Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Yes, You Can’t!—Why You Should Affirm Your Limitations

Don’t give up on your dreams, advantageously “amend” them.

Pixabay/CCO Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/CCO Public Domain

The title above may seem rather pessimistic—or downright perverse. Virtually every article written on achieving goals encourages you to transcend your (perceived) limitations—to break down, or leap over, barriers of your own making. But on a cautionary note, there are many times when your lofty ideals must bow to inescapable reality. Times when you have to make peace with constraints you’re enduringly “afflicted” with. Aspirations that, genetically or temperamentally, will remain off limits for you.

However much your attitude may shift, or how empowered you may feel, your inborn limitations will still define—or at least, circumscribe—what you can expect to do, or be, in life. So, if you’re 5' 3” and with an especially slender frame, no matter how fast you can run, or artfully you can dribble, or consistently throw a basketball through a hoop (as in, “nothing but net!”), you’ll never make it to the NBA. (And surreptitiously slipping on a pair of athletic elevator shoes just won’t help here.)

Unquestionably, if you’re extremely determined, persistent and tenacious, the culmination of all your efforts might well exceed others’ expectations—and quite possibly your own. And I’d never discourage anyone not to put forth their “personal best” in pursuing their goals.

As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell famously opined: “Follow your bliss.” It’s fine, even admirable, to strive to get reality to conform to your “bliss,” to attempt to go beyond what you yourself question may be beyond the confines of your capability. In fact, one reason such endeavors are generally worthwhile is that many times you’re able to recognize your immutable limits only after you’ve struggled mightily to surmount them (and sometimes with external help, too).

But it’s still essential to become aware—as many a card-playing expert would advise—of when to hold ’em and when it’s best to fold ‘em.

If you’re overly invested in having, doing, or becoming something, you may ill-advisedly hold ‘em indefinitely. And while such "grit" or "spine" may be gutsy, it’s also imprudent; ultimately headstrong and reckless. For it leads to continuing stress, disappointment, rejection, or failure. (And here, readers might wish to take a look at my 3-part post: "Mastering Failure and Rejection" (1, 2, & 3.)

Depending on the situation, you might be much better off simply saying to yourself something like:

  • No, at this point, with all the refusals I've already gotten, and as long and hard as I've tried, I just have to admit to myself that I'm not going to get into medical school;
  • I think I finally know the score about how cutthroat this business is. And I’m simply not cut out to rise anywhere to the top here. I’m not aggressive enough, not motivated enough to make the connections I’d need to, and just don’t have the will or stamina for it;
  • I need to face it. She [or he] just isn’t that interested in me. I’ve already done everything I could to attract her. But no matter how much I simply adore her (or him), I have to face the fact that they’re never going to reciprocate my so-passionate feelings;
  • I may love the guitar, but I’ve practiced and practiced and practiced—and it’s time to face the fact that I’ll never be good enough to make a living playing in a band. I can make the guitar a major part of my [recreational] life, but I just can’t make it my profession;
  • I love reading and being educated about things. It’d be so great to teach college. But I have to admit I’ve never been able to write that well, that I just may not have the IQ to teach at that level. I mean, look at the college grades I’ve gotten so far, nothing higher than B's even though I’ve really been applying myself from the start. I’m simply going to have to set my sites lower and start thinking about teaching high school;
  • I know I’m a “political animal” ’cause I get so absorbed in the world of politics, and I’d like to be able to influence the direction this country is going in. But I’ll never be able to get myself to kiss babies on the campaign trail, or do all the things politicians have to do to get elected. I’ll just have to look for something at least related to politics that might satisfy me. Maybe become an attorney—and at some point represent politicians whose ideas I‘m sympathetic toward;
  • . . . and so on (you can probably think of quite a few yourself).

So, is this about giving up your dreams? Sacrificing your ideals? Resigning yourself to a life of frustration, boredom, or mediocrity?

Hardly. Life may be full of compromises but, for most of us, it’s full of choices as well. It’s rare that only one thing in life can compel your attention or interest. Consequently, while it’s difficult to relinquish a dream you’ve had—perhaps as far back as childhood—it’s worse to fiercely hold onto a fantasy that life has already demonstrated simply exceeds your mental, physical, or emotional grasp.

So, in such cases, what do you do? Obviously, you’ll first need to grieve that your first choice (Plan A) isn’t going to become your reality. But you don’t want to obsess, or ruminate, over this loss either. Give it its due . . . then move on. Ask yourself: What else, whether it’s closely related to your first choice or not, might you enjoy pursuing? And, of course, that choice should be within your “verified” level of competency.

Life is full of exciting challenges. And a major part of attaining happiness is finding a challenge well- suited to you: one that may require you to get beyond certain self-limiting beliefs but, with sufficient effort, definitely lies within your ability to achieve.

Pixabay/CCO Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/CCO Public Domain

And with enough motivation, drive, and self-discipline, realistically “going for it” will enable you to feel good about yourself—and the whole trajectory of your life. Which is to say, you have time for both visions and revisions.

So, revise your goals as needed. For you want to make certain that they “blend” with who you are, and that they accurately reflect your full potential.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

More from Leon F Seltzer PhD
More from Psychology Today