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Creative Coping skills -Identifying and Honoring our Limits

Six year old sensitive, gifted, creative Jennie wants to take yoga, karate, piano, guitar, gymnastics, robotics, and more; she melts down at the mention of there being limits of her energy, time and her parent’s money. Her parents know it will be a disaster if they sign her up for all of these activities. But if they don’t, they also know they will face many, many emotional outbursts over this.

John, 46 years old and also sensitive, creative and gifted, goes to graduate school full time, works full time and is married with 3 children. He also is on the finance committee at his church and loves to mountain bike, run, play tennis and do oil painting. He feels a NEED to do all of these things, and experiences extreme frustration and a sense of loss when he can’t be involved in all of them.

Many sensitive, gifted, or creative students and adults, especially those who have many interests or prolific creative ideas, often find it difficult to deal with the limitations of having a human body that cannot keep up with all those possibilities. We can imagine so much potential, but can carry out so little in comparison.

Continuing in our series on Creative Coping Skills, we are on Step 8 of the CASIGY Personal Power Pyramid: Step 8 consists of dealing with our limits. (Click here for a printable copy). To do that, we need to ask, “What are my limits? and also, “How can I honor them?” But that’s a tall order. It’s often hard for CASIGYs (Creative, Acutely Aware, Super-Sensitive, Intense and/or Gifted You-s) to face and then to honor our limits. It’s also essential that we do.

Everyone needs fences, as shown by the old saying, “Good neighbors have good fences.”  But having a quick, agile mind easily can create the inner illusion that a creative, sensitive, intelligent human doesn’t have, or isn’t supposed to have, any limits. This can lead to blowing right through them.  We don’t get enough sleep. We don’t plan enough time to do the things we need to do. We eat too much of the wrong kinds of foods. We don’t live within our financial means. You get the picture.  When we ignore our limits, we over-extend ourselves or over-promise or over-commit our time or other resources. For example we may take our creative, sensitive or gifted children to the grocery store, to the hardware store and also the mall before we take them to Grandma’s house and are surprised when they have meltdowns. Their stimulation limit or capacity has been exceeded, but we expect them to act as if they were neurotypical, with no limitations to their capacity to tolerate stimulation. Or we may take ourselves on a long list of errands, only to have a personal meltdown for the same reason.

Having limits that are unusual according to the culture can foster the assumption that bumping up against any limitation in our knowledge or ability means we are not creative, not sensitive or not intelligent, let alone gifted.  We also may assume that having difficulty or being challenged by a situation means that we are not capable. So sometimes we stop when we might just need to rest or regroup.

Connected to this is the question, “How much is enough?” How clean is clean enough? How complete is an essay? And when is ‘it’ good enough, whatever ‘it’ is? What standard can we use to determine such a thing? What are our inner standards? What are the standards of the boss, teacher or other audience for whom it is intended? When is the housework done? By the time one room is clean, the last one cleaned already may be dirty. When writing an essay or pulling weeds, there’s always the possibility of doing more. So how do we decide when to stop?

My mother was an artist and a teacher. One summer when I was in college, I decided to learn how to paint, and joined one of her oil painting classes. But every time I mixed the paint, it looked like mud. As I mixed, the color never looked finished to me – that is, it never looked like I wanted it to look, so I would add more of this color and more of that, and before I knew it, I had the color of mud instead of the color of the sky or a flower. This happened every time I would mix paints. I also love working with fabric, so I have reconciled to being a fabric artist, not a painter. But even there, even though I don’t have to mix paints, I still have to face the same question: how much is enough?

How can we reconcile the ideas that come from each of our minds with the limits of having only one human body? A creative person can  have enough ideas to keep a dozen people busy. Yet we each have but one human body with limited energy and time in which to carry out what our minds dream up. In addition, there is often the conflict between what we want to do, what is fun to do and the practical, mundane tasks that need to be done in order for our lives to not be total chaos.

Intuitive people often have greater trouble with all kinds of limits than do other personality types. Intuition can be like a wildfire that jumps from tree top to treetop, spread by the wind. It can be painful to have to metaphorically dump water on that fire in order to contain the out-of-control wildfire that the imagination can be. Ideas come fast, but carrying them out is usually not fast. It can be painful when things take longer than we think they should take, or longer for some people than for others. It can be agonizing when more ideas show up than can be done within our limits of time, energy and money. This can produce a tug-of-war among the ideas. We may have to say NO to one thing, or many things, in order to say YES to one. Which one gets to stay and which one(s) have to wait or be eliminated? This deliberation and decision-making can be excruciating. No wonder we avoid it when or if we can.

And then there are the limits on what we can take or tolerate. A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) may get overstimulated when others are perfectly fine.  They often reach their limits of noise, light, or other type of stimulation long before others do. My husband has a convertible and loves to drive with his top down; that’s part of how he manages his stress. I have auditory and other sensitivities and can‘t tolerate the wind, the noise, the smell of the exhaust from other vehicles, the light of the sun in my eyes; the list goes on and on. So we often have to negotiate when we ride somewhere together in a car. Do we take my car or his? Do we have the top down or up? Do I bring my jacket, quilt, hat, and ear plugs or noise cancelling head phones? How do we make traveling together work for us both? It can be a challenge for both of us.

