“Accept My Limitations, Or…Fulfill My Promise?”

“How do I know if the time has come to

Accept my limitations,

Or whether I still ought to try to

Fulfill my promise?”

— Judith Viorst, “Twenty Questions,” in How Did I Get to Be Forty & Other Atrocities

I’m on a Judith Viorst reading bender right now, which is utterly enjoyable though not really fair to Viorst, because the work of most writers doesn’t benefit from being read one book right after the other. (I must add that in addition to writing for adults, Viorst wrote the immortal picture book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.)

This quotation reminds me of one of the most important challenges within happiness and habits: “Accept myself, and expect more from myself.

Or as W. H. Auden put it, “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

Or as Flannery O’Connor observed, “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.” 

In Happier at Home, I write about how I struggled with this question as I faced my fear of driving. Should I accept a fear of driving as a natural limit of my nature, or should I expect myself to conquer that fear? Very reluctantly, I decided to make myself start driving again.

Is there an area where you struggle to decide whether to “accept my limitations” or to “fulfill my promise”?

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    First, my gratitude to Viorst for Alexander and his utterly awful day. That helped me and my older son get through many a difficult time–school was torture for him much of the time for my born rebel.
    I would go Auden one better. I believe it took me up until sometime in my middle forties to recognize and understand what some of my limitations and blind spots might actually BE, and to see that they were character deficits and optional no-go zones that I could repair or encroach upon without violating my preciously individuated self.
    I have come to believe that the concept ‘that’s just the way I am’ is potentially quite a LOOPHOLE (could that be number 11 on your list, Gretchen?) “I’m just not good at finances,” or “I don’t really like to travel” or “I’m just naturally kind of a messy person” were three of my big cop-outs, and I have lived long enough to prove that I can manage my money reasonably well and own my own home, I do like to travel (I have even learned to love solo road trips) and while I may have to fight untidiness, I definitely prefer my surroundings when they are orderly.
    So I would invite everyone to think through their list of ‘that’s just the way I am’ characteristics. You just naturally love living on an emotional roller coaster? Check out serenity and mindfulness for a while. You were born a couch potato? Try taking a walk every day for 30 days. And so forth. That way of putting on our limitations with rueful pride, as if they were some sort of armor is a big ‘TELL’ that we are defending a weakness, and maybe we ought to put it to the test.
    On the other hand, trying to take one step further into an area that attracts us, but which we fear we might not be competent to do or enjoy–that could open up some wonderful adventures. For me, travel away from home by myself was the big one. Singing lessons? Art class? Cross-fit training? Decluttering your home, REALLY? Those things that seem like impossible dreams, that’s the other place where I would push the boundaries.
    Accepting limitations–at my age, that’s about strength and athleticism. I may try to get stronger, but I accept that I have to do it in tiny, tiny increments and work very slowly, and accept setbacks, and start over even more gently. It’s about knowing there are things I really won’t likely have time or money in this life to do–and figuring out what IS available. It’s about setting priorities and putting my time and effort where it will do the most good.
    Great idea to mull over Gretchen! Thanks for bringing Viorst’s work for adult readers to my attention.

    • Rena

      Thank you for sharing this. You made some very important points. I would love to read (a lot) more about this issue. I have found relief in finally accepting a character trait as “that’s just the way I am” and also joy in trying things I have always thought were “just not me”, such as dancing (alone in the living room) and joining a choir (a community one where my lousy voice couldn’t be heard by I could experience singing loudly and being part of something beautiful.) Maybe fear can help tell which is which.

    • Gillian

      An inspiring post, Penelope. Thank you.

    • Basically Penelope said it really well.

    • Frances

      I think the sentence “It’s about setting priorities and putting my time and effort where it will do the most good” is a good summary of Justice O’Connor’s “Work Worth Doing.”

  • S_ifat

    This post goes on my shelf just under my computer. Love it, thanks

  • BettyLou

    Accept and expect more sounds lovely. And, it is so much easier to do the latter than the former.

  • Gillian

    How do we tell the difference between Auden’s accidental limitations and the necessary ones? Lately, I have been thinking about this and about the subject of comfort zones. I am obviously a very late developer – by the age of 40 I had no idea who I was. Finding out has been a very slow process and most of the discovery has occurred in the last 4 years since my retirement so now, at the age of 66, I have some idea of who I am.

