Living within Limits

Last week I came down with the flu. For the first couple of days it was kind of fun to have an excuse to stay home and watch TV and sleep. But on the third day of fever I began to get bored and actually wished I could do some work or clean the house without getting dizzy. My problem was that what I wanted to do was beyond the limits of what I was physically capable of doing. Even on the fourth day, when my fever had dropped, I pushed the limits and tried to do more than my body could handle, and I burned out very quickly and had to lie down. I was having a hard time accepting, and living within, the particular limits my health was imposing on me.

The issue of living within limits actually pertains to every area of life. I’ve recently become aware that in many ways I constantly push against the limits of what I can do, not because of healthy ambition but because of an unhealthy denial of my own limitations. I’ve started looking at some areas of life that provoke the most frustration, and I often find that it’s a result of refusing to accept realistic limits.

Limited resources

We have many resources in life, including time, money, relationships, space, energy, skills, and attention – plus many others. What we do with these is technically up to us, but in many ways our choices are limited by constraints beyond our control. These constraints come along with various commitments, obligations, or just practical limitations imposed by jobs, education, family, health, living location and living space. I’ve already written about how we sometimes perceive obligations that aren’t really there, but it remains true that we do have real obligations that limit the choices we have.

This is all fairly obvious, but even though I know this, often I don’t consciously consider or accept the limitations that life imposes on me. This leads to:

  • Unrealistic expectations of myself and what I can do
  • Frustration, guilt and depression over my inability to live up to those expectations
  • Paralysis over making decisions because an unrealistic assessment of limits gives me a vague sense of too many options
  • Poor decisions made according to an imagined set of scenarios rather than the real limits of the situation

Recognition of limits pertains to many areas of life, but here are two in particular.

Big life decisions

Choices like whom to marry, what career to pursue or what job to take, or where to live are big decisions that can be profoundly affected by how we perceive and deal with limitations.

I thought about this a lot when I was dating my husband. I often wondered how I could ever know, definitively, that he was the best person for me to marry. Even though we were clearly compatible in most major ways, hypothetically I could always imagine someone who was better suited in some particular quality, or wonder if there was ‘someone out there’ who was better for me, or wonder if I had enough information about my boyfriend to decide whether he was right for me.

But that way of thinking, imagining a hypothetically better situation, was ultimately fruitless because it ignored the real limits on my actual situation. It ignored the limits of time, knowledge, and practicality: I wasn’t choosing between one man and a better man because that ‘better man’ was only hypothetical; I wasn’t choosing between my boyfriend and every man on earth, because I didn’t have every man on earth at my disposal; nor was I choosing between my boyfriend and ‘every man I might ever meet’, because I hadn’t yet met every man I’d ever meet in my life; nor was I even choosing who to marry based upon absolute knowledge, because my knowledge about him was limited to what I had acquired during the time I’d known him.

With a realistic appraisal of limits, I saw that although I felt mentally confused by all this hypothetical thinking, actually I only had two options: yes or no. I was making a choice only about him, not about anyone else, and could only make that choice based on the information I had, not on all the information that existed. It reminds me of what my mom used to tell me about dating: you don’t get to browse for partners like you browse for things in a shop and choose between multiple options all at once, you have to take the one person in front of you and decide about them only. In other words, in choosing whom to marry you don’t have every option or all information in front of you at once. You make the best choice within the limits of what you do have.

The same is true of career decisions. Sometimes, when I’m struggling with my PhD, I wonder if it was the right choice. In fact, if I’d known when I started that I would meet my husband when I did, I might have delayed my degree or done something else altogether. However, I didn’t have that information at the time I started my PhD; I made that decision within the realistic limits I had at the time, and it was the best decision within those options, with the knowledge I had.

Use of space

How we use our living and work space – not only physical but mental – is also shaped by our assessment of limitations. Whenever I start to overcrowd my living space, with closets crammed or with projects lying out unfinished and cluttering my mind as well as my table, it’s often a result not of messiness but of a failure to accept the space I have and the projects I actually have time to do.

My organising projects often form the context for realising how much I’m in denial about the limits of space and time. Over the last few years, when I’ve visited my family, I’ve gradually purged things from my room. Everything I had was well-organised and neatly stored, but in many cases I simply had more than could comfortably fit in the space. I had fat binders of printouts of the many stories I wrote during my teens, some containing multiple drafts of the same thing, numbered neatly. I had a whole drawer of sketchbooks from my teens through university years, sequentially ordered by date. I had a whole drawer of files that were out-of-date for my current life, but still well-organised. When I sat down to make an honest assessment of these items, I realised that most of them didn’t belong in my life anymore. They were unfairly crowding the space in my family’s home and weren’t contributing to the ways in which my life was moving forward.

Aside from sentimental reasons for keeping these things, in the back of my mind I somehow thought they might be of use to me in the future. However, when I looked honestly at the real situation and the real limits, most of the time there was no probable occasion for them to be useful. Even if I had wanted to put them to use – to turn my old sketches into paintings or reappropriate some of my old stories – I didn’t have the time or space to do so, and realistically wouldn’t for many years.

