Your limits are invented

Poison frogs

I have four kids. Because I have four kids, I watch many animated movies. Because I have four kids, I watch many animated movie over and over again.

When you watch a movie more that once, your find things that you missed before, and, sometimes, you even notice a message worth sharing. Recently I found something in the film Rio 2 that I found particularly significant.

(Spoiler Alert – In the event that you have not seen the movie Rio 2, and do not want a minor sub-plot spoiled, you will want to check out a different blog post)

In Rio 2, one of the characters is a poison dart frog named Gabi. Being poisonous is a problem because she is in love with Nigel, a Cockatoo Gabi fears she would kill if they ever kissed. Gabi spends her time both totally devoted to Nigel and perpetually heartbroken that she can share her love with him.

In the climactic final battle, Gabi hits Nigel with her poison dart. In grief, Gabi drinks her own poison in an attempt to commit suicide and join Nigel in death.

Except… nobody dies. Gabi was actually a mimic poison frog all along. She is confused, and argues that her parents had always told her she was poisonous. Nonetheless, Gabi is overjoyed that she is finally able to share her love with Nigel. When Gabi discovered that the limits are invented, she was able to pursue he goals and desires completely.

Spoiler Alert – It’s all invented

What does this silly kids movie have to do with you, or me, or therapy? It is a powerful illustration of how the stories we tell often matter more than the “truth”. There are numerous examples all around – the dog who stays inside the “invisible fence” even after their collar has been removed, the man who does not ask out his love interest because they are “out of his league”, the woman afraid to leave the job she hates because the career she desires is “really just a hobby”.

This does not deny the true barriers and limitations in our lives. However, we too often never approach a fraction of these true limits because of the limits we have invented for ourselves. As we repeat them, the people around us begin to accept and repeat them to us. Or this happens in reverse, with the people around us telling us what our limitations are until we internalize and repeat them. In the end, it doesn’t matter which came first because the cycle feeds and repeats itself.

That is how we all create our own boxes. From the inside, the walls of our boxes seem clear, solid, and unbreakable. We move through our everyday lives believing that the box is something we have to live with. But that is a lie.

Clarity from the death-bed

Death, or at least the threat of it, has a knack for showing us exactly which limitations are invented. I experienced this first hand when I visited Shawn, my wife’s step-father, during his final weeks of life. I had known Shawn for fifteen years, and I can say we had a positive relationship. Shawn had come to my rescue on more than one occasion when my home-repair ambitions exceeded my home-repair abilities, and we worked side-by-side the previous spring re-modeling my basement after a flood.

Now, however, Shawn was at the end of his life. Cancer had won the war, and friends and hospice workers were standing vigil for his final days. I was visiting after work one sunny June afternoon because I was due to leave on a business trip for several days, and it was not certain Shawn would live through my trip. I spent that 45-minutes sitting next to Shawn on his bed, holding his hand, and saying very little. To be clear, Shawn was not “touchy-feely” man. I cannot recall one instance hugging him in all the time we had known each other. And yet, in that moment, the most natural thing in the world to do was to hold his hand.

What was different? I was the same person, and so was Shawn. Our feelings for each other were unchanged. The difference was the specter of death. It was clear that this may be the last time we ever met, and it was important to show my love for him in what ended up being my final opportunity. So I held his hand, for both the first time and the last.

The problem with waiting

Death is the ultimate example of an “existential threat” – something that challenges or threatens an aspect of our existence. In this case, it is our life being threatened. A threat to your life has the remarkable ability of clarifying what is important and what is just invented. The problem with relying on death to provide this clarity is time. If you wait until you or the person you love is facing death before considering what artificial limitations you have placed on yourselves and your relationship, you risk leaving very little time to live outside your boxes. Gabi the frog was lucky because the threat of death turned out to be false, giving her more time to live without the limits she had been raised with. Not everyone is that lucky.

The alternatives are more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding. Instead of waiting for the risk of something permanent, like death, we all have the ability to take a hard look at ourselves and question what limits are real and which limits are invented. Journaling and meditation are individual practices that can assist in self-reflection and discovery.  A close friend or family member giving candid feedback is also a powerful reflective tool. These informal tools are easy to access and start, but they also risk being influenced by the limits that are invented and holding us back. A formal process, such as therapy, assists in this reflection by providing a person who can provide neutral feedback that is not influenced by the limitations we ourselves may not even recognize.

In the end, how we start the self-reflection process does not matter as much as when we start the process. The sooner we begin, the more time we give ourselves to live free of the limits we invented.

About TC Counseling

TC Counseling is a Private Therapy Practice in Traverse City, MI. Our goal is to help balance the stress of family, marriage, career and self-care. Whether you are coping with depression and anxiety or struggling with a change in your life, we are here to help. Give us a call or send us an email.

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