Tolerating the discomfort of setting limits

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.

Want to stay connected and learn more about my coaching offerings? You’re welcome to sign up for my monthly-ish newsletter. You can do that here.

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

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Knowing yourself and saying no

An opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do popped up out of the blue today. Except, it was very last-minute. As soon as I read about the opportunity in an email, and realized that the timing felt off for me, my whole body kind of deflated.

Thinking about taking the opportunity felt draining — definitely non-energizing. My body wisdom was clear, and I decided not to take the opportunity without much more thought.

This got me thinking about the importance of knowing ourselves, especially in this day and age of so much FOMO (that stands for fear of missing out, on the off-chance you’re not familiar with this ubiquitous term!).

I used to agonize terribly over most decisions — particularly when I sensed I might need to say “no” to something.

“Yes” tended to be my default position — if only to avoid potential conflict. (“No” was a word in my childhood that caused more conflict than any other, so by the time I was an adult, it was fraught with all kinds of stuff for me. I recently watched an episode of Mad Men where Sally Draper says “no” to Don — and the ensuing madness confirmed that Sally Draper is my childhood self’s fictional soul sister.)

When I think back to my twenties (from the perspective of my forties), I sometimes wonder why I was so upset about certain things, or why some things I’d deal with swiftly and deftly today turned my world upside down back then. Good grief, I’ll think, picturing my twenty-three-year-old self. What the heck was my problem?

And then I remember, connecting with compassion for this dear younger self of mine: It’s because I have a kind of “self short-hand” in my forties that I didn’t back then — I can quickly act from an accumulated self-knowledge that was undeveloped back then.

(That’s not to say everything is easier now. Some things are a lot harder than they were then.)

It is precisely because I agonized so many times over decisions in the past, and explored what was going on for me with all that agonizing, that I don’t often freak out over decisions in that same way these days.

I know now that there are few decisions that are permanent, there are few opportunities that won’t ever come again (and if some are truly lost, there are others right there waiting), and people can handle it if I say no (even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment).

And because I know myself better than I did twenty years ago, I understand that one of my gifts is picking up on all kinds of subtleties and complexities — and that the “downside” of this gift is that if I focus too much on those subtleties and complexities, I can get lost in them.

And that means recognizing that not every decision requires weighing a bunch of things out. And some decisions do. And because I know myself better than I did at twenty-five, I intuitively sense which decisions are which for me.

I also know that picking up on all these subtleties and complexities means that sometimes things feel wrong to me when in fact nothing is wrong. I’m just picking up on a lot, and it needs to be sorted or let go, and I probably need to take a step back and reconnect with myself. When I didn’t know this stuff about the way I processed things, life was a heck of a lot harder.

So sometimes when I am working with a coaching client who is facing a challenging situation, I will ask: What do you know about yourself when it comes to situations like this? How do you tend to feel? What do you tend to do or not do?

Usually, a wealth of self-knowledge pours forth from the client when I ask these questions. They know a lot about themselves and have only temporarily “forgotten” (the brain-fog that often happens for us when we’re really stressed). And they need to be reminded that they have forgotten.

For me, for example, when someone rushes me to make a decision, if I don’t have all the information I need, I can’t access a clear yes or no for myself. If they push me further, I’ll tend to shut down.

Knowing that about myself, I’m able to say these days, “I’m not able to give you a clear answer on this until I have more information (or more time, or whatever).” That keeps me from moving to the shut-down place.

But if I have gotten to a place where I’m feeling shut-down, if I ask myself “What do I know about myself when it comes to feeling like this? What does feeling shut-down often mean for me?” — I can gain perspective again: Oh, when I’m feeling shut-down it usually means I’m pushing or forcing myself to do something too quickly. Oh, yeah. Maybe I can slow down here. Maybe I can allow myself to catch up with myself.

What do you know about yourself now that you didn’t twenty years ago, or ten, or five? How does this knowledge help you make the best decisions for yourself? I’d love to hear from you.

P. S. As I wrote this post, I got an email update. Turns out the opportunity I mentioned, that felt too short-notice for me, has been rescheduled — for a date and time that feel just right. 

Coming up: I’ll have openings for new one-on-one coaching clients as we head into fall. Do you need support in making your creative work a priority while practicing excellent self-care? You can learn more about working together, here.  Or, take a look at my Is This You? page.

Want to stay connected? You can subscribe to my monthly-ish Artist’s Nest Newsletter, here.

Above images of feather, © Popa Sorin | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and sparrow, © creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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