I want to thank the people and books that helped me work through this difficult paradox. Usually I quote a lot of people, and this time it turned out not to include any quotations, but I want to recognize that I did not create this alone. So, in chronological order, thanks to Mimi Arbeit, Adam Joseph Lyons, Sammy Sass, Yotam and Shosh, Robert Kegan’s “The Evolving Self,” Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be,” Pauline Boss’ “Ambiguous Loss,” Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” Tara Brach’s “Radical Acceptance,” both of my parents, and Natalie Russ. And special thanks to Suzie and JoJo for their wisdom, but also for their constant love and support.
Limits vs. Boundaries
My speech this year is called “The Folly of Self-Acceptance” but it should also be called “The Paradox of Limitations.” It all began a little over nine months ago when I got hung up on a phrase that popped into my head: “Accept and Grow.” To me, “accept and grow” means that a person has two unique and opposing tasks as a person—we need to accept ourselves and we need to grow ourselves. I hope some of my audience recognizes the contradiction in these two tasks; those who don’t are likely taking a special meaning to the term “accept.” In my reflections, conversations, and research leading up to this speech, I became aware of the various ways that “self-acceptance” can be interpreted. In order to avoid this confusion for the moment, I want to put down that term for a while, and talk instead about the difference between limitations and boundaries.
In Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena, which is basically the SparkNotes to his much larger books, he introduces a distinction between limits and boundaries which I’m going to misuse for my own purposes. A limit is totally negative—that is, there is no going beyond a limit, and in fact there is no ‘beyond’ a limit. A limit is not something to overcome; it’s something to be acknowledged and respected. On the other hand, a boundary merely marks the inside and outside of something; even if we can’t know what’s beyond a boundary, the beyond is always implied.
My paradox concerns how I might learn to distinguish between my own personal limitations and boundaries. When I experience internal resistance to something, it lets me know I’m reaching a border of some kind, but what kind? How am I supposed to know if it’s a sign that I’ve hit a limit and need to turn back, or that I’ve encountered a boundary, an opportunity to grow and expand my personal horizons? I’ll offer some physical illustrations in which I think the difference is clear. If I’m driving for a long time at night alone, and my eyes keep closing, I should read that as a sign that I’m hitting a limit, and need to pull over to rest for a while. That’s a limit. On the other hand, if I’ve just begun exercising after taking three months off, and I feel tired after running 100 yards, that’s a boundary. The only way to grow into fitness is to push myself, to expand beyond my current boundaries.
I can use these physical examples to illustrate how limits and boundaries can get unacknowledged or mixed up. Suppose I am tired and driving, and I ignore my limit. I am putting myself and others in danger. Either I crash, and suffer real damage, or I make it home safely, but have to live with the knowledge of the danger I had risked, and the fact that I had violated a limit. Suppose I ignore this limit and in fact mistake it for a boundary. Hopefully I arrive home safely, but then I start bragging to people about my accomplishment. If I have any influence on them, I’m creating an environment in which people are encouraged to ignore limitations and endanger themselves.
Now take my exercise example. Suppose at 100 yards I am overwhelmed by the difficulty of starting an exercise program, and give up, believing that I have reached my limit. It’s hard! My lungs hurt, my legs are sore, my mind rebels—clearly, I’m thinking, I am not meant to be a runner. I am mistaking a boundary for a limit, and failing to challenge myself, and failing to grow.
There are, of course, many examples in which the limit/boundary distinction is unclear. There’s a phenomenon in marathon running called “hitting the wall,” in which the mind and body become very, very fatigued. I’ve never run a marathon, but “hitting the wall” sounds awful. Now, is “hitting the wall” an experience of boundary or limitation? It really could be either. Some runners push through the wall, and in doing so learn about themselves and feel pride in achieving their goal. Some runners push through the wall, and in doing so ignore their body’s very urgent message that they need to stop and rest for their own safety. If a runner hits the wall and stops, are they missing out on an opportunity to grow? Or saving themselves from a medical emergency? If I hit the wall and continue, should I feel accomplished or foolhardy? If I hit the wall and stop, should I feel cowardly or compassionate?
I hope these physical examples demonstrate the importance of recognizing limits and boundaries, and the tragedy of misinterpreting them. And this distinction carries over into intellectual, emotional, and social dimensions of life. Sometimes internal resistance indicates a boundary to overcome, other times a limit to respect. In the last nine years I’ve become very committed to growth, and growth is all about overcoming boundaries. Now I’m starting to recognize that I need to work on acceptance, which I think is essentially about respecting limits.
Opportunity for Growth (or not?)
But respecting limits requires recognizing limits. And this is the part I just don’t get. When my personal abilities hit an apparent wall, I keep wanting to see it as an opportunity for growth. Over my life, this attitude has led to a lot of growth. Here are six examples, in no particular order:
1. I’ve learned how to listen better.
2. I’ve learned how to hula hoop.
3. I’ve learned how to meet new people.
4. I’ve learned the value of talking slowly enough for people to understand me.
5. I’ve learned to see myself as not just a human being, but a person with a specific set of privileged and marginalized identities.
6. I’m beginning to learn the value of sitting still and silently, and of doing things one at a time instead of multi-tasking.