Everyone has limits; so what’s the big deal? Why do CASIGYs struggle with limits SO MUCH? Having a mind that moves faster and farther than that of others can create the illusion that a CASIGY is not supposed to have limits. Yet is IS an illusion. For we are still human, finite beings with all kinds of limitations. We are not gods or magicians. This takes us right back to our sensitivity and intensity and having Central Nervous Systems which are more perceptive and more reactive than those of less sensitive and less intense people.

A creative, highly sensitive or gifted person may also have higher standards than do others for what is enough or what is good enough. This can also influence our ideas about how much is enough or what is good enough. Perfectionism is rampant in the culture. There’s an automobile brand with the tag line of “the pursuit of perfection.” This is fine for machines, but is not relevant for human beings. But perfectionism is embedded in the culture and also in religion. I grew up hearing the Bible verse being quoted often: “Be ye perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect.” It was only as an adult that I learned that this is a mis-translation of that verse, a translation based on the bias of the translator of course! A more accurate translation would be “Be in the process of maturing, even as your father in heaven is (in the process of maturing). But this does not fit our preconceptions, so it all too often continues to be translated and also taught inaccurately. This error has influenced generations of humans to believe that they are supposed to strive for perfection—OR ELSE! It has bred guilt, shame and a sense of worthlessness, when instead, no one is able to be perfect, and when in fact our pursuit of perfection as a culture is based on a false premise.

This sense of worthlessness then breeds and feeds even more of the need to be perfect to make up for the lack of being perfect. This can become a self-perpetuating, snowballing phenomenon. How does this apply specifically to creative, sensitive and gifted people? Perfectionism may be especially present in CASIGYs. Why? One reason is that many CASIGYs, in their sensitivity, begin life as the kind of children who can be disciplined with just a look or the arch of an eyebrow. These children don’t need to be told anything about the expectation to be perfect – they absorb it through their very pores.

CASIGYs then often apply the cultural expectation of having perfect bodies, perfect homes, perfect yards, perfect cars, perfect lives to whatever pursuit(s) they are involved in.  They feel a need make perfect art or music, have perfect test scores, perfect grades, perfect children, perfect projects or outcomes at work.  A generation ago, the top possible grade to get was an A. But now, we have to outdo that. In the 21st century, we expect more than perfect grades.So now, there is A+ and A++ and so on.  4.0 used to be the top possible GPA. Now a 4.0 GPA is ordinary. As a culture and as creative, sensitive and gifted people, we are getting more and more perfectionistic as time goes by, not less.

We would do well to remind ourselves that normal, healthy living organisms are IMPERFECT and IRREGULAR. In contrast, one characteristic of cancer cells is that they are TOO PERFECT, TOO UNIFORM. Another characteristic of cancer cells is that they don’t know when to stop. They keep propagating and proliferating when they should stop. It is uncanny that modern culture is breeding the expectation and the need to be perfect while the presence of cancer is increasing in our bodies. Interestingly enough, the job of Immune System, which is supposed to fight off cancer and other invaders, is not to determine what is perfect from what is not perfect. Instead, a prime job of the immune system is to distinguish between what is ME and what is NOT ME; what is YOU and what is NOT YOU.

We have had it all wrong. Irregularity is what we need; uniqueness and individuality is what we need, not perfection nor the pursuit of it.

So how can we know our limits and honor them? Everything we have been learning, discussing  and doing so far in our series on Creative Coping Skills leads us to this point and supports us in understanding and honoring our limits.

What can we do to help ourselves to know and honor our limits? We can return to the Personal Power Pyramid and climb it (again). We can ask ourselves the questions on the steps of this pyramid, and listen attentively to our own inner responses ─

  1. What’s been happening?
  2. How are you feeling?
  3. How big are the waves on your Inner Beach?
  4. How can you channel or express this energy?
  5. What do you need?
  6. What does this mean?
  7. Do the waves match? If not, why not?
  8. What LIMITS have I bumped into? How can I honor these limits?

When we ask, we then pay attention, close attention. We watch carefully and listen deeply to what comes up inside of us when we ask these questions.What pictures or images show up? What messages show up? What memories surface? Then we make a record of it in some way – writing, drawing, making a recording so that the next time we are tempted to ignore our limits, we get reminded of our limits. And we get practical in a nitty, gritty way. We balance our checkbooks, make a grocery list, set timers to we know when to stop, we say NO to some things so we can say YES to others.

We can also remind ourselves of the Stages of Change, pat ourselves on the back that we have allowed awareness to come in of what we might not always want to change. We can recognize what we have done well, and also acknowledge what we would like to do differently next time we’re in a similar circumstance.  Finally, we can pat ourselves on the back for continuing to be in the process of change.






Featured Quote

The urge towards individuation is in our view a true instinct, probably the strongest instinct of all.

— Marie Louise Von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales