Accepting, Setting and Embracing Limits

“No limits!” is what American culture seems to be shouting today. I see that phrase on bumper stickers frequently. The news and entertainment media tell us to live to the fullest, that nothing should or can hold us back, that we can have it all. It’s a false message.

News Flash – Those running the mainstream media don’t care about you. They care about one thing: selling advertising. They will show or say whatever it takes to catch your eye or ear for a minute in order to make a buck. Really. It’s sad, but it’s true.

Another truth is that people have limits. It’s pure fantasy to pretend otherwise. Men cannot become women. Not everyone can grow up to be President. I will never be able to bench press 300lbs. Understanding and accepting our personal limits is critical to our emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing. Noted psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, defines emotional health as the ability to accept reality, even though it may be emotionally painful. Unfortunately it’s precisely because facing up to our limits is emotionally painful, that we choose to deny them.

In denying our limits we can continue to engage in harmful or unproductive behaviors. For example, I recently injured my right knee while running. The pain and swelling were pretty obvious signs that I should accept at least a temporary limit on my workouts. Perhaps “no running for a month.” Sensible. Did I do it? Not initially. But now that my knee is worse from ignoring my limits, I’m more able to abide by the need to lay off for a while (and I probably need to see an orthopedic surgeon).

A lot of us are limited in our ability to resist temptation. This cartoon was in my local paper last week:

There is a lot of truth in that little exchange. Personally, I also have a weakness for French fries. If they’re on my plate, I’m going to eat them all. Maybe some from your plate too.

The cartoon makes another point. The pig has voluntarily imposed a limit on himself, which is that he won’t go to the new burger place for dinner. He chooses to limit himself in order to live a healthier lifestyle. It’s only because he accepts his weakness for fries that he can decide on helpful limits for his dining options. Of course there are other strategies that the pig could use for self-protection at the burger place, but many Americans would be well served to follow his lead.

Like the pig knows, placing limits on ourselves can be a powerful way to help us achieve our goals. Limiting TV or internet time can increase family or study time. Limiting calories, meat and alcohol can improve our physical health. Limiting our exposure to “toxic media” can be good for our emotional and spiritual health. Just “avoiding the bad” in our culture could add a lot of whole-person wellbeing to most of us.

In addition, structure, or setting limits, helps us channel our effort and increase our personal power. The automobile engine is powerful because the explosion is contained in the cylinder and the force channeled into moving the piston. In business, the most successful senior leaders have learned that it’s necessary to narrow their personal focus and the organizational agenda to achieve top performance. The CEO can’t be involved in day-to-day decision-making. He or she must restrict his or her time and energy on issues related to a limited set of top priorities. Saying “no” to distractions creates the ability to win.

The more I reflect on the this idea of necessary and helpful limits, the broader the topic seems to become. In families or interpersonal relationships, we speak of “setting boundaries,” which is simply limiting what we will do for or accept from others in the relationship. This is a very important component of emotional health but too complex to talk about here. Then there are speed limits, city limits, laws, regulations, policies, procedures, good manners, and more. All represent some kind of human-defined limits. Even when well intended, it’s our human nature to chafe against them.  (In America we’ve elevated defying limits to an art form)

So imposing even helpful limits on ourselves can be very difficult, not only because it’s painful, but also because it’s so countercultural. It is hard to live differently than everyone else. However, although it may not feel good at first, as people begin to reap the rewards of self-discipline, they can appreciate good limits as key to their success. This been my experience. What I choose not to do, where I choose not to go, what I choose not to watch and read – in short, limits – have been vital to my health, wellbeing and personal growth.

I encourage you to discern and accept your own personal limits and weaknesses. Next consider your goals and desires. How can I be well? How can I be a good spouse, parent, employee, and boss? How can I be the person God would have me be? Pray. Then don’t be afraid to impose appropriate limits on yourself. Live within the limits, embrace the limits, and see what happens.



  1. Jeff Wood says:

    Peter, the kite flying high said to the string, “You’re limiting me.” With that the kite took out some scissors and cut the string. Jeff

    • Peter Weiss says:

      Thanks Jeff. That about sums it up. Would have saved me a lot of time if you had told me that before I sat down to write this morning! 🙂