I often fall into a similar trap, keeping every photo and concert ticket for a scrapbook I don’t have the money or time to make, hanging on to scraps of fabric for many years when I didn’t have a sewing machine, keeping every bit of paper from my degrees on the off-chance it might be necessary later on. In many cases, I end up with a crammed living space because I avoided facing practical limitations of space, time, and energy.

Why don’t we live within our limits?

I’ve just told two stories about myself in which I clearly didn’t acknowledge the real limits on my situation and either faced unnecessary anxiety or made poor decisions as a result. So what makes it so easy to avoid facing the limits imposed on us? Here are three reasons I’ve observed.

We carry old limits into new situations, failing to accommodate change. Part of the adjustment to any new phase of life – a move, a new job, a new house, a new relationship – includes an adjustment to new limitations. If you move to a new house further away from your work, your time will be limited differently according to the extra time it takes you to commute. However, it’s easy to slide into a new phase without realising that limits have changed, and simply continue (or attempt to continue) living according to the previous limits. I faced this when I started graduate school. I was used to an eight-hour workday at an administrative job, so my idea of productivity depended on a 40-hour work week. I had to learn, though, that academic work takes a different level of energy and concentration, which I often wasn’t capable of sustaining for a whole week of eight-hour days. I only realised this after much frustration at failing to achieve according to the previous limits of my job.

We let our sense of limitation be shaped by imagination or anxiety instead of realistically assessing it. I’ve already mentioned how this can happen in dating; we can mentally compare someone to a hypothetical better person, or operate as if we have a dozen options when in reality our actual choice boils down to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This is a case of imaginatively creating a situation that has more options than really exist; in this case, appealing imagined options that cause us to devalue the worth of the real option. The result might be a bad decision (passing up a good guy, like Lori Gottlieb describes in her book) or overwhelming anxiety over having too many choices. Equally, we can let anxiety cause us to imagine many scary outcomes that give the impression that our choices are hemmed in by bad options. If we tend to be pessimistic, envisioning the worst outcome for each option, it will seem that we are ‘limited’ to choosing among a set of all undesirable options.

We live in ignorance or denial of the limitations that exist in our lives. This often goes along with the reason above; we foster our denial or ignorance by imagining a hypothetical set of possibilities that prevent a real acknowledgement and acceptance of limitation. This was ultimately the root of much of my ‘organised hoarding’ problem in my family’s home. Because the things I’d accumulated over the years weren’t constantly confronting me (I only visited about once a year), I lived in ignorance much of the time, and when I did go home and had to look at the crowded shelves and drawers, I told myself that I needed the stuff or that I might use it again, or that it was my only connection to certain happy memories. It took me many visits home over many years to begin to accept that certain aspects of my life were simply finished chapters. In reality, my time, living location, and even interests were limits that prohibited those things from ever being useful.

The unexpected benefits of living within limits

Everything I’ve said thus far might sound depressing, especially if you are a driven, ambitious person. We tend to see ambition and success characterised by a determination not to let ourselves be hemmed in by what others see as limitations. So is accepting limits just a way of accepting defeat?

I don’t think so, for three reasons. In essence, living within realistic limits has many benefits, all of which ultimately produce a mindset and a practical life which in fact enable the intent, creative pursuit of goals.

Accepting limits is a route out of anxiety. The refusal to accept limits can lead to a constant, anxious pushing against reality: obsessively hunting for the perfect dress, killing yourself nitpicking a piece of work for a deadline, trying to change that person in your life who drives you crazy. I’ve learned that the moment of accepting whatever limitation I’m pushing against can be one of the most refreshing: ‘Actually, I’m too tired to work on this anymore, so I’ll consider it done.’ ‘I’m not going to find the perfect dress in the shops I can access and within my budget, so I’m going to stop looking and be satisfied with a good dress.’ ‘I can’t change another person, so I won’t keep trying.’

Accepting limits is in fact the best way of being free to use what you do have. As I’ve already explained, a refusal to accept real limits can lead to a constant anxiety and a failure to be satisfied with what’s in front of you. If you stop focusing your energy on pushing the immovable limits, you have energy to redirect towards good projects within the limits of what’s achievable. You can focus on finding a good dress. You can focus on the three most important parts of your work for the deadline. In interpersonal conflicts, you can focus on what you can change, which is your own behaviour.

Accepting limits clarifies values and intensifies focus. Many situations which force limitations on us also serve to help us clarify what’s important, if we allow them to. When I started grad school, I refused to allow myself to buy clothes for the first year. It was a limit forced on me by my financial situation, but by accepting it I began to realise that I also didn’t need as many clothes as I sometimes felt I did. I was able to be content with what I had, and I saw how really unimportant my wardrobe was in comparison with many other things. Practically, having that one aspect of my life out of my main vision freed my money, time, and mental attention for other things. Equally, if limits force us to focus on one valuable thing, one project or person who needs our care, even if we wouldn’t have chosen to be so constricted it can be beneficial to direct all our focus into one, good place.

Although ‘living within limits’ might sound like like a surrender, in fact it’s really a thoughtful and realistic assessment of where the boundaries lie for our time, energy, and space, among other things. If we know what those limits are, we are better informed to act within them. I’ve found this to be the case repeatedly, and am trying to be more conscious and accepting of the limits I encounter.

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