One of my teachers says that being able to tolerate discomfort is one of the most important capacities we can develop in this life.
I very much agree.
We humans will do a heck of a lot of maneuvering in order to avoid discomfort. In fact, we employ all sorts of sophisticated systems — many of them automatic and not entirely within our awareness — to keep ourselves from feeling discomfort.
And when we commit to taking better care of ourselves, to responding to our needs instead of squashing them or pretending they’re not there, one of the really uncomfortable things we inevitably realize we need to do more of is setting limits.
Many of us have a rather complicated relationship with the idea of limits. Part of this goes back to how we were raised by our parents or guardians. We may have had lots and lots of limits imposed on us.
Or maybe we had far too few (which can be particularly frightening for children, who need the safety of supportive limits that adults set for them). We may also have experienced an inconsistent and confusing mix of the two.
So setting limits in support of self-care can be truly challenging, particularly for those of us who are practiced in living in an “others-centered” way.
And yet, setting these limits is vital to taking care of ourselves and creating the space that is required to build the lives we desire, to create what we yearn to create.
The good news, I have found, is that many people are absolutely happy to respect our limits, once we communicate them. The not-so-good news: We will also experience “pushback” when we change the behavior people are used to from us. (Martha Beck refers to this pushback as “change-back attacks”.)
This pushback can come from others, and it can also show up as extreme discomfort that arises within us. In fact, sometimes the biggest challenge I have is in setting limits with myself.
There is a deeply-rooted adaptive behavior I can default to of pushing myself relentlessly. (I say “adaptive” because I learned when I was young that if I pushed myself very hard, I could potentially get a lot of praise from the adults around me.)
And when I let in a little discomfort, if I’m not mindful, I can sometimes default to even more pushing myself to avoid feeling it.
Of course, there is an unpleasant hangover effect from all this pushing myself: I feel depleted, disconnected from myself, angry, sad, and confused as to why I feel so awful after all my very hard work.
Most of the clients who work on self-care issues with me are all too familiar with the icky hangover effect of defaulting to self-neglect. And we do quite a bit of working with the significant amount of discomfort that can arise when we start to let go of this pattern and turn it around.
This is where the power of noticing comes in. Sometimes, particularly when a coping behavior is very deeply ingrained in us, we need at first to just notice it — more and more particularly — and give ourselves a good chunk of time to let it really sink in just how this pattern is affecting us.
I sometimes work with clients on one area of a particular relationship that causes them stress. They know the relationship is challenging for them, but until they slow down enough to truly notice what’s happening within the relationship that is triggering the stress — the various pieces that make up the chain of events that lead to the result of STRESS — the pattern continues.
Slowing down and noticing our thoughts, our feelings, and the actions we take (or don’t take) in these situations is key — and it can be truly uncomfortable to do that.
A lot of times the ways we neglect to take care of ourselves — sometimes particularly where other people are involved — can get shoved into a giant blind spot for us because our discomfort causes us to speed right over what’s actually happening.
One of my clients, for example, felt that she had to answer the phone every time her mom called. And her mom sometimes called as many as five or six times a day.
Until we took a slowed-down, close-up look at her belief system around her relationship with her mom and the feelings and actions that belief system created for her, my client was dropping everything multiple times per day to be there for her mom. She wanted to be there for her mom, but she needed, she came to realize, to be there for herself first.
And there was some untangling to do there that was uncomfortable to accept — and to act on.
The paradox here is that when we’re willing to let in the discomfort of slowing, stopping and really seeing what’s going on, we actually feel less discomfort over time. We learn to live more comfortably within our true selves.
Instead of moving away from discomfort, we move toward the kind of relationship we want to have with first ourselves, and then our loved ones.
Facing our discomfort around setting limits — whether with ourselves or others — is easier with support. This is the kind of work we do together in my Stellar Self-Care One-on-One Coaching Program. Interested in learning more? You can do that here.
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Thanks to these photographers for helping me illustrate today’s post with monkeys! Top photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash ; middle photo by Andre Mouton on Unsplash ; bottom photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash
2 thoughts on “Tolerating the discomfort of setting limits”
Setting limits has been hard work for me, but I feel so much better about myself now. One of the things that kept me over scheduling myself was idea that I might miss out on something if I didn’t push myself. Well now I am happily missing out on feeling exhausted and spent. Whatever else I’m missing is just too bad.
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Joan, I love this: “happily missing out on feeling exhausted and spent”! Yes! How great that you looked at that belief about missing out on things if you didn’t push yourself .. I think most of us could be well-served by questioning that idea! Thanks so much for sharing, and great to hear about your limit-setting success! ❤
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