So What’s Stopping You?

Dear Daughters,

Here’s a phrase I’ve heard from each of you many times: “I can’t do that.”

Just what “that” means varies quite a bit. Sometimes we’re talking about higher math. Other times we’re talking about wearing shoes that aren’t sufficiently fashion forward. But the underlying logic is rarely sound. After all, there aren’t that many things you can’t do if you really want to. (See “From Want To Will-Work-For“.)

Don’t believe me? Rather than shaking your head and murmuring, “Dad just doesn’t get it,” try asking yourself a different question: “What actually stops any of us from doing … well, anything?” I can think of a few things.

Stop #1 – The Laws of Nature; or, Actual Physical Constraints

Some things are physically impossible for us humans. Traveling faster than the speed of light. Transmogrifying into a wolf beneath a silvery moon. Making a snide comment to a 13-year-old without prompting an eye roll.

But the laws of nature don’t forbid that much of what we typically seek to do. They don’t stop us from changing directions in life or from pushing past current limitations. They don’t prevent us from making our muscles stronger or from building up neural networks that sharpen our skills.

All humans face real physical boundaries–limits that we can’t push through either because we’re only human or because we’re the particular humans we are. But most of us live most of our lives far from those limits. And in so doing, we let the limits close in on us, even more than Mother Nature insists they must. We often stop ourselves long before she stops us.

Stop #2 – Legal Codes; or, The Rules as Written and Enforced

In addition to Mother Nature’s laws, there are also the laws humans make. It’s worth noting, however, that these alone don’t have preemptive binding force–that is, they don’t really stop anyone from doing anything.

This is both good and bad: On the one hand, if human laws were preemptively binding, there would be no crime. On the other hand, choice is part of what makes us fully human, and humans have a history of making some pretty stupid laws.

Think about it: many of history’s remarkable leaders had to defy the laws of their times–from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi all the way back to Jesus and Moses. It’s a good thing they weren’t preemptively bound by human laws.

Which is not to say that human laws should be lightly ignored. They shouldn’t. They protect us and enable us to function together as a society. Plus, breaking them can lead both to physical restraint (a version of Stop #1, above) and to social stigmatization (a version of Stop #3, below).

Stop #3 – Social Norms; or The Unwritten Rules of the Game 

Whether we mean to or not, we all tend to behave in the ways our social groups expect. We go where other people go, say what other people say, and do what other people do. We don’t just succumb to peer pressure; we internalize peer opinions and shape our behaviors accordingly–before we ever stop to think.

Even if and when we reject the norms of our social groups, we tend to define ourselves (and hence constrain ourselves) in contradistinction to them: We tell ourselves we’re being nonconformists, and so replace one set of social norms with another. And all the while, the initial norms continue to deeply shape our behavior.

Still, social norms don’t preemptively restrict behavior any more than human laws do. And the more aware of their influence we become, the less beholden to them we are. As with physical constraints, their day-to-day power over us is at least partly a function of our failure to push at them. By regularly exercising your ability to question social norms, you increase your own freedom to think and act.

Stop 4: Fears and Anxieties; or The Scary Stories We Tell Ourselves

Often what actually stops us is neither a physical constraint nor a social one; it’s simply our fear of what will happen if we act. And often that fear is based on a story we tell ourselves–about ourselves, the world around us, or both.

Such stories can be largely factual, based on what we know from hard experience, or mostly fictional. They can help explain our actual circumstances or they can give us the cover we need to quietly let ourselves off the hook. They can convince us that we’re central characters in the vast drama of life or mere pawns of the true protagonists.

In any case, what such stories always have in common is that they’re subject to revision. Hence, whenever a story is what’s stopping you, you can at least ask, “how might this story change?” or “how might I tell this tale from a different perspective?”

So, What’s Really Stopping You?

In practice, each of these stops is complicated, and there are surely other stops that I haven’t thought of here. Nevertheless, the next time you catch yourself saying “I can’t do that,” stop to ask yourself “what’s really stopping me?” Is it:

  • A physical constraint? If so, is it really unbreakable?
  • A law or regulation? If so, should you be working to change it?
  • A social expectation? If so, what are the costs and benefits of defying it?
  • A scary story? If so, is it more like fiction or nonfiction?

You might just find that there’s nothing in your way that you can’t remove. You might just find, in other words, that you’re freer than you believed.



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