Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie J. Exline Ph.D.

Light and Shadow

Dropped Balls & Missed Flights: Facing Personal Limitations

No one wants to drop the ball. But are there benefits in facing our limitations?

Posted May 30, 2014

Balls were falling all around me. And they were balls that I had dropped. In the span of one week, I missed a deadline for a paper, failed to post my blog on time, and fell behind in my administrative tasks.

To top it all off, I even missed a flight by failing to plan for the heavy traffic. Missing a flight was something that I’d had recurring nightmares about for years but had never actually done. And in my dreams, poor planning was always the culprit. Suddenly remembering that I had a plane to catch, I would run around the room in a panic, stuffing who-knows-what into my suitcase in a desperate flurry of disorder. In one version of the dream I got to the airport in the nick of time, only to discover that I had left my suitcase in the back of our van--which had just driven away.

During this season of overload and unmet obligations, I found myself peppering my conversations with a litany of apologies: “I’m sorry; I just haven’t been able to get to that.” “I’m so sorry to ask for this, but could I please have an extension?” “Sorry; I totally forgot.” “I’m sorry to keep you waiting.” Sorry, sorry, sorry. And I wasn’t faking the regret. I really was sorry. I wanted to keep my commitments.

At some level, I know that I’m supposed to learn from my mistakes and develop better character. But still, there’s no denying it: Failing to live up to expectations—my own and those of others--creates a real sore spot in my everyday life.

I’m still pretty bummed about dropping all of these balls. But I’ve got to raise some tough questions now, even if I do so through clenched teeth: Can I see anything good, anything life-giving in my recent string of fumbles and bumbles? What can I learn? Are there any seeds for growth to be found here? 

Keep mistakes in perspective. In my recurring nightmares about forgetting my flight and rushing to the airport, there was never any realistic consequence to that implicit question, “What happens if I miss the flight?” Clearly, my subconscious mind saw such an outcome as a catastrophe. Cognitive-behavioral therapists encourage us to inspect our automatic thoughts in stressful situations; and in my case, missing a flight because of my own poor planning was in the “totally unacceptable and horrible” category. So in a sense, missing the flight was like an unintended exposure treatment for my anxiety. Although I was stressed, embarrassed, and inconvenienced, it wasn’t the end of the world. I eventually did make it home. (I wonder if those nightmares about missing flights might stop now. Hmm.)

Accept human limitations. I sometimes trick myself into thinking that if I plan carefully enough, I can stay on top of everything and keep my life under control. Dropping these balls reminded me—in a jarring way--that I have limitations. I’m not anywhere near being perfect. I can’t always be in control. I know all of this at an intellectual level, and I understand that perfectionism creates its own problems.  But in daily life, I need ongoing reminders. In fact, I may need to run up against those limits in a flat-out, painful way sometimes, so that the lesson is crystal clear: I can’t do it all. Some of those balls will have to fall to the ground. 

Cultivate compassion for others. When things are relatively calm and orderly in my own life, it can be easy to feel judgmental when other people screw up. Even if I don’t come out and say it, I might think it: “Why can’t you just get your act together?” Well, it became a heck of a lot easier to empathize when I was asking for deadline extensions myself—and when I waited in the customer service line (which felt like the “detention” line) with the other hapless travelers after missing my flight. As much as we might resist this insight, a big part of what connects us as human beings is our fallible nature, our vulnerability, our need to be on the receiving end of grace and mercy.

 I’m still not a big advocate of ball dropping. There’s a lot to be said for setting goals, working hard, and following through on commitments.  But despite our best efforts and intentions, life often won’t unfold in line with our tidy little plans. If we can accept this hard truth, but still keep moving forward in a hopeful and intentional way, maybe we won’t be quite so shaken up next time we drop the ball. 

About the Author

Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.

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