Honoring the Limits of our Physical and Emotional Capacity
A few years ago, our small group was sharing our results of a personality assessment and lo and behold, I had what they called a “Triple A”: highly assertive, highly achieving, and highly ambitious. At the same time, I was in an intense season of struggle with an auto-immune disease and discernment about all that was on my plate. One of my friends Christiana said, “Wow, it must be frustrating to have such a driven personality in a body that won’t cooperate.” (AMEN!) Her comment powerfully articulated my inner struggle, and became a benchmark moment in facing the realities of my physical limitations.
Not long after that, my spiritual director friend, Ardath asked, “I’m wondering how this struggle might be in some form an answer to your prayers?”
Inside I was thinking, “My health issues – an ANSWER TO MY PRAYERS??? Aren’t they the proof of my UNANSWERED prayers!? Why would God give me all this drive and a body that won’t cooperate!” (A little window into the prayers of a Triple A personality.) But of course, I told her it was a good question and I’d have to think about it.
All of us at different points experience a change in our lives where our capacity is no longer what it used to be. Increased limitations may come in various forms: physical, emotional, relational, or life stage. And when we don’t honor realities of our limitations, our bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships start to pay a price.
First, because of the aging process, NO ONE will escape the decrease in physical capacity. We start to feel it in our 40’s, but most people experience a notable difference in their physical capacity in their 50’s, with marked decrease each decade. Your stamina lessens. Your tolerance for change/ambiguity/conflict/noise/interruption declines. Your body takes longer to recuperate after travel. You need more margin.
Many women will experience significant changes in capacity during the the years of pregnancy, childbirth and the young children. I once heard an Ob/Gyn doctor say nearly every woman who came into his office with young children complained about her lack of energy, emotional reserves, and sex drive. While there are medical reasons for some of those symptoms, the truth is the “new normal” for many in that season of life will be a changed physical and emotional capacity.
Some will experience a health crisis of major proportion that completely alters their lives such as cancer or a major injury, while others have a long-term illness that robs them of their capacity slowly over time. And if you throw in the fluctuations most of us will experience over the course of a lifetime: hormonal changes, various injuries, a compromised immune system, weight gain, a lengthy illness, everyone will be forced to honor their physical limits at some point.
Our bodies aren’t the only place we will experience changing capacity, our emotional capacity is actually even more varied. There are seasons in your life where certain situations in your life require a huge emotional output. Trying to come along your special needs child. Surviving a health crisis. Dealing with a major conflict at work. Adjusting to a new context or culture. Working through a marital infidelity. Managing a rebellious teenager. Battling depression or anxiety. Walking a season of grief.
We have to be aware that during these seasons, our overall capacity in other arenas will decrease as we are processing, grieving, adjusting, problem-solving, or just plain surviving. We can easily underestimate how physically draining emotional work can be.
Our inner dialogue when we begin to bump up against on our limitations can be particularly toxic. To add insult to injury, others may be sending these messages too. We say things to ourselves like:
Why am I so weak? Why can’t I carry my load like others? Others don’t seem to be having a problem. I should be able to keep up. I can’t be the weak link in the system. If I just organize/pray/plan more, I should be able to do this.
When you feel strong resistance to admitting a new limitation, beware that you have probably hit up on an issue where your identity has rooted in unhealthy ways: Self-sufficiency. Independence. Strength. Capability. Organization. Control. Discipline. Vitality. Health.
In and of themselves, those attributes are useful, and may even be a part of your natural strength set, but every strength we have will go through a season of sifting, because they are not designed to be our source of identity, hope, or stability.
Or maybe you are hitting up against a vow you have made:
I can’t let others see me struggle. I won’t be weak like my dad/mom/friend. I’m NOT going to age like my dad/grandpa. I won’t be emotionally needy. Our family does not ask for help.
Make no mistake— for most of us, there is a huge battle to bow our knee to a limitation. Believe it or not, it takes more ego strength to admit we need help or to cut back than to white knuckle it through at great expense to ourselves and others.
I’m not suggesting we never live beyond our limits, but if we are consistently stretched beyond what we can bear, we have to make some adjustments. And ultimately, we are bowing our knee in surrender to God; there is no defeat in acknowledging a weakness. In God’s upside down Kingdom, He somehow weaves those limitations and weaknesses into an opportunity for His power to be revealed.
I love the way Eugene Peterson captures it in the Message:
Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations… At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.
Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.
This is perhaps what was behind my friend Ardath’s question… how might we learn to see our limitations as a GIFT?
While I still cycle in and out of peace with my limits, I have come to see how my limitations have been an answer to prayer. Traveling less has made me more available to my children in adolescence. Saying ‘no’ more is weaning me from the approval of others. Leading a retreat as a migraine comes on caused me to completely depend on God for every word. Even this blog is an outgrowth of my physical limitations; I just don’t have the stamina for catalyzing and leading retreats like I used to.
May you too learn to lean into your receive life direction from your limitations. Take a from a Triple A personality type. It’s more efficient in the long-run.