Like ashtrays on airplanes


Image Description [A large commercial airliner against a pale blue sky]

It is said a day is not wasted where you have learnt something, so let me share todays learning. Do you know why airplanes 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 airplanes 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 people have is that like the FAA they are still assessing the risks, writing the rules according to old experiences,  often old, unpleasant or abusive experiences. Consider someone who has been through a couple of bad break ups, and decides that their new rule is they will keep everyone at arm’s length. 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 take the risk of abandoning 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 just 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, healthy boundaries, 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 like the ashtray rule 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, as it seems the ashtray rule is portrayed. 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 achieve 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 airplane 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 like ashtrays on aircrafts, something that has passed their sell by date.


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