg describes it as an anti-self-help book because most self-help books are blaming – as in “if you follow the rules of this book, everything will be OK, so if everything is not OK, it is your fault for failing to follow the rules”. This is a massively unhelpful attitude to have and is just plain wrong.

What the Book is About

“The Rules” of the title are the rules that abound in books, magazines, online – indeed in all media – that relationships should be mediated by rules and conformity. These rules are part of an unconscious backlash to the growing acceptance of different sexualities and different genders. It is natural in a way to cling onto false certainties – rules – when feeling insecure, but it is not helpful.

The book is arranged as a series of chapters, each of which looks at one aspect of relationships. It examines the current rules around that aspect and then challenges the rules from a psychologically-informed viewpoint. The overall aim of the book is to broaden minds, to open up the possibility of each of us finding our own way of being in relationships, with ourselves and with others, to break away from the strictures of conformity which create a lot of unhappiness and distress.

There are nine aspects of relationship examined in this book: yourself, attraction, love, sex, gender, monogamy, conflict, break-up and commitment.

I won’t try to review each of the chapters, but I’ll give a feeling for the book as a whole based on just the first chapter. If you find that interesting then please get the book!

A common theme in the book is to examine a widely-held view of how things “should” be, then to dismantle it by framing it as a rigid dogma that doesn’t describe how real people work, then reframing that with a broader-minded view of how people work that fits with what we can observe and what psychology shows us.

Rewriting the Rules of Yourself

This chapter is about the rules relating to how we see ourselves and how we relate to ourselves.

The rules are based on a common belief that we each have a single, unified and constant “self” that somehow everything comes from. We are encouraged to “find our selves”. But we are also encouraged to find fault in that self – to see our selves as lacking – thus leading to the idea of “self-improvement”. As Meg describes it, this leads to low self-esteem: either you are being hard on yourself with “I’m rubbish, I must do better” or you go soft on yourself in a defeatist way with “I’m rubbish, I might as well give up”. Neither hard nor soft approaches help and both allow your inner critical voice full rein. Being less than perfect is experienced as shameful, so we then try to hide that “imperfect” self from the outside world – from critics – leading to the development of a false persona.

I see this pattern a lot in my own work as a counsellor – the harsh inner critical voice, the feelings of shame and wanting to hide, the striving for perfection to silence the critical voice, which never works, the stress of trying to maintain the false self and ‘act’ this false self all day every day. This seems to me to be a very accurate description of the problem.

The problem can be seen as the creation of a false “ideal self” which cannot be achieved and makes you feel bad about yourself for not achieving the ideal. This ideal is all around us – it is used to sell things everywhere. However, Meg’s view is that this is just a symptom of the problem.

To reframe this is to rewrite the rules of how you see yourself and talk to yourself. You are not a single self, but have multiple aspects which present themselves to different degrees in different circumstances. We are plural, not singular. For example, you may have a professional aspect which is very good at chairing meetings and negotiating solutions, yet a scared and vulnerable aspect that struggles to negotiate intimacy. The hardness of the critical voice comes from an unsympathetic response to that vulnerability, a denial of it, because it does not fit with the ideal image. Yet that aspect of yourself is just as much you as the confident aspect and all aspects of you are equally important and equally part of the whole “you”.

Different aspects come forward in different situations, but by accepting this multi-aspect framework, it is possible to see the different aspects as valuable, each contributing something of great value to your whole. For example, the vulnerable aspect is a part of the whole that needs sympathy and care – a gentle approach. Furthermore, learning to respect the vulnerable self means you can listen to what that aspect means – maybe it comes forward when there is something emotionally difficult in the air that you tend to avoid, so knowing that you react in this way means that when the vulnerable self does come forward, you know to look for, find and address the emotionally difficult thing, to change the habit of avoiding dealing with it because vulnerability feels shameful.

Accepting that we are lacking – each of us have these vulnerable parts and needs them – means we don’t need the critical voice and the hard/soft responses that it creates. It also helps us to accept those aspects of others, to give up expectations that others should be perfect too.

The Rest of the Book

So, this gives a gist of just one chapter. Each of the other chapters tackles a different aspect of relationship in the same way. It is, overall, a book about self-acceptance and acceptance of others. Of diversity and the welcoming of that diversity. It is a book about growth and being more connected and human.

I’d recommend it to everyone.