For the Love of Limitations
If you’re anything like me, you aren't mentally stable. Your mind is constantly bouncing around trying to figure out why you do what you do and then questioning if your conclusion is indeed correct. If you also suffer from an overactive thought life, welcome. One thing my Psychology degree did for me (getting a job is not it...) is repeatedly drill terms into my brain that help to explain phenomenon common to man, common to you and me. One such term that’s been helpful is cognitive dissonance. Summed up by my dear friends at Wikipedia, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing values.
There are plenty of conversations to be had about cognitive dissonance, but today we’re going to focus on how it relates with our choices; especially in our world of infinite options.
The paradox of choice, or choice overload is another phenomenon that psychologist, Barry Schwartz has studied (some great Ted talks are linked). This research has focused on how, as consumers, when we are given more options in our purchasing process, we actually end up less satisfied with our decision or even paralyzed with “choice overload.” You indecisively ordered the chocolate cake but when you see the tiramisu go by you sigh and take a dissatisfied bite of the wrong choice. More seriously, you buy a home or a car and buyers remorse instantaneously digs a pit in your stomach big enough to house all of the options that you said “no” to along the way. This is a real problem. We live with that subtle, nagging mental discomfort of cognitive dissonance because we are constantly making choices that are mutually exclusive to other potentially good choices.
It is FOMO at its finest. We cannot be fully present or wholly content in the things we own, the experiences we have, the lives we live…because we are all too acutely aware that there are other, potentially better options out there. And this isn’t just happenstance that we feel this way as a society. Discontentment has been intentionally weaved into the fabric of our consumeristic culture. How else could they convince us that we need a new $700 phone in a year because the camera has .01 more megapixels?
But it’s not just our relationships to our things that are effected by this. The greatest casualty of all is our relationships with each other. We make a lifelong vow to another but our minds and eyes wander as we consider the alternatives that we passed up as if they are items on a shelf and we’re considering making an exchange. Then there’s our friendships. We (unconsciously) ask questions like, what do they have to offer me? How interesting are they? And how much work is the relationship going to be? We tend to spend our time with people who offer us the best deal, the smartest return on our investment. And when that changes, we bail out and trade up for the newer model that has a certain level of novelty and mystery.
And what about our work? Are you as lost as I am on what you want to be when you grow up? We pick a degree and yet the options still seem infinite. We take a job, but how often do we think about the other opportunities out there and if we're doing what we should be? Truly, this might be the area of our lives that we experience the most cognitive dissonance. We spend most of our time and energy at our workplace but we are carrying the burden of nagging thoughts that we could be making more money, doing something we enjoy more, helping people in better ways. And these are great questions to be asking! But how do we determine whether they are a product of our millennial ADHD or legitimate desires to live and work in a purposeful way? And what do we do about it?
Ok now that we thoroughly feel the dissonance of problems without solutions- I’m going to offer some steps, but I won't sell you short with a quick fix or cheap answer...
1. Accept your limitations
This is counter-intuitive to us because we have been programmed to love having the world at our fingertips. As a child of the 90’s, Space Jam and R. Kelly were my sources of inspiration. I would belt out, “I believe I can fly…I believe I can touch the sky.” But I’m not Michael Jordan and I’ll never play basketball with Bugs Bunny. Oh ya, and I can’t fly. These are limitations that I begrudgingly accepted at some point. What limitations are you trying to rebel against? Are you spending more money than you make? Are you living as if you have more than 24-hours in a day? Are you working endlessly to achieve a goal, or meet expectations that belong to someone else, and in doing so missing out on living your life? Do you love your job or your relationships but feel discontent because of the way that it restricts you from doing other things?...Is it possible that we self-sabotage partly because we don’t want to accept that we have real limitations that we must live within?
2. Embrace your limitations
Let’s go a step further. Since we now know that choices can create angst (cognitive dissonance), what if we invited our limitations to be our greatest ally? Accepting our limitations frees us from constantly feeling like we’re falling short of being super-human. Embracing our limitations then says, I’m going to embrace my current life and circumstances to allow them to carve out boundaries for me to live within. This isn’t giving up on dreaming big, in fact the very opposite. Its being realistic about the things that we can and cannot do. In giving credence to our stage in life, current relationships, our finances, education, passions, interests and talents, we give ourselves permission to forsake the things that do not currently belong to us, the things that our limitations preclude us from doing (right now). Once we do that, we gain the time, energy and freedom to start where we really are and live fully into our loves; the ones we’ve been neglecting in our pursuits of “doing it all.”
3. Trade in your limitations
Consider: what is using up your time and resources right now that just isn’t that important to you? Are you spending $150 on a cable bill but feeling called to be more generous within your community? Are you working an extra job to keep up with that high car payment but really missing the time with your family? What is something that you are passionate about, have committed yourself to or feel a burden for, that is being neglected in your life? We can't get rid of our limitations, but we can trade them in. When Reese and I sold most of what we own in our move last year, we gave up: some stuff, a couple spare bedrooms, and the stress of extra maintenance. We also lost some personal space and the chance of ever having a clean kitchen. We gained : time and energy, monthly resources in reduced rent and new rental income, more committed relationships with our new roommates, and an absolutely beautiful, life-giving landscape in our new neighborhood. Which also means more relationships to manage, house maintenance problems that don't always get fixed, and droves of mosquitos in the summer. It's always going to be a trade- but let's not be so paralyzed by the myriad of imperfect options that we stop making intentional choices. Rather than quelling our cognitive dissonance with cheap answers about why we live in the way that we do, let's really consider our "beliefs, ideas and values" and challenge ourselves to make the next step to live accordingly.