    I have a tendency to use the “that’s just the way I am” line. It is often a Loophole as Penelope suggests. It can also be wise acceptance of reality. I am an introvert and, as Susan Cain describes in her book on that subject, introversion is accompanied by a lot of other traits that do fall into the category of “just the way I am”; they are the Necessary Limitations. Many of these could perhaps be overcome but at what cost?

    Stepping outside our comfort zone to face a challenge involves a considerable expenditure of time, energy and focus – all scarce resources that we should spend judiciously. We have to first know what we want from life. If our limitations prevent us from achieving that, then we should make the effort to identify and overcome or minimize them. Penelope listed some great examples. Often, however, we know instinctively that we will never be really successful in a particular area. Yes, we could accept the challenge and succeed to a degree, and possibly overcome a fear, but we will never excel. Is it not then preferable to spend the resources facing a challenge where we can expect a higher level of achievement and develop some of our native potential? There are, of course, no guarantees and we can often be surprised at how well we can do something but we can usually judge, with some accuracy, our chances of success.

    I have no desire to step outside my comfort zone to attend an “outward bound” type of experience where I would be expected to confront my physical fears by climbing mountains or crossing chasms on a rope. This is largely because I am simply too afraid to even attempt such an exercise but I would also consider it a waste of time and energy. It would contribute nothing to anyone. Even if I were successful, I suspect that my primary feeling would be one of relief, not joy at my success. Much better to devote the resources to facing a challenge where I have a reasonable expectation of achieving some level of excellence and where the success would make me a better or more skilful person or would make a contribution to one or more other people.

    In the early 1980s, I was offered the opportunity to teach a nightschool course at the local institute of technology. At first I hesitated – I had never done such a thing before, I am not an outgoing person and I didn’t know if I could do it well. It was a scary prospect; there was potential for miserable failure. But, on reflection, I decided that there was also potential for success so I accepted the challenge. It was a calculated risk and it was successful. While I was not the best teacher the world has seen, I did receive very positive student evaluations. I stepped outside my comfort zone when I felt there was a substantial likelihood of success. I conquered the fear, acquired a new skill and sense of achievement, learned something about myself and made a contribution to my students. This was well worth the time, effort and risk. The same expenditure in an attempt to meet a challenge where I could expect to achieve, at best, mediocrity would be a waste.

    We all need to identify and accept our potential and limitations. Our focus should be on developing our innate potential which sometimes means first overcoming some perceived limitations. This is where we achieve the greatest return for our efforts and can make the greatest contribution.

  • Ana Paula

    Gretchen, I would like to thank you for encouraging me to start a blog, I was tossing and turning about what I should write, where, etc. I took my Happiness project and started reading Launch a Blog, and the everything was so easy I couldn’t beleive it! I hope it gets earier with the days. Regards from Mexico =)

  • LisaLooneyTune

    Gretchen, your book has taught me many, many things. At the top of the list is that there are no limitations. Through following your example and launching my own year-long happiness project, I have found that I am able to refresh or change every element in my life if I want. From you, I have learned that there are no limitations because its all about perspective.
    I’ve been limited by traits that are ‘just in my nature’ like over-working. I will be late everywhere as I’d rather be a few minutes late than get there early with nothing to do. I’m a perfectionist. I forget names. I focus on the end point.
    That’s all changing. Being ‘just the way you are’ is, as Penelope put it, a loophole or cop-out. Because I am in charge of who I am. Every aspect of my being is controlled by my own choices.
    A quote I’m sure we all recognise “I can do ANYTHING, I just can’t do everything”. I truly believe that with dedication and work anything is achievable and thus limitations may slow you down (an injury may slow your training for that marathon) but cannot stop you unless you allow it to do so.
    I am scared to go sky-diving. I still don’t know if I could or should do it. My excuse? “I’m not that kind of person” “I don’t like heights” “It’s not in my personality”. LIES. I am adventurous and outgoing and love being in the spotlight for a thrill. I am limiting myself only from fear. Should I accept my fear, or overcome it? All I have to do is take control and choose to ditch the limitation and fulfil my promise. I can’t do everything in the time I have, but I can do anything I choose. Nothing is limiting me but me.

