It is a very humbling moment when you realize that you have taken on too much – that you are living outside of your limits. Sometimes it is hard to admit that we can’t do it all. Sometimes we have glorified our busyness so much that we don’t even recognize that we are living outside of our limits.
I have come to this point a few times in my life. During these times I have had to face my human limitations. I had to accept the fact that I am not the Energizer bunny. I had to accept that I could not keep going and going.
We need to learn to recognize the signs – in ourselves and in others – that we may be reaching our limit so that we can pull back and recalibrate.
7 symptoms of living outside our limits
(from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton)
1. Irritability or hypersensitivity.
Things that normally wouldn’t bother us (such as a child’s mistake, another driver cutting us off in traffic or a coworkers irritating habit) put us over the edge. We may or may or may not express our rage outwardly, but inwardly we are aware of reactions that are all out of proportion to the event itself.
During waking hours we might be aware of a vague sense that something is not quite right or an even stronger feeling of wanting to bolt from life. When it is time to rest, we might find ourselves unable to settle down and sit quietly or fall asleep. Because we are overstimulated, our sleep may be broken, marred by too much mental activity or disturbing dreams.
3. Compulsive overworking.
We might find that we are unable to stop or slow down even when that would be appropriate – like at night after dinner or on vacation. A compulsive leaders is one who – for some reason that he or she cannot quite name – has no boundaries on work, checks e-mail late into the evening, and is unable to unplug completely to go on vacation, to enter into solitude or to spend uninterrupted time with family.
4. Emotional numbness.
When we are pushing our limit, we may notice that we can’t feel anything – good or bad. It takes energy to experience and process a full range of human emotion. When we are “at capacity” we literally do not have the energy to engage the full range of human experience, including our emotions. In addition, we might be afraid that if we did stop and experience our emotions we would be overwhelmed, and who has the time for that?
5. Escapist behaviours.
When we do have a break in the action, we might notice that increasingly we are succumbing to escapist behaviours (such as compulsive eating, drinking or other substance abuse, spending, television, pornography, surfing the Internet) and don’t have the energy to choose activities that are life-giving (such as exercising, going for a walk or bike ride, connecting meaningfully with friends and family, enjoying a hobby or interest like playing an instrument, cooking, painting, drawing, writing poetry, playing sports, working with our hands, reading a good book). This becomes a vicious cycle, because escapist behaviours actually drain energy from us – energy we could use to make life-giving choices – and then we just get more and more lethargic.
6. Not able to attend to human needs.
We don’t have time to take care of basic human needs such as exercise, eating right, sleeping enough, going to the doctor, have that minor (or major) surgery we need. Even such simple things as getting the car washed, picking up the dry cleaning or staying organized seem impossible to accomplish, indicating that we are pushing the limits of being human. We may also notice that our most important relationships (family and friends) are routinely being short-changed.
7. Hoarding energy.
When we are running on empty, we can have the inner experience of always feeling threatened, as though exposing ourselves to additional people or situations would drain the last of our energy or the energy we are trying to conserve for what we think is important. We might actually become overly self-protective and even reclusive in our attempts to hoard the few resources we do have.
If even a few of these symptoms are true for you, chances are you are pushing against human limitations.
What symptoms do you recognize in your life right now?