Why do we have trouble with limits?

Whenever Lynda-Ross and I train an “Introduction to Perceptual Style Theory (PST)” seminar, there is always a lot of positive energy and excitement as participants discover their Perceptual Style and what it means for them. Most people experience a huge validation as they recognize themselves in the description of their Perceptual Style.

Interestingly, we often notice a little discomfort and pushback when we get into principles 4 and 5 (there are 7 in all, and you can read about them here: https://www.yourtalentadvantage.com/About-The-Theory). Principle 4 says, “Perceptual Style is innate and does not change over time,” and Principle 5 says, “Natural skills and abilities are directly tied to Perceptual Style.”

What this means practically is that you cannot be a little of this Perceptual Style and a little of that Perceptual Style. You are, have always been, and will always be one Perceptual Style.

Because your Perceptual Style does not change, and natural skills and abilities are directly tied to Perceptual Style, it follows that there are skills and abilities that you will never excel at naturally.

These two facts lead to what we call the principle of limitations, which states that, despite what many of us have been taught, we cannot do anything and everything we put our minds to or focus our willpower on.

The principle of limitations is a way to help people let go of the tyranny of trying to do it all and giving them the freedom and permission to focus on who they are and what they are naturally gifted to do.

However, overwhelmingly, people push back on this concept. Rather than freeing them, they experience being diminished. They push back, and often they push back hard.

I have thought long and hard about this phenomenon and believe I have gained some insight into why it is so common. I believe there is value in understanding where this opposition to the idea of limits comes from. True to my Activity Perceptual Style, I want to begin telling you about it by sharing a story. 

I first became interested in psychology in the early 1970s when, at the age of 16, I became involved in an “encounter group”. Many of you may be too young to know what an “encounter group” is, but it was one of the many new applications of psychology that arose out of the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s counter-culture movement. Wikipedia defines “encounter groups” as “a psychotherapy group in which the participants try to increase their sensitivity and gain insight into their emotions by expressing their own emotions and responding to the emotions of others in the group.”

As an angry 16-year-old adolescent male who was coming of age in the cultural turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s, discovering encounter groups was a blessing. They provided me with a group of people interested in hearing what I had to say, helped me understand what I was so angry about, and helped me discover different responses to my life situation that were more functional. That was the positive side.

The negative side of the encounter group experience was much more subtle. It took me years to realize its influence on my life and how it impacted my professional career and our entire culture in many ways. I know that that last one is a big claim but hang in with me for a bit!

As I said, encounter groups arose out of the Human Potential Movement. Turning to Wikipedia once again, you will find this definition: “The movement takes as its premise the belief that through the development of their “human potential”, people can experience a life of happiness, creativity, and fulfillment, and that such people will direct their actions within society toward assisting others to release their potential.”

On the face of it, that sounds like a wonderful thing to be a part of, and I fully bought into it. In fact, it was in pursuit of developing my own and others’ human potential that I became a clinical psychologist.

But what does developing your human potential really mean? To answer that, you have to define what is meant by “human potential.” Otherwise, there is no way to measure progress or know when you have developed it fully. By definition, if you are unhappy, not creative, or unfulfilled, you have not fully developed your human potential. And there is the core problem with the whole theory.

Despite our best efforts, it is my experience that none of us “achieves” happiness, creativity, and fulfillment. Happiness, creativity, and fulfillment are not goals that, once attained, can be held onto forever; they are human experiences that come and go, just like sadness, anger, boredom, etc. Pursuing them as goals leads to continuous disappointment and conclusions that one is not good enough because the elusive goals have not been realized.

The Human Potential Movement had a significant impact on our culture—most notably the rise of the self-help industry that promises (repeatedly) 10 easy steps, secrets, or habits to discover how to become the best you. How many self-help books have you read? How many have worked long-term? What do you conclude when they don’t?

If you are like most people, you learn a few interesting things that don’t fundamentally “fix” your life, giving rise to disappointment that eventually turns into “Ah, well…” until the next latest and greatest self-help book gets popular and the cycle repeats itself.

Instead of concluding that there is something wrong with the search for a magic fix, we assume something is wrong with us. We didn’t try hard enough. We didn’t fully understand. We didn’t quite “get it”. Maybe we just picked the wrong guru. Again.

I was on that merry-go-round for years searching for the “right” therapeutic approach, believing that if I did, I could not only finish solving my own problems but the problems of my clients as well.

The cruel joke is there are always more problems. Life is full of them. Trying to process your way to your full human potential is trying to solve life, and life cannot be solved.

Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing said: “There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.”

The principle of limitations challenges us to look at our pain rather than run from it. To learn to live with the difficulty of life rather than complaining about how it should be easier.

So many of us spend so much time trying to avoid the pain of our lives, looking for a way to solve it once and for all so we can achieve the promise of the human potential movement – happiness, creativity, and fulfillment.

We are so averse to facing the pain of our lives that in 2021 we spent $11.3 billion on self-help books in the US alone. All in the quest to find an answer rather than facing the pain that comes with the limitations of being human. The quest for the holy grail of our fully developed human potential has become such an ingrained part of our culture that it is not even noticed, much less questioned, as part of our daily lives.

When Lynda-Ross and I are challenged on the principle of limitations, we hold our ground. We do not want Perceptual Style Theory to devolve into just another self-help system that makes promises it cannot deliver.

We want it to provide people with the freedom to explore who they are and discover the joy that comes from recognizing, consciously using, and developing natural skills into the gifts they are. We also know that to do this,  people must also face the pain of discovering those things for which they have little or no natural skill.

When we are willing to accept our limitations, we increase the chances of seeing ourselves, as much as is humanly possible, as we are rather than chasing an idealized but unattainable promise of “fully realized potential”.   

About Gary M. Jordan Ph.D.

Gary M. Jordan, Ph.D. is a premier authority on behavioral theories and assessment construction. He has over 32 years of experience in clinical psychology, behavioral assessment, individual development, and coaching. Gary earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology – Berkeley, and spent 18 years in private practice where he specialized in helping angry adolescents, couples in conflict, and individuals searching for more meaning and satisfaction in life.
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