    By the way, thanks a million Gretchen, you’re work is inspiring and has led me to be so much happier. I cannot put it a simple sentence what you have done for me in writing that book, so THANKYOU
    Love from Australia xxxx

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m thrilled to hear that my work struck such a chord with you.

  • JoK

    Gretchen, I find this one of the most interesting and challenging questions that you have ever asked, and some of the other commenters here have analysed its nuances really well.
    On my part, if I feel that something that is ‘just how I am’ makes me feel sad and is clearly limiting my life, I have to try to tackle it. (I wouldn’t include jumping out of aeroplanes in this, but I would include driving, which I hate too!) The danger is that, if I fail, then I quickly retreat back to believing I am not capable of change – it can be a kind of defeatism. But if I succeed even a little, it gives me hope of change in other areas of my life too.

  • I feel the same way about driving. My abilities are perfectly adequate, but I’m so filled with anxiety every time I get behind the wheel, I don’t feel it’s worth it. I’m perfectly happy walking where I need to go or taking public transit–in some ways, this allows me to connect with the world more. Other people seem more bothered than I am about the fact that I avoid driving. I often get asked, Why don’t you take some driving lessons? Because I know how to drive but prefer to get around by other means.

  • TJ

    I’ve struggled with this question for a long time now. What are my innate limitations and what can I do to improve myself? The problems kick in when expectations about myself come into the picture. When I’m confronted with the thought of “that’s just the way I am,” I respond by saying “why am I like that? Why can’t I do X”? There is a sort of feeling that I should be able to do X if only I did Y and Z. This leads me to think that there is something wrong with me if I can’t do X or Y or Z. Then, I start to wonder if I wasn’t meant to do X because of my own limitations, which makes me wonder all over again, “am I expending too much energy trying to change myself? or do I just need to practice/do X and get better at it?” I haven’t found the solution.

  • Meg Evans

    I look at it as mainly a matter of setting priorities. There are so many ways in which it would be possible to expand beyond our limited comfort zones, and not enough time to do them all, so it’s necessary to choose wisely. Thanks for posting this thought-provoking entry!

  • Melissa

    I’ve loved Alexander since childhood, and I think I’ve always held it quite dear… BUT, I think it’s actually a terrible book for developing a happier mindset. Like Alexander, I often get into the mental trap of deciding that one small thing which doesn’t go my way is the beginning of a “terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.” Then, as the day goes on, I look for evidence to confirm this pattern. Even a day which isn’t loaded with terrible things begins to seem that way. It is so hard to overcome this mental trap, but I am trying to be more resilient and remind myself that my day will come with plenty of good in it too, if I just look for it.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Oh I always thought that was a good ‘aftermath’ story to just help my son get the idea that his situation of frustration was not unique. He always DID seem to believe he had the worst experiences EVER. Helpful for some of us to realize we are not alone!
      My own favorite saying about this comes from someone I never met–my former husband’s Grandfather, Whitey Reeves, had died before we married. He was a glass cutter in West Virginia. Apparently he called a difficult day a ‘day full of fractions’. For him this was literal–cutting pieces of glass to fractions of an inch. As a quilter, sometimes cutting fabric to 1/8″, I identify with that, and as a human being, the metaphorical ‘day full of fractions’ seems to happen fairly often.

  • Jennifer

    I love this post. As a teacher, this is something I struggle with on a daily basis. There is no perfect in teaching. The expectations are incredibly high. But even more, I find myself trying to teach this sentiment to my students. I work with high school students. They are constantly focused on this idea of perfection. The GPAs at my school are outrageously high. The culture thrives on this cut throat competition. I frequently get urgent requests for extra credit or “As for effort.” And yet when I think of learning and about what I’m trying to teach, the effort is everything. And what I find myself really hoping for my students is that they learn how to “accept themselves AND expect more from themselves.” Even more, I find myself trying to do this every day. The trouble is finding the acceptance when the expectations seem overwhelming.

  • Im thankful for the blog.Really looking forward to read more.