While we all dream of having ultimate freedom to be and do anything and everything we want, the hard truth of the matter is that we all face some limitations, large or small. Limitations may be things you’ve dealt with all your life, or they may come upon you suddenly through an accident or change of circumstances.
But limitations don’t have to be a jail sentence. In art, for example, while complete freedom can be glorious and expansive, sometimes the most innovative ideas come from solving a problem. Having boundaries forces you to use your resources in imaginative ways, and a limitation viewed as a challenge can inspire you to create something completely unexpected.
Limitations can take many different shapes. The most obvious are health or physical disabilities and limited financial means. Others are limited time or energy; lack of skills, knowledge or credentials; and reduced opportunities due to age, gender and/or racial bias or economic background. A change in status due to divorce or job loss can also be a limiting factor.
We also experience “perceived” limitations. Feelings such as fear, self-doubt, feeling you’re not good enough live in our minds, but can stop us just as effectively as physical limitations. I would venture to say that every one of us had an experience in our childhood where someone told us we were a quitter or bad at math or would never amount to anything that imprinted itself on our psyche and kept us from achieving our potential, at least for awhile.
But limitations can be overcome, or at least stretched, and you can probably find numerous examples of people in your own life who have done so — maybe even yourself. Here are some of the more famous ones:
~ Jackie Joyner-Kersee, “the world’s best female athlete,” overcame poverty and asthma to become a three-time Olympic gold medalist, world record-holder and motivational speaker.
~ Russian skater Maria Butyrskaya was told by the Russian skating federation that she wasn’t good enough and was dropped by her coach at the age of 15. Her determination and iron will have since made her the five-time Russian champion, the 1999 World Champion and a top competitor in the 2002 Olympics at the “advanced” age (for a skater) of 29.
~ Gymnast Kerri Strug pushed through the pain of an injured ankle to successfully complete her final vault at the 1996 Olympics, thereby clinching the gold medal for her team.
~ Irish painter Christy Brown, born with cerebral palsy, painted with the only limb over which he had control. His story is told in the film “My Left Foot.”
~ In the midst of a successful acting career, Christopher Reeve suffered a broken neck in a riding accident, which left him a quadriplegic. Since the accident, he directed his first film, acts occasionally, wrote a book and does speaking engagements across the country on behalf the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which supports research to develop effective treatments and a cure for paralysis caused by spinal cord injury and other central nervous system disorders. Says Reeve, “I have my down days, but I haven’t been incapacitated by them.”
~ After being told that her blindness was permanent and tired of hearing “blind people can’t,” Lisa Fittipaldi, having never painted before, picked up the child’s watercolor set her husband gave her to pull her out of her depression and completed her first painting. Her work is now in galleries and private collections throughout the world, and Lisa founded the Mind’s Eye Foundation to advocate for visually- and hearing-impaired children.
~ Actor Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease finally became too severe to hide from the public. He withdrew from a successful TV series and has dedicated the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to finding a cure for Parkinson’s within a decade.
~ Actress Marlee Matlin, deaf since the age of 18 months, won the Oscar and the Golden Globe Awards for her film debut in “Children of a Lesser God” at the age of 21. She has gone on to a successful film and TV career, both as actress and producer, and is affiliated with numerous charities.
~ Deborah Rosado Shaw, author of “Dream Big!: A Roadmap for Facing Life’s Challenges and Creating the Life You Deserve,” was born in the South Bronx to a Puerto Rican family plagued by serious health problems and limited means. Inspired by an ambitious boyfriend who was determined to go to Harvard, she got herself a scholarship to Wellesley and went on to win an Avon Women of Enterprise Award and inspire other women to “dream big.”
~ Oprah Winfrey, a woman of color who grew up with poverty and abuse, is one of the richest and most successful people in the world.
~ Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, lost more status and privilege than most of us will ever experience when she and Prince Andrew divorced. In the aftermath, “Fergie” ran up a 7-figure debt. Unwilling to let her children down, she pulled herself together, began earning her own income and paid off her debts.
~ Grandma Moses began painting and was discovered when she was in her late 70s.
~ Beethoven was deaf when he wrote the Ninth Symphony, perhaps his masterpiece.
~ Helen Keller . . . need I say more?
Stephen Covey said that “We are limited, but we can push back the borders of our limitations.” So, what can you do to push back your limitations?
- Be realistic about who you are and what you can do. You can accomplish more by accepting your limitations and starting from there, rather than depleting your energy wishing you were somewhere else. Self-pity and giving up are the biggest obstacles you’ll face.
- When you feel limited by your circumstances, come up with as many alternatives or options as possible. Be imaginative. In the brainstorming process, you’ll open up new possibilities for yourself that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
- Challenge your limiters. If you were given only 3 colors to paint with, what would you do with them? Keep pushing the envelope. Make it a game, not a reason to diminish yourself or your abilities. Boundaries give us something to push against. While those boundaries may sometimes be constricting, they can force you to be more focused and productive than you might be without them.
- Change your expectations, or let them go altogether. Sometimes, when you try something you don’t think you’re good at, you can release your expectations and just go for it. I can attest to this one myself, as English was one of my weaker subjects in high school, and here I am a writer and editor! (This is also a good exercise for perfectionists.)
- Value the talents and abilities you do have, and leverage them. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. The gifts you have may not be the ones your family or friends value. Create your own set of values, rather than succumbing to other people’s expectations, and use your gifts fully.
- Use your limitations to help you focus and use your resources efficiently. If you have $20 to pay for groceries for the week, you’ll think more carefully about what to buy than if you had an unlimited amount.
- Do what you can when you can. Modify or adjust your dreams to suit your own parameters, not how it’s “supposed” to be done. Every path to success is unique.
- If you limitation came upon you suddenly, through accident or loss, be sure to deal with the grief, so that you can move on.
Challenging your limitations can be scary, and yes, you’ll probably feel discouraged at times. But if you feel drawn to doing something despite the challenges, your successes will be that much more exhilarating, while giving up can lead to boredom or depression. I don’t know anyone who’s ever regretted trying.
We always have a choice: We can let our limitations stop us, or we can let them inspire us to greater heights of achievement and character. If someone like Christopher Reeve can accomplish so much from a wheelchair, and without self-pity, how can we do any less when we have so much.
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