Sometimes we don’t even realize we are engaging in self-limiting behavior.
“Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being…There are NO limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there….” ~ Bruce Lee
I grabbed the horn and reins in my left hand, tucked my Keds sneaker into the stirrup, pulled myself up, and swung my other leg up and around to seat myself into the saddle. The horse immediately took notice of a patch of grass on the side of the road and trotted over to start snacking. I pulled up hard on the reins and tried to get control.
“He’s a little green, Susie,” the guide told me. “He hasn’t been out for a while. You’ll need to sit with authority in the saddle and remind him what you want him to do.”
My stomach sank. Truth was, I was a little green, too. I hadn’t ridden a horse for years and was not feeling confident or able to “sit with authority.” Riding, though, had always been a passion, and I was determined to get my horse-riding legs back.
Once we cleared the riding ring area and tucked ourselves into the woods, the horse and I were able to get in sync with each other. He seemed to enjoy his outing as much as I, and after ten minutes or so, I felt balanced and confident. He felt it, too, and turned his long neck to give me a look of approval.
We reached a meadow, criss-crossed with a stream, and my heart leapt. It was an open, green slate of horseback-riding joy. I turned to the guide and asked if we could canter through the meadow for a while before heading back.
“Sure we can. Just remember to let the horse know you’re in charge.”
With a couple of clicks of the tongue and quick pops of our heels, we were off. It turned out my horse was a tad on the competitive side, and he was absolutely going to be first, regardless of the direction we were heading. We flew over the grass, and I was transported to every previous ecstatic experience of galloping on horseback.
The adrenaline. The tingly feeling in my stomach. The stopping of time. The rhythm of horse and human. The feeling of flying without bounds. Remembering the freedom of my childhood.
We slowed our horses and came to a gentle stop.
“Nicely done!” said the guide.
I was over the moon. I leaned forward and gave long pats of gratitude to my horse along his neck and mane. He snorted and swished his tail. I relaxed my posture to take in the moment. I wanted to seal it into my memory and muscles.
We chatted a bit on the way back, but mostly we were silent. I appreciated the guide’s intuition to let the experience speak to me on its own.
Instinct as Self-Limiting Behavior
As we rounded the turn about 1/4 of a mile from the stables, I felt my horse’s countenance shift. He recognized the path and landmarks and knew about how far we were from the barn.
Off we went.
In that moment, he was a completely different animal. Focused only on going back to the barn, to what was familiar, to home. My “authority” be damned. There was no amount of rein pulling or attempts to regain control that would sway his fiercely-focused mind.
I could hear the guide’s shouts from behind, but I processed none of it. The horse read my growing panic as if it were a green light to rocket faster. Over rocks and with branches slapping me in the face, we flew. As the barn grew closer to us, my guide cantered alongside us and slowed us down.
Once finally stopped, I turned to my guide, embarrassed, and said, “Instinct is a powerful thing.”
Every time I find myself to be mindlessly going on automatic pilot, I’ll stop and say to myself, “Don’t be a horse going back to the barn. Be intentional. Wake up.”
Habits, routines, and ways of thinking and being in the world, though, die hard.
The neural tracks we lay with repeated behaviors and thoughts become the lowest point of cerebral ground, into which our “horse to barn” mindsets flow. We can even know in the moment when we are guilty of self-limiting behavior, and we can still choose to do it.
Moving Past Your “Set Point”
Yesterday, I was out on my favorite trail, tromping through the woods. Typically, once I reach a certain tall, white oak, painted with a yellow USFS circle, I turn back toward the trailhead.
Yesterday, I walked past that tree.
Buoyed by sunshine, a cool breeze, and feeling light in my body, I chose to see what lay ahead. I hadn’t ever explored much beyond the place I typically turn and was feeling adventurous and curious.
I was more attuned to my environment as it grew unfamiliar. I scanned left and right, and felt the buzzy lift of novel, sensory input. Around the one-mile mark into this new territory, I heard the rush of water and picked up my pace.
I craned my neck around the lush rhododendron in the crook of a deep curve on the trail and was handed glory on an evergreen platter.
I drew in a deep breath, “Ohhhhh, wow!”
I stood, grinning. Staring. Grinning.
I followed the water from its highest point down, over each mossy rock, branch, and fallen tree. The power of the water pulled me in. Sheer force unabated, yet possessing a zen stillness.
Mist hit me in the face. I tried to inhale it, dousing my lungs with its magic. I took several photographs and a video. I stood again, with a museum stance in front of a portrait that speaks deeply to one’s soul. Scanning. Sinking into the frame.
Sealing it into my memory and muscles.
Over the water’s roar, I got the message clearly: what is possible if I move past other “set points” I have consciously or unconsciously created? Why is it that I want to turn back too soon when creating and/or calling my desired future to me? Which of my neural trenches are the deepest…those of creating or those of limiting?
How much in common do I have with that horse running back to the barn?
I think of us creators like a shy child at the playground, clutching her mother’s skirt. She takes a nervous step into the circle and engages for a few moments before retreating to the edge and in her mother’s shadow of safety.
The child gathers herself and steps away from safe harbor once more. Each engagement in the scary Unknown is longer, more confident, before scampering back. Then there is an inflection point—the child forgets her mother is even there; she loses herself completely in play, adventure, and the glory of creating.
As we create, we can go hand over hand along the edge of the deep end of the pool. We can get a sense of it—scout out the depths before going hand over hand back to where our feet touch the bottom.
With each pass, each courageous attempt, we lay down new track. Ballooning out the edges of what we thought we could do. We let the mist of new confidence, new balance, and a new willingness to surrender more land upon our faces and shoulders.
What is on your creativity desk right now that you are ignoring? What has grown over in weeds…the projects…the dreams…the places where you aren’t willing to push past old stopping points?
We can saddle up and seat ourselves in our own authority and decide to be limitless. We don’t have to jump blindly into a chasm or take on too much too soon. We don’t have to fake bravado or hustle or thump our chests.
We can, though, loosen the bonds of old set points we chose for reasons we have forgotten or maybe never knew. The self-limiting behavior no longer serves us. No longer keep us safe.
Where we are going next requires a simple willingness to awaken and go a bit further than we went yesterday.