I’m motivated by autonomy. I’m big on not being told what to do, having plenty of wiggle room to exercise my creativity and think outside the box. I like being the boss of me.
(We’re not always the best employees.)
There’s a good side to this. My drive for autonomy helps me focus my efforts—I’m fairly decent at knowing to what I should say yes or no, I’m willing to take necessary risks, and I’ve found myself braver about living unconventionally the older I get.
(We’re good at being self-employed.)
But there’s a flip side to every coin. Being in love with autonomy means it’s too easy to stay in my head, to focus only on my needs and what’s best for my family, even if it’s (accidentally) unloving towards others. It means regularly facing my humanity; daily reminders that I’m a mortal keep me from fully living unfenced.
I’m learning to love limits. This is more freeing than it sounds. See, I’ve realized that though I’ve got an inner autono-monster, I don’t always need to feed it. It can sometimes be harnessed for good, but there are ways where I still tend towards childishness, and autonomy only exacerbates it.
Here’s an example. For most of my adult life, I haven’t done so hot at the exercise thing. I was incredibly active throughout my childhood and teenage years as a dancer, but it fell by the wayside, and within a few years into parenthood a decade later, I was a full-on entrepreneur with barely enough time to walk to the park, let alone stand en pointe on a stage.
Until recently, I employed my superpower of autonomy to tell myself that nobody was the boss of me; that even though I knew it was good for my health, I could exercise when I had the time.
But here’s the thing: I feel a million times better when I do exercise. Even moving ten minutes a day completely changes how I feel about the rest of my waking hours. (Come to think of it, I sleep better, too.)
My body image is more what it should be, I concentrate better, and I’m in a better mood. My people like being around me more when I exercise. It’s a real thing.
This is one way I’m setting limits on myself.
Yes, I technically can spend my time how I choose—but that doesn’t mean I should. Just because no one’s telling me to exercise, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. By slipping on those workout pants and running shoes, I’m limiting my autonomy. I’m telling myself no. You’re doing what you don’t feel like doing right now.
And in a roundabout way, I’m telling myself yes here. I’m telling myself that even though I don’t feel like it, exercise makes me a better person, so I’m doing it. I’m limiting my freedom for the sake of the greater good: a better me.
Limits have served our family well, so I know they work. Sticking to a strict budget when we were getting out of debt meant we met our goal earlier than we expected, we’ve stayed debt-free for almost five years now, and we cultivated the habit of living way below our income.
I told myself no to sugary soda a few years ago, and I’ve never looked back, I feel so much better without them. Our kids aren’t allowed on screens until the afternoon, after they finish their school, because they’re just nuts otherwise. A healthy limit.
Limits give birth to freedom because they temper our spirits. By erecting a fence, I know where I can play in the yard, and where the danger is if I try to wander off.
Here’s how limits look for me right now:
• I turn off all screens by 9 p.m., because any later than that and I sleep horribly. I’ve learned this.
• I heavily limit my gluten and sugar, not because they’re not delicious, but because I’m bloated, I have a headache, and a bad case of brain fog afterwards. Not worth it. (Except when in Italy.) (And sometimes France.)
• I work and write early in the morning, because that’s when my writing is best. I take a mental break by the afternoon, because I’ve lost my work mojo by then and the family needs me.
• I exercise every other day, after getting a burst of writing done. Limiting myself to a skipped day means I’m more likely to actually do it; but by doing it at least several times per week, I’m telling my autono-monster it’s not the boss of me.
• We didn’t visit every country we wanted on our big trip, because when we did too much, we’d lose the cumulative effects of family bonding and personal enrichment from lower-stress travel.
• I don’t buy everything I love in stores, no matter how much I want something. Budget and physical space means the laws of physics dictate I can’t fit things into more than it allows. C’est la vie.
You know what happens when I live within these limitations? I’m a better person. I’m freer to be who I was meant to be, because I still have a wide, wide field where I can play. My self-imposed fence is for my protection, and by staying within its walls, I’m a better wife, mom, friend, business owner, and person.
Limits—I can think of them as a frustrating negativity, or a chance to be a better, whole-r version of my real self. It’s my choice.