Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Self-Imposed Limitations

For today’s column I am reprinting, with a few minor changes, one of the monthly newsletters I wrote for the full-time missionaries in the California Roseville Mission in August of 2004. It is a vital topic, especially for youth and young adults.  I hope you enjoy it.



Have you ever really thought about a bumble bee?  Really thought about one?  How in the world do they fly?  Actually, for a long time scientists have said that aerodynamically the bumble bee was too big to fly, and its wings were too small. It should never fly. But I guess nobody ever told the bumble bee he couldn’t fly, because kids in every backyard in the world have seen them. It is interesting what you can do if you don’t know you can’t do it!  In recent articles we have considered self-confidence and self-control. But there is also a negative side to what the self can do. One of the worst is what we call “self-imposed limitations” which are common. In this article we will consider what they are, how we get them, some of their consequences, and how we can overcome them. 

Letter From The Assistants

Christopher Columbus was an excellent example of overcoming self-imposed limits.  During a party, shortly after Columbus’s discovery of the new world, a jealous Spanish nobleman approached the admiral and said: “Senor Cristobal, even if you had not undertaken this great enterprise, we should not have lacked a [Spaniard] who would have made the same discovery that you did.”

Columbus said nothing in reply, but instead placed an egg on the table and challenged all the men present to stand the egg  up on end by itself, without the aid of any support. When they failed, Columbus tapped one end on the table crushing that end flat and stood it up on end.  The message is that when someone shows you how to break beyond self-imposed limits, anyone can copy the great feat. It takes a person of vision, determination, and courage to do something that has never been done before. We hope that each of us will decide to break through any and all self-imposed limits and achieve what we are really capable of.

Much love-
Elders Jensen and Gorbutt (Assistants to the President)

What Are Self-Imposed Limitations?

Self-imposed limitations are ceilings we set upon ourselves.  Limits, of course, are a good thing when we are exercising self-discipline and refuse to violate God’s commandments or engage in foolish, immature and destructive behavior. But too often the limits we place on ourselves prevent us from doing positive, necessary or productive things. Though we may be limited by certain disabilities, self-imposed limits are a handicap of a different sort. They arise in the mind. So, we may believe we were not born to achieve, succeed or be great. The most frequent expression of this mind set is “I can’t.” Self-imposed limitations are a case of conditioning ourselves to only try so hard because we have placed a cap on our effort and an imaginary lid on our potential.

How Do We Get Self-Imposed Limitationitis?

Why is this phenomenon so common? Well, it starts when we are children. Frequently parents and peers begin to label children. When labels place inappropriate limits on us, it has become hurtful. Insecurities and lack of confidence are sometimes ingrained in children by harsh or over protective parents. Society also reinforces our fears and doubts about ourselves. Over the years we are conditioned to accept these limits and believe ourselves unable to rise above them. We often hear: “It’s never been done before.”  “Take it easy.”  “It won’t work.”  “It’s too hard.”  “It can’t be done.”

There are many illustrations of these kinds of limits which we allow to be imposed upon ourselves. One famous example is the barrier of the four-minute mile. For a long time people believed that it was physically impossible for a man to run a mile in four minutes. And for the better part of a century they were right. In 1865 the world record was 4:36.5 minutes. For the next ninety years the record crept ever so slowly toward four minutes. In 1895 it was 4:15.6, but only 4:15.4 by 1911. It wasn’t under 4:10 until 1931 and remained in the single digits for another 23 years.  Then in 1954 Roger Bannister ran a sub-four minute mile at Oxford, England. His barrier shattering record was 3:59.4. Amazingly, the next year 37 others ran the mile in under four minutes. Within two years 167 people  did it! A few years ago in a single race in New York, thirteen out of thirteen runners broke the four-minute mile.  As of 1999 the record is 3:43.13. This story is a legendary  illustration of the liberation that comes when someone breaks through a barrier once thought impossible.  Similar stories can be told of other notable obstacles such as the sound barrier, the seven-foot mark in high jumping or putting a man on the moon.

An even more insidious source of limits are those we impose upon ourselves.  Such restraints may arise from feelings of inferiority, fear, doubt, insecurity, and laziness. Sometimes the “Circle Of Fire” seems so intimidating and hard to penetrate that we don’t want to extend the effort. At other times our pride keeps us from doing things. We hear comments like, “I can’t memorize.”  “I’m just a farm boy, I’m not interested in intellectual things.”  “I’ll never try that again.”  “I can’t do that. ” “I have a learning disability, so I can’t read, or remember” or whatever.  A worse form is, “I don’t want to do that” or  “I’m not interested in that.” And the worst of all, “I won’t.” Recently, I learned of one missionary who defiantly told his companion he wouldn’t change unless Jesus Christ came and told him to!  That is real pride!  It reminds me of the guy who applied to the welfare office. They asked why he needed financial assistance. “I’m having trouble with my eyes,” the man said. “I can’t see myself going to work!” Nor could the unjust steward in the parable in Luke 16:1-8. When facing the realities of unemployment, he said, “I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.”  (vs. 3)

What Are The Consequences Of Self-Imposed Limitations?

Well, it doesn’t always lead to failure, because in many instances people won’t even try. Many will not try things that are perfectly within their ability, thus losing opportunity for growth and achievement.  Sometimes we unconsciously buy into a philosophy which is contrary to the spirit and teachings of the gospel. It shows a lack of understanding and/or belief in the law of eternal progression. It also displays a certain lack of faith in Christ. Those who impose limits on themselves are unlike Paul who said, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Phi. 4:13.)  And to Moroni the Lord said, “If ye will have faith in me ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me.” (Moro. 7:33.) Obviously self-imposed limitations put the lid on our potential and make it almost impossible to truly magnify our callings. Like the classical flea circus, we continually live below our self-imposed limits, like this illustration:

Our Potential

Self Imposed Limits

Our Living

How Do We Overcome Self-Imposed Limits?

