Keen Insight and Brave Action: Some Reflections on Limitations

Every day, we find ourselves hounded by things we perceive as limitations.  These limitations are apparent in our thoughts: “I’d love to go swimming, but I can’t; I’d drown.” “I’d love to ask that girl out, or even just talk to her, but I’m too shy.” “I can’t leave my room. There’s a spider out there and I am terrified of them.” “I’d love to go to college, but I’m not smart enough.” We tell ourselves things like these throughout the day and feel regret that our limitations hold us back from doing thing we would otherwise love to do.  Since we are often held back by our limitations, it may be helpful for us to gain some insight into their nature and how we can best handle them.  If we wish to gain insight into our limitations and know whether or not they can be overcome, the first thing we need to do is to determine what type of limitations they are.


To divide these limitations into two broad categories, we can say that our limitations tend to be either physical or psychological in nature.  Some of our limitations are physical in nature. Of these, some can be overcome (e.g. through medication, exercise, diet, etc.) and others cannot (e.g. genetically-defined problems).  If I feel that my muscles are too weak to allow me to engage in mountain climbing, this is a limitation that can be overcome.  Through weight-training exercises and a protein-rich diet, I can grow stronger and overcome this limitation.  However, if I suffer from a genetically-defined blood disorder that medication cannot cure, then there is no action I can take to overcome the limitation. In this case, the most I can do is accept my condition and manage my disorder as wisely as I can.


In contrast to the physical limiations, many of our limitations are simply psychological in nature.  Some of these, such as exceptionalities like schizophrenia, are related to neurochemical imbalances in the brain, which can often be rectified through medication. Most are simply learned assumptions about what we can and can’t do, what is and is not possible for us, such as fears, inhibitions, and false beliefs about our real abilities.  These ‘learned limitations’ are products of the ways we think and have learned to behave and respond/react to events.  For instance, if I have continually done poorly on math exams, I may draw the conclusion that I cannot do math.  This conclusion may give rise to a psychological limitation; I may become so convinced that I cannot do math, that I don’t even bother trying since I “know” I will simply fail anyway.


While we often assume that these sorts of mental limitations or inhibitions cannot be changed or are simply “our lot” in life, this is usually a false assumption.  The way to overcome them is to act so as to show ourselves that they are inaccurate and do not necessarily define what we are and are not capable of doing.


The prime example of this type of unnecessary limitation is fears or phobias.  Some fear is healthy and supports survival; if one is being chased by a man with a knife, for instance, intense fear triggers an adrenaline rush that helps us escape.  Most fears are neither healthy nor supportive of survival.  For example, from a young age, I had a deathly fear of wasps.  If I saw one coming, I would walk out of its way and my blood pressure would raise and my heart would beat more rapidly.  Then one day, while sitting on the field in front of McGill university, no one, not two, not three, but FOUR wasps landed simultaneously on my sandwich.  My first response was to freak out and throw the sandwich away from me as fast as possible.  But I resisted. I waited. The wasps walked over my sandwich for a little while and then flew off without harming me. There was no need for that fear.  If I remained calm, so did they.


Overcoming a fear takes an act of courage.  It takes a willingness to do what we fear to do and see what happens. Fear usually makes us into cowards.  When confronted with the object of our fear, we cower and resist.  But when we decide to face a fear and take a leap, we find that the courage we needed was always there within us.  We simply hadn’t become aware of us.  How else could a coward do something courageous if the courage wasn’t there in a potential form already? When we do something brave, bravery is already present in the act itself.


To illustrate this point, here’s a true story from my life.  When I was two-years old and again when I was five, I walked off of a dock into deep water and almost drowned.  I nearly died and for almost two decades thereafter, I was terrified of deep water and convinced I could not swim.  This fear gave rise to an inhibition; I felt I could not enjoy activities like swimming in a pool or in a lake and thus excluded myself from these activities when my friends engaged in them.  But this past summer, I decided to face this fear.  Accompanied by an experienced swimmer, I cannonballed off of a dock into the freezing black water of the Atlantic ocean at midnight.  I was terrified, but I swam and swam and made it back to the dock.  Then I repeated the act 4 more times and felt the fear subsiding more and more with each jump.  Now I can jump into deep water without fear.  Courageous acts help us to overcome fear; and the courage we need to do it is already present within us when we are ready to use it.  We do not need to gain something we do not have, only to realize what we do have.  With these two examples in mind, let’s return to the question of how one goes about overcoming a psychological limitation like a fear, an inhibition, or a false belief about our capacities.  A helpful way to do this is to go through a four step process:


(1) Look into the limitation. See that it can be overcome.  See that you developed this limitation as a result of your experience and that, had your experience been difference, you may not have developed it at all.  You can imagine yourself without this limitation.  Believe next that you have what it takes to overcome this limitation.  Remember that courage is not something you need to develop; it is there in potential form already.  You only need to act in such a way to help this seed of courage flower in you.  And this is easy to do if you know a specific action you can take to disprove the assumption that is there in the fear or the inhibition or the false belief.  This assumption is usually that “I cannot do this” or “I cannot face this.” The only way to prove these assumptions wrong is to do the thing you feel you cannot do or face the thing you cannot face. And while this may seem scary, it is doable.  I have done it before and there are millions of other people who can do it.  We do not have anything special that you do not have. You too can do it. Believe in yourself; if you don’t, just keep taking action until you do. Fake it until you make it.


(2) Choose an action that you can take to disprove the assumption behind your limitation.  I was afraid of drowning in deep water, so I chose to jump into deep water (with the supervision of a trained swimmer, of course).  I was afraid of heights, so I chose to climb a mountain.  I was afraid of large dogs, so I spent a lot of time around a large dog until I grew to love him and my fear dissipated.  You can also start small.  If you are afraid of talking to women, make your action simply to say “hi” to one woman in the course of a day.  If you believe you cannot read, simply make your action to read one paragraph, or one sentence, or one word.  Choose your action and make it a goal.


(3) Carry out the action you made into a goal. Do the thing that will disprove your assumption. At this stage, I’ve found it helpful to have a friend or someone else I trust to accompany me while I try to take the action or achieve my goal.  The support and encouragement they offer can really help at this stage.  When you just go for it, you will feel incredibly accomplished and liberated.  All that is required is for you to do what you decided to do.  And you have all of the power and courage you need to do that within you already.  You simply need to draw on those resources. You can do it.  And when you do do it, you will feel better than you ever have before.


To recapitulate, our limitations can be either physical or psychological.  When faced with a limitation, we can inquire into its nature.  Is it physical or psychological? What are its causes? Is it genetic or did we develop it through conditioning or learning or forming a habit? Is it of the type that can be overcome (most limitations are)? Once we know its type, if it is of the type that cannot be overcome then we must accept it.  If it is of the type that can be overcome, then we need to think of an action we can take to prove it wrong.  Then we need to actually take that action.  Since doing this can be scary, it helps to have a friend with us to support us and reassure us if we fail our first few attempts.  As we begin to have success, courage and confidence become more prominent within us.  We feel freer and happier than we ever have before.  As we face and overcome our limitations, we realize that forces we had always assumed were out of our power are in fact deeply within our sphere of influence.  And as the stories of Medieval knights conquering great and fierce dragons reveal, the overcoming of a powerful force always carries a sense of triumph in its wings.


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