By Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.
One of my father’s favorite sayings was: “You can do anything if you just put your mind to it.” My father practiced what he preached. Raised in poverty and having only an eighth grade education, he rose to become a successful businessman, lived in an upscale neighborhood and put his three children through college. My father’s advice and example has served me well. It has led me to set my sights high, work hard and not give up easily.
Unfortunately, it’s also fostered some not so admirable traits. On the negative side I developed perfectionistic expectations of myself and over-inflated ideas about my capabilities. It also created a drivenness that still makes it hard for me to relax. I saw failures as catastrophic and shameful – and my fault. On the one hand I had a lot of self-confidence, but I also had a deep-seated hidden fear that I was either lazy or inadequate, or both. Early on I began to careen between episodes of obsessive drivenness and exhausted self-indulgent collapse. This lurching and the shame that went with it ultimately led me into therapy.
In therapy I learned to face the fact that I could NOT do anything I put my mind to, but accepting this did not come easily. To this day I still have to remind myself that it’s okay to have strengths and weaknesses. I still struggle with finding the balance between what’s reasonable to expect of myself and what’s not. I love my can-do attitude and I’ve accomplished much. But I’ve also failed at things, and I’ve found it’s important to be able to acknowledge and accept when I can’t do something as well – and even more that there’s no shame in that. I tell my clients (and remind myself) that my brilliance is all tangled up with my mistakes. What a freedom it is to finally believe that!
I’m certainly not the only one who got some version of the perfectionistic drivenness scripting. We’re faced with a lot of injunctions in this culture about pushing through our limitations: sayings like reach for the stars, never say never, difficult things take a long time — impossible things take a little longer, energy and persistence conquer all things. The idea of giving up or saying I can’t is severely frowned upon in this culture.
THE OPPOSITE EXTREME
One can also learn to deal with difficulties from the opposite extreme. We can err on side of denial or minimization of our limitations – or alternatively we can err on side of wallowing in our limitations, using them to excuse our stuckness or lack of effort. We all have known someone who lets their problems overwhelm them, who gives up at the first sign of trouble, who blames others for their struggles or can’t see that they are handicapping themselves. Chances are we’ve even been one of “those people” at some point in our lives. People who say “yes, but” and then recite the reasons that any effort on their part won’t work. People who won’t start for fear of failing. People with good intentions who procrastinate or wait for motivation to fall from the sky. People who, consciously or unconsciously, set themselves up for failure with their self-defeating, negative attitudes.
One explanation for such self-defeating behaviors is learned helplessness, i.e., learning that one shouldn’t even attempt to gain control over or deal with a challenge because the situation is hopeless and they’re helpless to change it. A good example is a training technique used to control elephants. A young elephant is chained to an immovable object by a thick, unbreakable chain. The young elephant tries and tries to get itself loose, to no avail. After a while the elephant will quit trying. Eventually the elephant, even when grown and possessing incredible strength, can be held captive by a thin rope tied around its ankle and anchored to a small stake in the ground. The elephant was “scripted” to understand that its efforts were futile.
Obviously there is a continuum between these two extremes of “You can do anything if you put your mind to it” and giving up before you even try. Is there an ideal place to exist on the continuum? Perhaps theoretically, but in reality most of us probably waffle a bit between the two depending on the circumstances and other variables involved.
And other variables there are aplenty, particularly if we mean those variables which act upon us (as opposed to those upon which we act). Although we are loathe to admit it, the truth is that we are controlled by internal and external forces far more than we can exert control over them. We prefer to focus on that which we can control and ignore or minimize that which we cannot control. Pema Chodron talks about the dangers of such denial in her book When Things Fall Apart. She explains that we are mistaken in our tenaciously held belief that there is any solid ground upon which to stand anywhere. She points out that we are in fact always building our lives on shifting sands, always in the midst of change, and that we must learn to embrace this impermanence, this lack of security, this “groundlessness” that is the unalterable state of our being.
Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher, is eloquent (if frightening) in his description of all the various aspects of human existence which result in groundlessness. He speaks of the various limitations and “diminishments” as “little deaths” that assail us from within and without: “…bits of ill fortune that block our way, hem us in, force us to deviate from our path … an obstacle that breaks us, the invisible microbe that kills the body, the little word that infects the mind, all the incidents and accidents of varying importance and varying kinds, the tragic interferences (upsets, shocks, severances, deaths)” that come between us and what we want. There are “natural failings, physical defects, intellectual or moral weaknesses, as a result of which the field of our activities, of our enjoyment, of our vision, has been pitilessly limited since birth. Others lie in wait for later on: as brutally as an accident or as stealthily as an illness. All of us one day or another will come to realize if we have not already done so, that one or other of these sources of disintegration has lodged itself in the very heart of our lives… And [when it acts upon us] then we impotently stand by and watch collapse, rebellion and inner tyranny.” (p.81-82)
Learning how to deal with the reality of limitations in a healthy way is not an easy job. As we have seen there are dangers in dealing with limitations from either extreme – denial or collapse. It is difficult to find the balance between the two: a healthy sense of confidence and a willingness to try balanced by a realistic understanding of the limitations and diminishments we all face. Rudyard Kipling’s poem If (included in this newsletter) offers some wise words on maintaining one’s balance among all sorts of triumphs and trials.
Pema Chodron also has much to say on how to live happily in the midst of our groundlessness. She says that things routinely fall apart and that to attempt to escape this is folly.
We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don’t know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. We try to do what we think is going to help. But we don’t know. We never know if we’re going to fall flat or sit up tall. When there’s a big disappointment we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure. (p. 11-12)
In an interesting article by the Quaker author John Yungblut, he espouses the idea of “hallowing one’s diminishments” – meaning to make holy one’s diminishments. He was referring to a creative, intentional attitude toward one’s limitations rather than merely a negative resignation to a cruel fate. The first step to such a hallowing for him was a “deep-going acceptance.” He said, “I practiced imaging acceptance of the diminishments as if they were the gift of a companion to accompany me on my way to the great diminishment, death. … In this case, cooperating with the process in terms of maintaining a friendly attitude toward it would be a way of hallowing the diminishments.” Hallowing can be thought of as the intentional holding of a limitation or diminishment in a sensibility that neither denies the affliction nor abhors it. It’s a way of letting go of the emphasis on what has been lost and embracing instead the something new that has replaced it.
In one of the Carlos Castaneda books, the shamanic master Don Juan expresses a similar attitude. He said we should all live as though “Sister Death” stood slightly behind us and to the left, our constant companion as we journey through life. Rather than avoid or deny her reality, we should consult her about the choices we make throughout our lives.
Another well known author who echoes this sentiment is Ram Dass in his book Still Here. You may remember Ram Dass because of his famous (and infamous) departure from the Harvard faculty, with his colleague Timothy Leary, in the 1960’s. He wrote a book, Be Here Now, which was immensely popular at the time. His more recent book Still Here was written in 2002 after he had suffered a stroke. He became a semi-invalid after his stroke, confined to a wheelchair. He could no longer walk or drive his sports car or play golf or surf. He acknowledges going through an initial stage of self-pity about being the victim of such a horrible debilitating occurrence. Ultimately, however, he grew to feel he had been blessed by his stroke. He referred to it as having been “stroked by God.” He said, “… Now I’m learning to take my healing into my own hands. Healing is not the same as curing, after all; healing does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather allowing what is now to move us closer to God.” (p.5) Although limited in ways he used to value so highly, he has learned to value the person he is now and value life as it presents itself today.
It isn’t always easy to recognize when one needs to slow down and let go or when one needs to step up and try harder. If we are going to find a good balance and enjoy our lives as much as possible, we need to both accept limitations and reach for the stars. We have to honor our “can’t do” attitude as well as our “can do” attitude. Perhaps the most famous and often used words to express this sentiment are found in the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
There are no easy answers to the question of limitations. I wonder what your experiences with limitations have been like. When was it healthy for you to push past your limitations and go after your goals? When was it better to acknowledge your limitations, quit beating your head against a brick wall and learn to accept? If you’d like to respond to this article and share your own story, please send me an email. Perhaps we can explore this issue more and publish some of your stories (anonymously of course) in a future article. ClaireScott@KarunaCounseling.com.
Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968.
Chodron, Pema. When Things Fall Apart. Boston: Shambala, 2002.
Dass, Ram. Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. New York: Buckley Publishling Group, 2000.
De Chardin, Teilhard. The Divine Milieu. English translation London: William Collins Sons & Do., LTD, 1960. Originally published in French as Le Milieu Divin. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1957.
Peterson, Christopher; Maier, Steven; and Seligman, Martin. Learned Helplessness. New York: Knopf, 1995.
The Serenity Prayer is the common name for an originally untitled prayer by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. This prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve step programs.
Yungblut, John. On Hallowing One’s Diminishments. Wallingford,PA : Pendle Hill Publications. 1990.