When I was a graduate student my doctoral dissertation was written about people who have difficulty accepting limitations in themselves. I remember one fellow student asking me, “That isn’t a good thing is it? Shouldn’t we not be willing to accept limitations?” There was some truth in what he was asking. We are taught to try to be all that we can be and to follow our dreams in life. To accept anything less is tantamount to settling, isn’t it? And to extend that philosophy to everything else is compromising. Shouldn’t we fight for what we believe in, even against all odds? Isn’t that what we are told in the many stories written in our culture, the hero who rises above the improbable? A patient of mine recently asked me this very question: How do I know when to accept what seems too difficult to change?
The Noble Prize Complex
A disorder that subverts the resolution of these concerns is known as The Nobel Prize Complex. People with this disorder expect to be the best and nothing else will do regardless of their limitations or how much or little effort is expended. The famous psychoanalyst, Karen Horney, once observed that those who live by such idealized images of themselves “want to be on top of the mountain, but don’t want to climb it.” For people such as these, ambition is a hindrance because it isn’t tempered by cognizance of realistic limits, such as how much effort it takes to achieve one’s goals in life and that no one can win or be the best every time nor, more importantly, should one have to in order to be successful in life.
There is another benefit to accepting one’s limitations which is that by so doing one is freed up to pursue what is possible either by changing one’s goals in life or by finding other, better ways to achieve them, what we psychologists call “second-order change,” as opposed to hammering away perseveratively to the point of futility.
So, it is a paradox but to accept limitations can serve rather than hinder one’s ambitions. This is where Eastern philosophy has offered benefits to our way of living here in the West. In the West we have been taught that effort and hard work are necessary to achieve one’s goals. This is consistent with our puritan heritage in which hard work is rewarded in the afterlife and emphasis is given to individualism and freedom. These are ideals and as such need to be grounded in reality that hard work alone doesn’t guarantee success, individualism can only succeed in the context of purpose greater than oneself, and freedom isn’t an entitlement but a privilege granted through an acceptance of responsibility. These then are the limits of what is possible by the rules of life itself.
Eastern philosophy teaches us that life must be balanced by an acceptance of all that remains beyond our control and deliberation. Not to be confused with resignation, acceptance entails a surrendering to all that lies beyond our control and in so doing granting us wisdom and a sense of peace. Clarity ensues from this process, opening a window to seeing all that is possible that lies within reason. In ancient Greece, the stoic philosophers assigned this grounding principle through which we may discern all that remains possible to fate.
The Serenity Prayer And Acceptance
The famous serenity prayer from the Middle Ages adopted from stoicism asks for the wisdom to know when to accept the limitations of oneself and of life itself and when not to. Acceptance of oneself and the limits of what is possible enlightens us toward that wisdom to know the difference. For everyone, wisdom as with ambition fulfilled is a process gained over a lengthy arc through hard work along with thoughtful reflection, not a gift or an entitlement. So, how do we know when to accept what is too difficult to change? When we realize through this wisdom that the fruits of our efforts bring more destruction and hardship than prosperity and happiness to the prospects for ourselves and those we care about. When working with my patients in clinical psychotherapy practice, I don’t try to answer these questions for them but instead encourage them to work through self-reflection whether they have given what in good conscience they feel has been sufficient effort and assessed the products of these efforts to answer this question for themselves.
Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
Robert Hamm Ph.D