why the 4 agreements are pretty much all you need to know


Step 1: Learn the 4 agreements.

Step 2: Practice them daily.

Class dismissed, now go live your shining life!

Okay, but really -- if you've flirted with personal development anytime in the past 15 years, it's likely that you've heard of the phenomenon that is Don Miguel Ruiz's The Four Agreements, inspired by ancient Toltec wisdom. The original book, published in 1997, was a New York Times bestseller for 7+ years -- perhaps in part because it's a quick read, clocking in at just over 150 pages. At the treatment center where I work, The Four Agreements is the only book that *every single new client* gets a copy of.

Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of Ruiz's writing style (even for a short book, it takes a little while to really get going), yet I love the ideas and don't think reading the book is even really required to get a lot out of understanding and practicing the core concepts. I like what Penn State psychology professor John A. Johnson has to say about the 4 agreements' similarities to some key concepts of modern psychology:

Despite the claim that the ideas in this book represent insights possessed by the Toltecs in what is now Mexico a thousand years ago, most of these ideas are highly similar to concepts used by modern humanistic psychologists, transactional analysts, and cognitive-behavioral psychologists. For example, Ruiz says that all children are born perfectly loving, playful, and genuine. However, parents teach their children what Carl Rogers called conditions of worth–standards of behavior the children must follow to receive love and avoid criticism. Eventually these standards become internalized into what Eric Berne called a life script–an unconscious set of instructions for living life. According to Ruiz, most of these unconscious beliefs are perfectly arbitrary or downright false. Many of them are irrational and unnecessarily limiting. They key to freedom–pace cognitive therapists such as Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck–is to become aware of our irrational and limiting thoughts so that we can replace them with healthy thoughts. In short, this book could be a primer for cognitive-behavioral therapy.

So, the ideas are related to the classic CBT framework of "thoughts -- > feelings -- > behaviors," thus it's important to evaluate limiting core beliefs/thoughts and restructure them to be more supportive and empowering. (You can hear a little more in this brief video about the book's rationale on the importance of reexamining beliefs.)

Taking this further with the evolution of the "third wave" of behavioral therapy (such as Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, a passion of mine), I find it relieving that you don't have to somehow magically banish those limiting beliefs from your brain forever. Newsflash: we are all occasionally hit in the gut with some variation of that "not good enough" thought. And to expect yourself to be somehow "over that by now" will only lead to more shame and disappointment! Regardless of what gremlins you're struggling with, viewing the 4 agreements as basic "how to live" guideposts will never steer you wrong.

What are the 4 agreements?

1 / BE IMPECCABLE WITH YOUR WORD. "Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love."

This one covers so many basics that are fundamental to personal integrity and healthy relationships. Don't be disingenuous or two-faced. Don't say anything you wouldn't want repeated (certainly in any format besides face-to-face). Respect the incredible power that your words have. Do what you say you're going to do. Very few principles in life are more important than this one.

2 / DON'T TAKE ANYTHING PERSONALLY. "Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering."

Can I get an A-FREAKING-MEN? I say that because this is the toughest of the agreements for me, so don't be surprised if you see it tattooed on my wrist someday. Caveat -- you're human, and you can't just be en Emotional Magician. So, I would disagree that we can be totally "immune." Things are going to hurt your feelings from time to time -- hell, sometimes that's even the intent (hopefully rarely, or else GTFO of that relationship)! But looking at all the times that you worried thinking something was about you and it really wasn't at all... yeah, all the time, right?

Other people have their own shit going on, and we're all interpreting life our own personally-tinted lenses. So maybe it's really not about you, biscuit. Don't assume that -- oh wait, I'm getting ahead of myself...

3 / DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS. "Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life."

Trivia question: How much drama could be avoided if we stopped blindly running with our assumptions? Answer: 95% of it! Statistical fact. (Or not.) Again, it's totally natural for your mind to make up all kinds of assumptions and stories and interpretations. It's busy trying to keep your ass alive, after all! But assumptions can be crazy-making if they go unchecked.

One of my favorite tools is being able to label the story in my head, and if it's running laps in there, to check it out with someone: "Ok, I'm telling myself a story that you think I'm ridiculous and self-involved because of what I said earlier about my hair." They may say, "Really? I didn't think anything of it!" or something like, "Well, your comment was a little silly, but that doesn't mean I think you're ridiculous." Think of how freeing that is compared to you running your assumption on the mental hamster wheel until you wear yourself out with rumination.

4 / ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST. "Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse, and regret."

Is it a cop-out to say this one speaks for itself? Really, though: just focus on doing the Next. Right. Thing. The rest can wait.

I have the 4 agreements up on my wall at work, and though I don't have them up at home, this post is inspiring me to get on that. I find reminders to be very helpful. And as with any other focus of self-improvement, do yourself a favor and remember that you're never going to be perfect at following these agreements. Think of them as a compass rather than a destination, and you can notice when you're off track and point your ship back in the direction you want to move in.

Do tell...

Which of the 4 agreements is the most difficult for you, and why?

If you added your own 5th agreement, what would it be? (Psst, Don Miguel Ruiz and his son actually co-authored The Fifth Agreement in 2011, which is another pretty legit guidepost, but think about what your own 5th agreement would be before looking at it!)