Monday, September 20, 2010

The Wisdom of Limits
"Why did you do it?" I remember asking a teen client of mine years ago who was a cutter. Like a growing number of teens, she cut herself on purpose. Although different from a suicide attempt, cutting is often a cry for help.

She thought for a moment and then said, her eyes welling up, " I think I just wanted to feel...something. I wanted to feel like I was alive."

Today, doing the work that I do with the body, I think cutting is also about something else: feeling our limits. Many of us--teens and adults--feel lost, overwhelmed and pushed in a society that's always demanding something else. By contrast, our bodies limit and confine us. If we cross their boundaries--as my client did--we pay in blood and very real scars. Our bodies tell us where we begin and end. They give us an identity, a shape, a form.

Many of the clients I work with who are sick or have chronic illness grapple with the same issue but in different ways: they know that even if their minds want to push them past the limits of their energy or health, their bodies will pull them back into the confines of rest or a resurgence of symptoms. "If I push too far, I'll pay for it later," a client recently admitted.

The limits of our bodies create a lot of different feelings: in the case of my cutter client, perhaps a momentary sense of relief that belies the need for deeper work. In clients with chronic or terminal illness, the body's limits create an often frustrating battle between desired outcomes and the need to take things one slow step at a time. And of course there are other limits that show up in our body relationships too: the desire to lose weight faster than our bodies can, or to be able to do the things physically that we did when we were younger--the things that have become more difficult as our bodies change and age.

It's an interesting set-up. And yet there's wisdom in it. Our bodies' limits teach us patience, boundaries, self-care. Our bodies create limits where we might not. We feel their pain, their stretch into new ground; we know when we've gone too far.

Too often in the rest of our lives we're missing this mirror. We try to do too much, shove in too much, think too much. As a teenager battling my own body and self-esteem issues I remember staying up late at night eating spoonfuls of peanut butter mixed with chocolate chips until my throat began to sting. My body knew it was too much. I just didn't want to listen.

In some Native American thinking, the place of our wound becomes the place of our power, and I wonder if the same isn't true with the limits the body gives us. Once we know and respect our limits, we move in the world differently. We have greater compassion and patience for ourselves and others. It's a constant, ongoing journey but one we take every day as we learn to be in a more intimate, listening relationship with our own bodies.

The cutter I worked with came to realize that she had pushed herself so hard through her young life that she sometimes didn't know who she was or what she felt. As she learned to do the work of listening to herself, she created healthy boundaries she could feel without taking a knife to her skin. For many of the clients I work with who have chronic illness, respecting limits means truly drawing boundaries around their judgmental, impatient minds and allowing themselves to be more lovingly right where they are. For those clients trying to lose weight like I once was, facing the body's limits often means facing deeply buried judgments that need to be healed before any real change on the outside is possible.

What do your bodies limits have to teach you about slowing down, self-care or self-love? How could you listen to those limits, allow them and stop fighting them? What is your body trying to tell you through its limits and what would it mean to your life if you listened?

Understanding our limits is part of the work of entering into a true relationship with our bodies, and it's one of the many gifts they have to give us. In any relationship we're in, we take on limits as part of the contract of being together. We agree not to see other people, for example, or to make time for each other to truly connect. It's an unspoken part of our body relationship that our bodies will also ask us to have limits. Much as we would like to push past them, believe we're immortal, they will often catch up with us. What they have to teach us about ourselves and our lives--despite the challenge or discomfort they may initially create-- may be their most important role in our lives.