Do you know why aeroplanes still have ashtrays? After a crash in 1973 caused by a fire, started by a carelessly disposed of cigarette, the American aviation regulators ruled that every plane bathroom must have an ashtray.

So an accident over 30 years ago, when people could still smoke on planes, and when smoke detectors where not standard, still affects the design of aeroplanes today. The article claims it is “health and safety” however as anyone who has ever done a risk assessment will tell you, you need to focus on the likely risks, whilst of course acknowledging the outliers.

One of the issues many individuals also have is that they are still assessing the risks, writing the rules according to old, often unpleasant or abusive experiences. Consider someone who has been through a couple of bad breakups, and decides that their new rule is they will keep everyone at arm’s length. Perhaps they decide they will be fine with one night stands, but nothing which allows emotional intimacy. Only after many years do they realise that loneliness fills their life. It can take careful unpicking of the reason for the rule for someone to be willing to abandon it, and once more allow themselves to connect with others on more than a superficial level.

This is just one example of the ashtray rule; rules we put in place and allow to stay in place regardless of their usefulness to us in our current lives. It is important to understand not all rules based on past learning are ashtray rules. If we have faced abuse in the past it matters that we relearn how to value ourselves and set healthy boundaries, so that we have rules in place which keep us safe and remind us we are worth keeping safe.

We all need to consider what conscious or unconscious rules we have in place, which might better belong in the past. The unconscious ones can be the most difficult to identify, we may believe that we are only following common sense. Some questions to ask about a set of behaviours (which is all rules are) might be:

  • Is this based on where I am now, where I want to be, or where I was?
  • Is this rule stopping me from achieving what I want?
  • Is this rule based on experiences which I have put behind me?
  • Do I still need time, or help, in putting these experiences behind me?

Like a fire on an aeroplane, some experiences can be so frightening, so life changing, that for a while we do need to assess every risk, consider how we protect ourselves from any possible harm. With the passage of time however, we also need to consider if they are useful, protective rules, or something no longer relevant.