Embrace Your Limits: How drawing boundaries creates more freedom and less stress.

If you’d rather listen than read, listen to episode 3 of my podcast here

In a survey released in January by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the percentage of adult Canadians reporting anxiety, loneliness and depression was at its highest level since the onset of the pandemic. A full 25 percent of survey participants reported feeling moderate to severe anxiety and 22 percent reported feelings of depression. In the case of working adults, to what degree was the pandemic the cause or just the straw that broke the camel’s back?

I wonder about the role our always available, 24/7 work culture has played. Technology has accelerated work processes, introduced unprecedented distraction and drowned us in unanswerable email. The pandemic blurred, already tenuous boundaries between work life and home life, particularly for those who work from home. Add to this relentless pressure, the isolation of repeated lockdowns and you have the perfect conditions for anxiety and depression. 

In work life, the pressure comes partly in how we use technology. It also comes in part in how we see human beings in the workplace – as “resources” or “units of productivity”, as if we are machines to be fine tuned for more and more output.

While much of this is outside our direct control, some of the pressure is self-inflicted. It comes from our ever-growing expectations of ourselves and others to simply adapt and respond. It comes from trying to live and operate in a world without limits. 

Humans come with limits.

Human beings are creatures with real limitations. We have not yet created a gene intervention to beat death. We don’t have an infinite supply of energy. If we don’t sleep, we die. If we don’t eat and drink, we die. If we suffer chronic levels of stress without rest, we get sick and yes, sometimes we die.

But while a lot of this pressure is outside of our control, some of it is self-inflicted. Many of us, (me included), try to operate as if there are no limits. We tell ourselves that if we just work a little longer, try a little harder, go a little faster, we can indeed get it all done. We tell ourselves that the reason we can’t keep up is because we’re slow or unproductive or inefficient. We are seeing the consequences of our collective failure to face and embrace our limits all around us. 

We don’t want to face our limits. In many cases, our organizations don’t want us to face our limits. Our culture celebrates people who defy their limits, who push beyond boundaries in pursuit of higher and higher levels of performance and achievement. We want to learn from them, to emulate them and that’s understandable. But elite performance is only sustainable with a healthy respect for limits.

That relentless drive comes with a cost if it’s not operating within clear limits. Think of the recent courageous revelations from elite athletes like gymnast, Simone Biles or tennis star, Naomi Osaka.

I’m often struck when someone says to me, “This is unsustainable; I can’t do this anymore”. And then, when I ask, “so what’s going to change?”, I hear some variation of “I don’t know. I have no choice. I have to keep going.”

The very definition of unsustainable is that you, in fact, can’t keep going the way you’re going.

If your current situation is unsustainable one of two things is in store for you – either you will find a way to impose limits or nature will do it for you.

If you wait for nature to do it, it will be effective, but it won’t be pretty. I offer this from the personal and painful experience of having learned it the hard way.

The hard thing about boundaries

I used to see limits and boundaries as hard and rigid things, where you put on your meanest face, drew a line in the sand and shouted to everyone in your orbit “DO NOT CROSS”. And to others it looked like either lots barking on the other side of a barely visible line or resentful acquiescing as I let them tromp happily back and forth over it.

People who are really skilled at boundaries, don’t seem to need to keep drawing and redrawing them. They don’t get irritated and complain about how others are not respecting them. They don’t apologize for them. They don’t bark and growl.

They don’t draw lines in the sand, they build good fences that you can see, and see through. Boundaries that are clear and that work for their lives.

I have a theory that there are three things that set these folks apart from the rest of us.

  1. They recognize that their boundaries are protecting something vital – their health, their family, their primary mission. They take full responsibility for them. They know it’s their job to communicate, to remember and to enforce their own boundaries. They don’t expect others to do it for them. 
  2. They believe in their hearts that their boundaries are reasonable.  They have given themselves full permission to create and maintain them. They don’t feel guilty about them. 
  3. And finally, they trust themselves. They’ve proven that they can count on themselves. They know they will survive uncomfortable conversations, so they do not hesitate to say no when they need to.

As my own skill with boundaries has improved, I’ve learned that the more I can trust myself to honor what matters most in my life, to make good decisions and to say no when I need to, the fewer boundaries I actually need and the more flexible I can be with them.

So, what if instead of resisting or denying our limitations, we embraced them?

There’s a book I recommend to my clients as an early read in our coaching process. It’s called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.

In the book, McKeown shares a story about a school playground near a very busy street. The children had to be closely supervised when they were on the playground for fear that they might scurry into traffic. Their play area was restricted to a few feet around the playground equipment.

Then the school constructed a fence. Suddenly, the play area grew to the periphery of the school yard and the kids were free to play anywhere within the fence. This is a wonderful example of how limits and boundaries can be liberating.

Creativity and innovation are born of working within constraints. We play games with rules that constrain us. You can’t use your hands in soccer, you must hit the ball within the lines and over the net in tennis. Rules and constraints are what make life interesting and sometimes they make break-throughs possible.

Boundaries are a means to an end. The end is the quality of the life we lead.

As I get older and closer to the end of my life, the more I appreciate the rare treasure of it. The more I find myself contemplating the sheer miracle and set of circumstances that has me sitting here talking to you.

Life is not diminished by its limitations; it is made more precious.

You are not less valuable because you are limited; you are more valuable. You are shaped by your limitations and the choices you make about when to honor them and when to push beyond them.

Life is enhanced, not so much by what we cram into it, but by the spaces we create to savor and experience it.

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Cathy Jacob

I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

2 Comments

  1. Jane Hustins on February 27, 2022 at 2:21 pm

    This is filled with wisdom, Cathy. I love the realness, directly calling us forth. I love the questions posed. So much to sit with or even walk with.

    • Cathy Jacob on February 27, 2022 at 4:52 pm

      Thanks, Jane. So appreciate your thoughts.

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