-by Bill Plake-
“The things that don’t exist are the most difficult to get rid of.”
A key obstacle in realizing our potential is the belief that we are limited in some particular way, when in fact, we are not. We all know about the potential danger of self-fulfilled prophecy when pursuing a goal.
In just about any instance, if you don’t believe you can achieve something, you most likely won’t. I’m not talking about having doubts or concerns when going for something outside of your comfort zone. That’s normal.
No, I’m talking about simply not believing in your capabilities to achieve your goal, no matter how hard you work. The reason you’ll most likely fail when you think this way comes down to this: You simply won’t take the actions necessary to achieve your goal (though you might think you have done so!)
One of the tragedies of the human condition is that we too often cling to these false beliefs about our limitations. And because we are (consciously, or unconsciously) convinced we can’t do something, we will probably never call these beliefs into question. This is a large part of what the above quote from F.M. Alexander expresses.
But I also see another cautionary element of his quote: failing to recognize when we truly are limited by something that is out of our control.
In the past year of my life, my struggle has been in accepting a limitation about myself that, ultimately, threatened my life.
I have chronic hypertension, or “high blood pressure”, as it is more commonly known. Doctors sometimes refer to this condition as a “silent killer”, because folks with hypertension typically feel no “symptoms.”
Yet the potential health risks from having chronic high blood pressure are deadly serious: stroke, heart disease and kidney failure being the most common.
I was born with a genetic predisposition for hypertension. Both my parents had it, my father having had several strokes and heart attacks before his life ended at 59 years.
About 12 years ago, at the strong urging of my physician, I started taking medication to lower my blood pressure. I was not happy about this, but he made a compelling case.
At the time, I was not eating as well as I knew I should, and was carrying around about an extra 20 pounds, or so. Some time into taking the medication, I began to seriously improve my lifestyle habits, eating healthy, taking supplements, and exercising regularly and vigorously. My daily blood pressure readings finally showed a normal and healthy range.
This turned out to be a mixed blessing, as I came to firmly believe that the only reason I needed to take the meds in the first place was because I wasn’t doing what I needed to do in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
But this was not the case.
After switching health care providers (and getting a new doctor), I had stopped taking my medication for some time. And when I finally went to see my new doctor, my blood pressure indeed did go up. But it didn’t go up nearly as high as it had done when I first started taking medication.
This gave me an unwarranted sense of optimism, leading me to believe that I could control my hypertension with life style changes alone.
To make a long story short, I went back and forth several times going on and off my meds, while at the same time getting even more disciplined about my lifestyle choices. As I started seeing very gradual improvements while off medications, I even stopped taking my daily blood pressure readings, so confident was I that I had beat this thing.
But then something happened at my dental appointment a few months ago that shook my world.
On this particular visit, my hygienist took my blood pressure (which had been only slightly higher than normal on my last visit just 4 months earlier). The startled look on her face spoke volumes. My blood pressure was alarmingly high (195/110), far higher than any reading I’d ever taken of it!
I felt fine (no other symptoms that would make me seek out emergency care), so I went home, rested for a bit and took my blood pressure again. It was better (160/90), though was still dangerously high.
But rather than calling the doctor and scheduling an appointment to get examined and get back on meds, I resisted. “There’s got to be something else in my lifestyle that I can change!” I exclaimed to myself.
I had recently started practicing a daily “calming” meditation, so I went to doing that twice a day. I combined this with virtually eliminating all salt from my diet (I’m fairly salt sensitive), and amped up my daily exercise even more.
I started taking my daily blood pressure readings again, and began to see my numbers slowly improve, up to a certain point. But after a while, my numbers began to creep upward again approaching daily averages that were significantly higher than ever before.
After about a month of this, I finally accepted the fact that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how strategic and careful I was, no matter how much I meditated and exercised, no matter the supplements I was taking…I needed to get back on the meds.
And when I went to see my new doctor, he reaffirmed what I’d been trying to deny for so long: regardless of how I improve my lifestyle, I’m limited by the fact that I have a genetic predisposition for hypertension. Simple as that.
My daily numbers were “dangerously high”, in the words of my doctor. He spelled out, in no uncertain terms, the peril I would most likely face if I didn’t immediately get back on the meds. He was happy to hear how careful I was in my lifestyle choices, but explained to me that no matter what I did, as I got older, my condition would most likely worsen without the meds.
And so I followed his advice, and in doing so finally learned this very important lesson about myself: by accepting what I can’t change (the limits of my genetic predisposition), I freed myself to live a longer and healthier life.
There is, of course, a balance between accepting your limits and pushing your boundaries. But I think it is important to recognize when you’ve done all you can do, and to then act accordingly and responsibly.
This is not accepting failure, but rather, accepting love and care for yourself:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference”
-Reinhold Niebuhr, the Serenity Prayer
Sometimes the art of personal development lies in the “wisdom to know the difference”.