Selfish or Self-Limiting

A rethink on getting to NO

Selfishness or Self-Limiting

I come from a Lebanese family. The Lebanese are known for their hospitality and generosity. We say yes before we say no. We bring people in before we keep people out. We give what we have before asking for what we need. We welcome the people, the work, and the time, and then we figure it out. These values and the culture of open-handed sharing are amazing to experience, but there is a downside. Experiencing a “no” or a “not for you” or an “I don’t have to give to you” is quite the shock. At a subconscious level I learned that saying no was a selfish act – even shameful. Something you did ONLY if you weren’t a thoughtful, hospitable, or generous person. Even further, the continued giving can lead to burnout.

Given my cultural background, it has taken a lot for me to learn how saying no can be good. The shift in my thinking began when I was introduced to the idea of self-limiting. Self-limiting is the conscious acknowledgement of and care for my natural limits. It offers permission to limit scopes of engagement before external factors demand it. It is a discipline of saying no.  It is now my hedge against burnout. I think self-limiting can be a wonderful practice especially for us who have practices that continue to stretch our limits.

Self-limiting pushes back against the trend of global thinking. We live in a world in which thinking at a global scale is a reality. We can think of affecting the entire world with our work within our lifetime. This is unprecedented (unless you happened to be the ruler of a nation).

I’ve had a small taste of this kind of thinking. I’ve lived a life of global travel, pursuing dreams in the performing arts, and testing the limits of my reach and capacity. I’ve been to conferences at the United Nations and TED, where global leaders speak about changing the entire world and have the reach to actually do it. I’ve been in the room where it happens. I have friends who are affecting millions of people through their work. The scale is immense.

On a personal level I have struggled with this. The more my work and reach grew, the more I seemed disconnected from a place where hospitality and generosity could function well. They seemed to be mutually exclusive. Yet, I had trained myself to reach the furthest, to work the hardest, and to build the largest thing I could. I only used external factors to limit myself. Dream big, and then start moving. Not enough money for the venue I wanted? Find a cheaper venue. Not enough time or energy to do all the necessary work? Change the scope. I honestly believed that the projects I was dreaming up were good – I had external validation to prove it. But I always felt spent at the end, and not always in a good way.

I have since learned the joy and wonder of self-limitation. However, with my cultural background, and personal practice of stretching my own limits it has been a challenging shift. One that I am still experimenting with and working out. It took a fundamental rethinking to adopt the idea of self-limiting. Here are a few of the things that helped my thinking change (in no particular order):

  • Self-limiting is an act of self-knowing – It only happens when we really know ourselves. Where are our natural limits? How have we related to them in the past? How are we honoring them?

  • Self-limiting is an act of self-integrity – As our no verbalizes our natural limits, our yes becomes energized within those boundaries. Our language can match our actions and our integrity breeds confidence in our choices and a kind of completeness in our inner person.

  • Self-limiting is an act of self-composition – As we experiment with and discern our choices, we will see how they affect who we are. If I say no to this, what can I say yes to? If I say yes to this, what must I say no to, in order to hold my integrity? How might each yes or no shape me?

  • Self-limiting is an act of curating our world – Each yes or no helps form our relationships, work, and priorities of time, place, and activity. What does something have to be to get a yes from you? How meaningful or resonant?

  • Self-limiting is an act of self-love – The more we say no, the more we get to say yes to the things that are meaningful to us and that resonate with who we are. Our no is our power against whatever inner voice or external pressures we recognize as NOT good.

  • Self-limiting is an act of loving others – If I say yes to doing everything, where is the room for anyone else? Saying no creates space for others to enter in, to show up, and to share.

This idea has been one of the most powerful shifts I’ve experienced in my life. To think that a no can be an act of love has completely shifted my disposition when I come to make choices. If you or someone you know has struggled with the idea of saying no would you consider sharing this idea with them?