The Life-Altering Decision to Love Your Limitations

life purpose

Photo Credit: lbryan (Bigstock)

Around the time I turned 40, I became acutely aware of the passage of time.

Imagine that.

So, I’ve spent much of the past year trying to make the most of it. For instance, several weeks ago, I was planning to take advantage of a gorgeous weekend by camping out in the backyard with my kids.

Then, I got sick.

A summer cold that leveled me for most of a week. My throat hurt so badly I could barely swallow. I couldn’t climb a set of stairs without getting winded. The very idea of pounding tent stakes exhausted me. My body had reached its limit, and that limit did not include a night under the stars.

And it angered me.

It angered me because we are trained from a young age to believe we don’t have limits. We are told—in defiance of all reason and history—that we can be anything we want to be, and do anything we want to do. We are given all-you-can-eat buffets. We are given all-you-can-binge Netflix. We pay for unlimited data on cell phones, and we rent unlimited wardrobes on-line. We use oil as if it is limitless. We pretend houses can inflate in value without the bubble eventually bursting. We pretend the stock market can just keep on going up forever.

It’s no wonder we get a little angry when faced with a limit.

At first, limitations feel unjust, unfair.

We loathe our limitations.

While loathing them, though, we miss out on the opportunity to learn from them.

As I lay in my sickbed one morning, lamenting all the things I would not be able to do that day—for example, roasting marshmallows over a campfire—I remembered what one pastor used to say, “If you don’t take a Sabbath, the Sabbath will take you…in an ambulance.” He was, of course, talking about the limitations of our bodies. But as I lay there, contemplating my bodily limitations, I realized something else:

My soul has limitations, too.

My soul—my true self—was created in a particular way. It longs to be rooted deeply in one place, so too much travel leaves it longing for home. It prefers the sounds of the countryside to the sounds of the city, so too much time in the urban cacophony overwhelms it. I was given an introverted soul, so if I give my soul too many crowds, it slowly gets drained of energy and joy. My soul is ignited by writing; it is smothered by marketing. My soul delights in redeeming what is broken, but if I don’t give it rest from redeeming, it starts to feel a little broken, too.

As I lay there, too sick to push past my natural limitations, I thought of the river I’d kayaked earlier in the summer. It’s called the Rock River, and it runs mostly south, down from Wisconsin and into central Illinois.

Then it doesn’t.

Around a town called Grand Detour, the river suddenly stops running south, makes a U-turn and, for a stretch, runs northward, before making another U-turn and resuming its normal southerly course. This river flows through hundreds of miles of earth and limestone, and then at a place called Grand Detour, it runs into a rock it cannot overcome, and it allows itself to be turned by this limitation in a different direction. It is a beautiful stretch of river.

And it exists because even a river knows how to respect its limitations.

Our souls, too, flow like a river, and they too are meant to be responsive to the rocks they cannot push through. Some rocks—some situations, some hardships, some people, some disappointments, some obstacles—are supposed to send us in new and beautiful directions, at least for a while.

Parker Palmer writes, “There is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does—maybe more.”

In some ways, all souls are the same: they are the dwelling place of the divine, a portal within us for everything that is infinite and limitless. But in other ways, each soul is distinctly and uniquely created, designed to be one way and not another, to do some things and not other things.

We are not here to do all things; we are here to do our things.

And discerning what those things are is as much about identifying our limits as it is about identifying our longings.

What if we stopped loathing our limitations?

What if, instead, we learned from them?

What if we even learned to love them?

Time would still pass, and it would still be precious, but we’d stop trying to make the most of it by trying to become more than what we actually are. We’d become wiser about when to keep pushing, and when to simply go with the flow.

And we’d finally get to rest into who we’ve been all along.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Bob Keener

    So right on! Our limitations are as much who we are as our unique giftings. Thanks for the river meeting the rock example! I just went kayaking and every bend in the river is the river respecting it’s limitations.

    • Bob, you might really like the Parker Palmer book I quoted, “Let Your Life Speak.” And so true, every bend is respecting its limitations, even the smallest. Good stuff, thank you!

      • Bob Keener

        I’m in a group Sacred Listening Circle that is reading Parker Palmer’s book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. I appreciate Parker Palmer and what he stands for.

  • Mike Gates

    Hmmmph.
    If I do THAT, then the next thing you know I’ll be accepting, forgiving, and respecting of other’s limitations.
    And we certainly can’t have any of that going on. No sir.
    Dangerous stuff, Kelly. You’re my kind of subversive. Keep it up. 🙂 Happy Wednesday

    • Ha! Your comment is the exclamation point on this post. You’re exactly right, once we start giving ourselves grace, that stuff starts to multiply and it gets on everyone else. Could get messy. 😉

  • Jody

    Kelly, this made me weepy this morning as I came face to face with how much I’ve been trying to ignore, and when that’s impossible – fight, my limitations. Noticing how sad and tired that process makes me. Thanks for the wake up call this morning.

    • Jody, your situation and comment so much resonates with me. There’s a line in a song I recently heard, “I’m getting older now, and I’m getting tired of chasing setting suns.” Made me realize how tired I am from pushing up against my limitations. May you find rest from all that fighting, Jody.

  • Ginny

    “Our souls, too, flow like a river, and they too are meant to be responsive to the rocks they cannot push through. Some rocks—some situations, some hardships, some people, some disappointments, some obstacles—are supposed to send us in new and beautiful directions, at least for a while.” This is hard for me-especially for family relationships. Wondering if there is a difference between giving up and going in a new direction? Is the key phrase “at least for a while?” Is it giving up on the relationship for now, but not giving up on them? Always believing in the best of them and for them, but backing away to give them room to grow?

