Limits are the riverbank to the river: how we steer the flow of our lives.
Why limits can feel so scary
When we say no to something that we’re attached to – like sugar – we can feel anxious, a sense of groundlessness or emptiness without our beloved source of safety or comfort.
Like Linus without his security blanket, we may wonder: Can I handle this separation?
Moving through this space can feel tender and vulnerable – and is one reason why it can feel hard to face limits.
When we feel like we ‘suck’ at setting limits
Limits also bring out our feelings about facing the limit itself – things like ‘littleness,’ powerlessness, incompetence, and fear.
You may feel like you’re terrible at setting limits – like you don’t know what you’re doing.
This can be especially true when trying to set limits with sugar:
Should I stop eating it altogether?
Should I limit it to special occassions?
Am I being too rigid? Too lenient?
There’s often a feeling of, “This feels really new to me and I’m not quite sure what I’m doing.”
You may feel like you’re 3 or 7 or 14 or 20 years old in the face of a limit, and not the grown adult that you are.
When old feelings get restimulated
When we face a limit in our lives, all our hurts and past feelings around limits can get restimulated.
So we feel the pain when limits were used harshly against us, the feelings of littleness, of ‘I don’t know how to do this!” when we faced things that felt overwhelming, the shame when we were scolded for not being more disciplined, the guilt when we overdid it.
These feelings rise up to the surface and we can feel them strongly, especially in our body and nervous system.
In response, we may feel overwhelmed.
We may collapse into a feeling of, “This is too hard!”
We may notice a hazy feeling of lethargy arise, a feeling of, “Well, I’ll try that limit….tomorrow.”
Healing your relationship with limits
In many ways, our 3 and 7 and 14 and 20 year old selves – as well as the emotional hurts and fears they carry – are with us when we face limits.
At first glance, this can feel like a lot of emotional caretaking, like parenting an entire family of children at once!
And – there’s another way of approaching our reactions that arise around limits: as opportunities to give our wounds a bath of mercy, holding and healing.
Every time we gently support ourselves in setting a limit, we have an opportunity to care for these younger selves who have been wounded, in some way or another, by limits that were set too harshly, too leniently, or too rigidly.
Meditation teacher Tara Brach calls this ‘the u turn.”
We can take the u-turn and bring love, safety, and compassion to these places that feel tender with limits.
We can also reach out to trusted others for help and support!
Through these relationships we create a holding ground, a womb of safety, where we can stop doing what doesn’t work.
This is how we stop trying to use sugar to meet our emotional, relational and spiritual needs: how we adapt, learn, make lots of mistakes, laugh at ourselves, feel more levity, feel more possibility, ask for help, ask questions, open to what we don’t know or don’t see, embrace ourselves, forgive ourslves, and try a different way.
‘Gentle persistence and persistent gentleness’
My friend Catharine has a mantra that I find really helpful if setting limits with sugar feels like climbing Mt. Everest for you: to move forward with ‘gentle persistence and persistent gentleness.’
Ah – doesn’t that feel wonderful to your heart and mind? What a compassionate and courageous way to support ourselves in doing diffiult or scary things. (Bless you Catharine!)
For we need both: gentleness as we journey, and persistance to keep taking the next step forward while caring for what arises along the way.
Caring for our vulnerability around limits with patience, wisdom, and understanding helps soften our emotional reactions so we are free to move forward, to act with intention, steering the ship of our lives.
It’s how we help ourselves grow up and grow into a different way of relating to limits – and even, dare I say, to dance with them.