Learning to live inside limits: The secret to finding your own brilliance in long term sobriety

By Ken Wells - 06/21/2020


When our granddaughter, MJ, turned 2, she exploded into a world of adventure with nonstop exploration and inquisition. Her world was an ongoing journey of exploring experiences that the adults around her had long since accepted as common place. There was no stopping her except when it was time to eat, nap or take a bath to prepare for night time. Those were her only limits. Otherwise, she like so many other 2 year olds, engaged in a limitless search for what seemed to intrigue and fascinate. Part of growing through childhood involves coming to grips with boundaries and limits. Most children do not achieve this without a struggle. Yet, without learning to live within the friendly confines of limits and boundaries, children face unnecessary trauma, treachery and even death.

Addicts in recovery can relate to the struggle of living within the context of limitations as well. In truth, for those who seek long term sobriety, it will be necessary to embrace human limitation every day. Limitation is the common stuff of life that provides the necessary centeredness and poise for a balanced life. Basketball great Michael Jordan relates the story of learning to live within the limitation of his own talent and avoid trying to do everything himself. He emphasized by living within his limits he was able to learn how to allow the game of basketball to come to him in a way that accentuated his skills and maximized his effort and results.

I hear addicts complain in 12 step meetings that all they really want to do is be normal. They often ask why they can’t do what other people do. Why do I have to submit to certain limits in behavior that others don’t worry about? Why can’t I just live the typical ordinary life? An alcoholic wonders “why can’t I have a drink occasionally?” A sex addict wonders will I have to go to meetings the rest of my life? Is it really all that necessary? These are common struggles with limits, boundaries and follow through for all in recovery. Addicts who ignore their own limitations lose their sense of self in the interchange of average everyday experience, they usually return to acting out in their addiction.

When we push outside our boundaries and limitations, we lose our balance in life. This is true whether you experience an addiction or not. If you bite off a bigger bite than you can chew, try to control someone else’s behavior or compromise a value or principle in order to be accepted or to avoid rejection, you are most likely to lose your footing and your way by ignoring your limitations. There is always a price to pay for bashing boundaries in our lives. Most addicts I know can trace every relapse to ignoring or becoming sloppy with limitation and boundary.

Ignoring boundaries is often triggered by a deprivation mindset. A deprived mindset focuses on what I don’t have and cannot do rather than the possibilities that exist with what is. Deprivation takes what is and makes it even less. It seems like others are able to have what I don’t have or experience and get their needs met in ways that I cannot. The desire to ignore limitation is fueled by classic addictive rationale that emphasizes “I want what I want when I want it”. Finding the brilliance of living in long term sobriety inside limits and boundaries is skewed by longing to be anywhere but where I am. The slippery slide that leads to addictive relapse begins when we sit in the mindset of deprivation.

In dissatisfaction and irritation an addict is triggered to push beyond his limits and boundaries. That’s when he gets in trouble and loses his way.

In St Louis, Missouri, Interstate 270 goes around the city and across the mighty Mississippi into Illinois. After crossing the I-270 Bridge, there is another bridge that spans a bypass canal that carries barge traffic. The canal is utilized in order to avoid the chain of rocks on the Mississippi that has created havoc for river traffic many years past. The canal is just wide enough for a barge to navigate with no problem. Yet, it is deep enough to avoid any catastrophe that was so common to the barges navigating through the chain of rocks on the Mississippi in past days. I think of that canal often when considering my own recovery experience. The only time I have ever gotten into trouble in my recovery is when I am careless with the parameters and the limits and try to get outside the boundaries of my recovery. The brilliance I have discovered is that when I respect and honor my limits and boundaries, I have learned that inside those parameters I can go as deep as I need to go within, I have learned that there is no bottom, no limit when I go deep within. It is when I go deep inside that I find the greatest fulfillment and the deepest wisdom. It is deep within that recovery brilliance is mined and uncovered. When I try to bash my boundaries and ignore my limitation that is when I lose my way. It’s true for us all, whether addict or not. Figuring out how to transform everyday experience into sacred space is the beginning point toward mining personal brilliance. It begins and is maintained when I honor my boundaries and live within my limitation.

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