The idea that limits exist only in the mind is as ridiculous as the assertion that proper positive thought will make you rich. Nonetheless, these concepts, promoted by self-help “gurus,” do attract money — to them.

500px-MONTANA-PRWithout exploring the magical thinking that underlies these sorts of ideas, it should be clear to any rational person that there are, in fact, all sorts of limits in the real world. Even in my prime, regardless of my determination, I was never going to bench press half a ton. People who don’t understand the basic concepts of government simply can’t discern what is possible and what is bullshit, and so forth.

Not only do physical and educational limits exist, there are also emotional and intellectual limits. Codependents are unable — at least initially — to discern boundaries between themselves and those to whom they are addicted. They can’t detach and let them find their own way, regardless of the price they are paying by attempting to sustain a failing relationship. Some folks will simply be unable to fathom mathematics beyond simple arithmetic. This has nothing to do with intelligence; some people’s brains work that way, and some don’t.

And there is such a thing as willful ignorance: purposely avoiding critical information because it would require us to exchange comfortable ideas for concepts that threaten our world view. People who do that are often more confirmed in their beliefs the more they are exposed to contrary evidence.

Finally, there are limits that we impose on ourselves,usually out of fear. We might prefer to maintain that we “just don’t have the aptitude” for something to avoid the work of mastering it, or because of someone else’s having convinced us that we are unable to do it, or we fear to look as if we don’t know what we’re doing (even for the short time it takes to learn).

In the case of addiction, self-imposed limits are the consequences of fear — fear of change and stepping out into the unknown. People stay with abusive partners because they’re afraid they will be unable to function out of familiar territory. They may be miserable, but at least they know the rules; They know how to navigate the minefield, even though their success rate is abysmal. Put them with a kind, understanding partner and they’re in a totally alien territory. Not only is it unfamiliar, the suspense of waiting for the dream to be shattered is often unbearable. Because isn’t that the way it’s always been before?

That’s even more true of chemical addictions: my bottle of rum was my best friend; the only thing in my life I could count on to be totally predictable. I may not have functioned well, but without it, I couldn’t function at all. I had no way of comprehending a life without my buddy. Even if the outcome of our relationship was predictably miserable, I knew how to deal with hangovers and other withdrawal. My friend helped solve all my problems, or at least help me to forget them for a while; until they returned worse than ever.

Limits of various kinds are often so ingrained in us that we are unable to discern them by ourselves, or decide the true reality of the situation so that we can overcome them. Sometimes they’re due solely to our own lack of life skills, but in many cases, they are actually the ideas of others that we have accepted as being true. Whatever the source, working on them is one of the key factors in recovery.  Although some people are able to remain free of acting out in their addictions without a program, very few of them actually achieve the goal of sobriety: replacing the addict habits and ways of thinking with the healthy habits and responses of an emotionally healthy person. We call these folks “dry drunks.”

One of the great benefits of recovery programs is finding people who aren’t part of our doubts and fears, but who are able to empathize because they’ve been there. Other skills that we pick up, such as meditation, positive affirmations, prayer, the ability to confide in others and feel safe, and the comfort that comes with the steps, are essential as well.  All help us expand our limits.

How real are my limits? Am I searching for pie in the sky, or living my life in a cage of my own fear? The reality is out there.

And it doesn’t bite.

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