Take an egg. Inside it has potential life. Give it too little heat, not much will happen. Give it too much heat, it will boil. Give it just the right amount, the artful amount, and life will spring forth.
One of the arts of painting is knowing when to stop. Too little, it is not finished; too much and it is ruined. On this bell-shaped curve there is no sign to say ‘STOP’, there is no flag proudly flapping on the top, there is nothing really of note at all. It is hazy, hardly distinguishable from the state of ‘not finished’. You can always make a line neater, a shadow darker, add a little something here and there.
Keep perfecting it, keep dabbling and suddenly, too late, you are faced with a stiffness, a fixed overdone-ness, a claustrophobia without space to breathe. The image has snapped into plastic, unreal, dead. The horror and sadness of an overpainted (was) gem.
This is life too.
Take limit setting. Without limits we are a blob. A doormat to be walked over, a blurry haze of an unpotentialised personality. On the other side, set too many we become isolated, brittle, dry.
I don’t set limits well. I’m often late. Truth be told, I’m not always aware myself that I am in a ‘danger zone’ – so slowly has it arrived. I’m not always conscious even how I feel. So, between being unaware and not wanting to ‘make a spectacle of myself’ a situation can get complicated.
I wait until I have so over thoroughly thought-out and felt-out the situation it’s too late. I’m already in my uncomforted zone having let the situation become intolerable to me. My perspective has become fixed, polarised, painful.
In this overcooked state, I set limits spectacularly badly, with harsh words, built up anger and resentment. It’s horrible, worse than it could be and lasting far too long. Worse, it makes me afraid of setting limits altogether.
So when to set a limit? How to protect our own reality? When to say it’s ‘now’?
Perhaps the ideal time to set a limit is when it’s not a problem (yet). In that hazy place between underdone and overdone. To claim space while my voice is still calm, reason holds a place at my table and I haven’t lost my sense of humour.
While we are in our balanced states, setting a boundary can be as gentle as a slight change of direction, a tender shift of perspective, a deepening understanding between us.
The ‘problem’ is that often to set a limit requires a certain level of discomfort. It is not a ‘come enjoy a psychic picnic with me,’ but a ‘polite notice’ (that unheeded ramps up into a siren ‘WARNING’) that this area is to be keep out of, or tread carefully within, at least respected. Limits are not pleasant boundary walks but an electric fence: touch it and you’ll be buzzed.
It’s hard to buzz someone. It’s hard to (consciously) ‘make them feel bad’. Especially when I don’t really feel truly awfully bad, as yet.
But that’s all it takes. A minute of not pleasant, a minute of rawness, a minute of intense feelings. A minute of a diluted example of what would happen were we to step out of my comfort zone. Perhaps then, a minute to allow everything to subside. And it’s over. A limit has been communicated. The other nods. We continue with our cup of coffee.
Unless we can’t buzz. Then slowly over time, minutes or years, it boils or freezes us into polarised impossibility, deepening co-dependence, built up volcanoes of toxicity. It can destroy the beautiful gem we were painting in the psychic space between us. It can end relationship.
But take heart! If we are able to respect ourselves and others in this blind dance we dance together, we can become more aware of other’s limits and so become more able to discern when to try a new step, and when to drop into the comfort of the well-known. In this space we can open and close ourselves allowing in, or not, the artful amount of heat for our psyches to hatch – and in so doing we up the possibility of life beautifully, surprisingly, inspiringly springing forth.