Our limits are part of being an embodied human mammal. We need rest, food, drink, and comfort at regular intervals to stay in balance. We can ignore those needs for a while, but there is a mounting cost to our well-being the longer we set them aside. Paying attention to our limits, like our sensitivities, helps us compassionately care for ourselves.
Out of spoons
With youth and the privilege of an able body, our limits might be far outside of what we want to do in a day, and we do not often encounter them at all. A young, strong, able person might intentionally push their limits with a wilderness adventure, a marathon, or some other difficult challenge.
With physical or emotional impairments, we encounter our limits in a more daily way. We might have the energy for either a shower or a neighborhood walk, but not both, and have to choose. We might have variable energy from day to day, making it difficult to plan ahead to get together with friends.
Spoon Theory explains these limits by saying that people with chronic illness have a limited number of spoons per day, and each activity costs one or more spoons. Someone who is out of spoons needs to rest and recover.
Limits are normal
We might feel frustrated when limits get in the way of what we want to accomplish. Encouraged by consumer culture’s quest for more better faster yesterday, we might feel shame at having more limits than “normal,” even though having limits is perfectly normal for each of us.
It is called ableism to think that people with impairments are less worthy in any way. We can choose to avoid ableist metaphors such as “crazy” for evil behavior, “lame” for lack of effort, and “blind” for unobservant. Our limits are not bad, and do not make us bad people.
We each create our lives within the constraints that our limits provide. A container garden on a balcony is as valid as a garden spanning acres. Much of the harm of our limits comes from the disgraceful lack of social services and support for people with physical, emotional, or financial limits.
Trauma adds limits
Trauma can introduce limits suddenly, through physical injury from a car crash, or emotional injury from betrayal and assault. It takes time and energy to heal both physically and emotionally, leaving less time and energy for other activities. Survivors are faced with adapting to unfamiliar limits in addition to other changes wrought by trauma.
PTSD can shrink our world as we try to rest and avoid triggers. We receive messages to “Step outside your comfort zone!” and “Do something that scares you every day.” Those messages apply to people who have a comfort zone to stay in. Instead, trauma survivors often need to slow down and find a sense of safety, rather than staying in a state of emergency.
It takes experimentation to discover our soft and hard limits. When we start feeling tired, maybe we can push on and rest more later, or maybe we need to stop immediately to avoid days of increased pain or panic. It is an inherent part of the process to get it wrong sometimes in both directions, either becoming exhausted, or skipping an activity that might have been possible after all.
When we gently test our limits, we might find that our information about some of them is outdated and we can comfortably go farther than we thought. When we raise an arm slowly, we might be able to reach overhead with a previously injured shoulder. When we have the option to leave at any time, we might have a good time at a party that would previously have been intolerably crowded and loud.
When limits are variable, increasing as we heal, or decreasing with a progressive condition, then there is even more experimentation and possible mistakes. It helps to be gentle with ourselves as we try to predict what we can do each day. Over time, we learn to recognize our own subtle signs of “enough.”
Most of all, we need to be attentive to our limits around taking risks, even gentle ones. When we over-stretch, the body lets us know with an emotional meltdown, sudden illness, or back spasm. Each body has its own vulnerabilities and its own way of communicating, “Too much!”
Refill the well
As hard as it is to say “No” or “Maybe later” or “I need a break” or “I need help” when we are working on our own goals, it can be even harder when we are disappointing someone else, or doing less for a cause we care about. Women and other marginalized groups are socialized to subordinate our needs to the people around us.
- Robyn Posin’s book Go Only As Fast As the Slowest Part Feels Safe to Go shares her journey of kindly listening to her limits and finding safety.
- Christine Miserandino tells the story of developing Spoon Theory at a diner to explain to a good friend what it is like to have lupus.