All of that growth required overcoming resistance, motivated by an understanding of that resistance as a boundary. These days I’m experiencing resistance around some other issues, and am having trouble knowing what it means. Which are the boundaries I need to overcome in order to become a fully realized self? Which are the limits I need to accept in order to find inner peace? And how far do I have to push in order to figure out the difference? Here are six examples, in no particular order:
- With very special exceptions, I pretty much avoid socializing at work.
- I don’t enjoy the kind of professional or community work that requires meetings or large-group teamwork.
- I don’t like loud, dark places to socialize, and don’t like most parties, especially when sober.
- I don’t speak any other languages.
- I have strong political opinions but rarely have enough data to back them up.
- I’m an atheist.
At one time or another, I second-guess all of these things and even feel bad about myself for them. For each one, I’ll wonder, is this just how I am, and that’s ok, or should I grow beyond these things, and become more than my current self? If I attempt to push back, and it hurts, how will I know if that’s a growing pain or the pain of violating my limits? If I let myself be as I am now, how will I know if that’s self-acceptance or complacence? And, by the way, these are just six examples. It seems like, given enough openness to challenges from outside ideas, people, or institutions, almost any aspect of oneself can come to be seen as an issue to overcome.
Two meanings of "Self-acceptance"
Ok. I think you see the paradox. So now I’ll return to this problematic word: “self-acceptance.” When acceptance means approval, then “accept” is the opposite of “grow.” And self-approval is the kind of acceptance I want—to approve of myself means that I am affirming my choices, and feeling good about the person I am becoming through my actions. Of course, unconditional self-approval is foolish—it’s complacent and not self-critical. It tells me to keep doing whatever I’m doing, don’t worry, it’s fine, be yourself. Self-critical reflection is essential to growth, and self-critical is the opposite of self-approval. So, in this sense, one can either accept or grow, but not both.
Then there’s the other meaning of self-acceptance, the kind I’ve been learning about from my more therapeutic and Buddhist-minded friends and books. This kind of self-acceptance takes the form of recognition of and compassion towards ones immediate internal experience. In order to distinguish this from self-approval, I’ll call it “self-compassion.” Self-compassion means taking the time to sit, to feel, to have compassion for oneself while having those feelings. A person who doesn’t practice self-compassion does not take the risk of deeply experiencing their internal resistance. They might simply deny it, or feel angry or afraid of it. Self-compassion is neither approval nor rejection; it’s recognition. In this sense, acceptance is not the opposite of growth, but actually part of it. Self-compassion can allow for self-knowledge, and I believe that self-knowledge is the essential basis of both self-approval and self-growth.
However. HOWEVER. Does self-compassion lead to an ability to distinguish between boundaries and limits? Consider any existential dilemma. Suppose I have to make some important decision, and I’m facing two divergent life paths. Each path comes with personal sacrifices; down each path, in order to achieve some goal, I have to leave behind a part of myself. Both paths bear a possibility for joy, and a promise of pain. I stand, fearful of choosing incorrectly, feeling torn apart by doubts, cringing at the risk of regret. Suppose I stop and acknowledge and have compassion for my internal experience. Ok, now I’m not torturing myself for feeling as I do, but I still don’t know what any of it means. I still don’t know which way to go. Even if I do make a choice, and set off on one path, taking on the specific pains of that sacrifice, I still may not know it was the right way to go. Neither self-approval nor self-growth are guaranteed.
I hope you can relate to this, and see that I’m describing the human phenomenon of being caught in an existential dilemma in which the very acceptability of one’s current self, or evolution of one’s future self, is at stake.
Ok, it’s getting time to wrap up, or unravel, or at least find some place to stop for now.
The limits of self-knowledge
I think… at the root of this entire problem is self-knowledge, and at the root of self-knowledge is the problem of self. My Buddhist-minded friends and books will tell me that the self is an illusion. My therapeutic-minded friends and books will tell me that the self is an evolving process, not a thing. My existentially-minded friends and books will tell me that the self is something we create. All of these, one way or another, lead to the very obvious observation that the self is largely constituted by indeterminacy.
This is exhausting. I wish there was just some right way to go, and some way to know that I had chosen the right way to go. I wish I could know more things about myself with certainty. I feel like there are stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and those stories seem to make claims about the range and limit of our possible growth as people. And yet, there are times when I look into my past and realize that past-Matt was telling himself stories that did not reflect his abilities accurately, leading me to be at times over- and under-ambitious.
I believe that to grow requires critical self-analysis and doubt, and to live at peace with oneself requires self-trust. Self-trust and self-doubt are at odds with one another, and both hinge on the ability to accurately assess one’s range and limits, which we can’t do.
So, here is my unsatisfying conclusion—we have to recognize that the boundary and limitation dichotomy applies even to the task of self-knowledge. We have to have compassion for the ways in which our self-knowledge is bounded—very often I only discover my limits upon having violated them. Sometimes it’s only later on when we know that we should have gone further or turned back. We have to keep living without the benefit of this future perspective.
And we also have to have compassion for the ways in which our self-knowledge is limited—in some cases we may never know what the right decision truly was.
I don’t approve of this existential confusion. It clearly sets us up for delays, overdoing it, wrong turns, doubt, regret, and heartbreak. It’s not optimal. But I have to accept it, show compassion for the severe limitations of being one person in process. As I grow up, I feel like there are more ways in which I know when to trust and when to challenge myself. But I don’t expect to ever reach an end of doubt or regret. And it’s foolish, but I have to find a way to accept that too.