    • It’s a great question, Ginny. I think there is a very real different between giving up and going in a new direction. But I think just as often, giving up is just code word for not having really accepted the new direction. Because it places judgment on the new direction as something less than or less desirable, when it may end up being more beautiful than what we were pursuing before. And yes, we can certainly put distance in relationships while still caring deeply for those we are giving space to. That’s a great point!

      • Ginny

        Thank you for always taking the time to respond. I will certainly think about giving up being code for not really accepting. After listening to facebook live I think motivation can be key here, too. Many things to think about.

  • Cris M

    Hi Kelly, this is a very nice post! But somehow when I read the tittle, my first thought was that I disagree with you on the “limitation” concept. I read the whole post and I cannot agree more with you, but I still have some “feelings” about the world “limitations”. And the reason why is because it gives me the idea that I am stuck at some point, that I should be or do “more”, that I should “overcome” this (faster maybe), etc. But, this misses the part of what is the standard? And given we are unique, our standard will never be the same to other person and even more closely looked: we do not know which is our own standard either. So as the river, we just need to make sure we flow, that is the very nicest image ever. And flowing we will find a way always. It may not be the one we thought or “would have expected” for us, but will be our own, and the one we created with the rocks we found along the way. (Loving to be back to comments! It makes me think and feel! Tks for that!) big hugs. Cris

  • A. Julie

    “You aren’t here to do all things; you’re here to do your things.”

    This is just what I need to read and contemplate, while trying to discern my next job direction. It’s not always easy to give myself permission to be myself.

    Aside: What’s with the “responsiveness” thing these days, in workplaces? Interrupting myself constantly for the whims of others poisons my flow-loving soul and keeps me from even focusing. (Research on task switching indicates that I’m one of the ones who is aware of the problem, at least.)

    • Good observation, Julie. “Responsiveness” seems like a bit of a disease both in and out of the workplace. In our personal lives, if someone doesn’t respond right away, we worry they are mad at us. It never occurs to us they are just taking the space to be themselves.

  • Hudson Jim

    Kelly, I can really relate to this. In your post you said, “I was given an introverted soul, so if I give my soul too many crowds, it slowly gets drained of energy and joy.” Amen! My problem is that I am just on the introverted side of the i/e line, and love being with people (in small groups). I just came back from 1 1/2 weeks back in my home state of Colorado, and had an amazing time connecting with old friends going back to grade school days. It was people, people, every day. I loved it! But guess what? I returned home to Illinois and crashed. I’ve been back a few days now, but all I can do is sit and read sci-fi. (I’d probably sleep, if I and our dogs would allow it.) I hope enough energy comes back today so that I can get back to work. Anyway, as you say, we can’t do everything!

    • Jim, being an ambivert prevents one of the biggest challenges. You have to be even more sensitive than most to the what your soul is needing in the moment. Very easy to go too far in one direction. Best of luck getting back into your usual routine!

  • Wow! Brilliant!!!!!! Just Brilliant!!!!!

  • LoveWorks

    Oh my this resonated with me today so much! I’m currently reading your book and this message keeps coming at me lately, to learn when to go with the flow and own our greatness. Bible studies and sermons keep reiterating this, our souls are unique and meant to be cared for appropriately. Each “Without Rival” like Mrs. Lisa Bevere wrote, and amazing in it’s gifts, which are many. Have a blessed day!

    • Blessings to you, too! And I’m so glad to hear Loveable is dove-tailing with the other good messages you are receiving. May you enjoy simply being you!

  • Kitha Cockrell

    Yes and Amen!!!! So needed this reminder today…love how Father brings a truth He’s been speaking to me for awhile now, into more clarity through your writing…Isn’t He undescribably amazing….your graced with a limitation, your inspired to write about it, your words inspire, and encourage others on their way home…All the paragraphs and chapters of His story are continuing to be written with love by “The AUTHOR” of the greatest story of all time…. How blessed beyond measure are we to be included in His story!!!!

  • D Franke

    Hi Dr. Flanagan, I’m fairly new to your fb posts, and am trying to remember the day and time you’re live, I’ll get there soon. I have been receiving your blog for a while now via email, but love this live opportunity and am very interested in the podcasts. I am also interested in securing the workbook. I already own Loveable, but I am not finding the workbook/companion anywhere. Are they still available? Good luck in your endeavors and I’m looking forward to September. Thanks, Deb

  • Sarah Leanne

    Oh my gosh! This is… everything. I have fibromyalgia and, as I dive deeper into mindfulness and self compassion, I’m learning to welcome my limits and even my pain.
    I’m not there yet. But this article… It spoke to my soul. Thank you.

  • Tiphaine

    hummm… This makes me think. I am back from a doctor appointment where I complained that my body is exhausted and won’t let me do whatever i want, whenever i want. My doctor reminded me my age (i am only 45) and said that i have to accept that sometimes i cannot do everything. And I just can’t. accepting it I mean. I cannot have a body that won’t follow what i want to do. I have to be one and if my mind says let’s do this, i have to be physically able to do it. So reading you is like questioning me. again. And i just can’t accept that now that i am happy with my life, and able to say no sometimes, and capable to finally decide what i want to do, i just can’t accept my body to fail me now.

    • callmecrazy66

      I felt that way before I started a daily yoga practice. Those instances are now fewer and farther between. I do hot power vinyasa but there are many different kinds.

  • callmecrazy66

    I saved this to periodically remind myself. I find it funny how some people struggle with this much more than others.