It requires a physical and emotional price to actually break through those perceived limitations and enter into a new area of further potential. Leadership guru John Maxwell, wrote, “One of the great discoveries we make, one of our great surprises, is to find we can do what we were afraid we couldn’t do. Most of the prison bars we beat against are within us; we put them there and we can take them down.”(1)You may be only an attitude away from becoming the person God wants you to be! Here are a few suggestions of how to do this:

Turn your self-concept around. Through prayer and study gain a correct understanding of your potential and capabilities and begin living up to them.

Through prayer and faith develop a desire and the courage to change.

Focus on your positive qualities and soon they will begin to powerfully affect your actions and behavior.

Once you realize that most of your limitations come from within your own mind you have the key to change.

To reach beyond that which you have accomplished, you must eliminate negative thinking and speaking–especially about yourself. 

In these ways we can begin to live above our self-imposed limits in the rarefied air of greater potential, like this illustration:

Our Potential

Our Living

Self-Imposed Limits

Veteran Elder Hafen Learns A Lesson

I once had an experience that taught me a great lesson about the way a highly developed tolerance for "being realistic" can inhibit the workings of the Spirit in our lives. When I had been on my mission in Germany about a year, I was assigned to work with a brand new missionary named Elder Keeler, who had just arrived fresh from converting--or so he thought-all the stewardesses on the plane from New York to Frankfurt. Within a few days of his arrival, I was called to a meeting in another city and had to leave him to work in our city with another inexperienced missionary whose companion went with me.  I returned late that night.

The next morning I ask him how his day had gone. He broke into a big smile and said that he had found a family who would surely join the Church. In our mission, it was rare to see anybody join the Church, let alone a whole family. I asked for more details, but he had forgotten to write down either the name or the address. All he could remember was that the family lived on the top floor of a big apartment house. "Oh, that's great," I thought to myself as I contemplated all those flights of stairs. He also explained that he knew so little German that he had exchanged but a few words with the woman who answered the door. But he did think she wanted us to come back--and he wanted to go find her and have me talk to her that very minute. I explained to him that the people who do not slam the door in missionaries' faces are not all planning to join the Church. But off we went to find her, mostly to humor him. He could not remember the right street either, so we picked a likely spot in our tracting area and began climbing up and down those endless polished staircases.
After a frustrating hour, I decided that I really needed to level with him. "Based on my many months of experience," I said, "it is simply not worth our time to try any longer to find that woman. I have developed a tolerance for the realities of missionary work, and I simply know more about all this than you do."
His eyes filled with tears and his lower lip began to tremble. (That elder was no dummy--he recently graduated from Boalt Law School at Berkeley.) I remember it so well--he said to me, through those tear-filled eyes, "Elder Hafen, I came on my mission to find the honest in heart. The Spirit told me that that woman is going to join the Church, and you can't stop me from finding her."
I decided that I had to teach him a lesson. So I raced him up one staircase after another until he was ready to drop, and so was I.  "Elder Keeler," I asked, "had enough?"
"No," he said.  "We've got to find her."
I began to smolder. I decided to work him until he plead with me to stop--then maybe he would get the message.
Then, at the top of a long flight of stairs, we found the apartment. She came to the door. He thrashed my ribs with his elbow and whispered loudly, "That's her, elder. That's the one. Talk to her!"
Not long ago, brothers and sisters, up on Maple Lane a few blocks from here, that woman's husband sat in our living room. He was here for general conference because he is the bishop of the Mannheim Ward. His two boys are preparing for missions; his wife and daughters are pillars of the Church. That is a lesson I can never forget about the limitations of the skepticism and the tolerance for ambiguity that come with learning and experience. I hope that I will never be so aware of "reality" that I am unresponsive to the whisperings of heaven.(2)

It is our duty as men and women to proceed as though limits to our abilities do not exist.  We are collaborators in creation.

–Tieilhard de Chardin


Did is a word of achievement,
Won’t is a word of retreat,
Might is a word of bereavement,
Can’t is a word of defeat,
Ought is a word of duty,
Try is a word of each hour,
Will is a word of beauty,
Can is a word of power.



If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think you dare not, you don't;
If you'd like to win, but you think you can't,
It's almost certain you won't.

If you think you'll lose, you've lost;
For out in the world you'll find
Things begin with a fellow's will;
It's all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are;
You've got to think high to rise;
You've got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life's battles don't always go
To the stronger or faster man;
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the man who thinks he can.  



Can’t is the worst word that’s written or spoken; doing more harm than slander and lies; on it is many a strong spirit broken, and with it many a good purpose dies.  It springs from the lips of the thoughtless each morning and robs of courage we need through the day.  It rings in our ears like a timely-sent warning and laughs when we falter and fall by the way.
Can’t is the father of feeble endeavor, the parent of terror and half-hearted work; it weakens the efforts of artisans clever, and makes of the toiler an indolent shirk.  It poisons the soul, the person with a vision; it stifles in infancy many a plan; it greets honest toiling with open derision and mocks at the hopes and the dreams of anyone.
Can’t is a word none should speak without blushing; to utter it should be a symbol of shame; ambition and courage it daily is crushing; it blights a person’s purpose and shortens their aim, despise it with all of your hatred of error; refuse it the lodgment it seeks in your mind; arm against it as a creature of terror, and all that you dream of you some day shall gain.
Can’t is the word that is foe to ambition, an enemy ambushed to shatter your will; its prey is forever the person with a mission and bows but to courage and patience and skill.  Hate it, with hatred that’s deep and undying, for once it is welcomed it can break you; whatever the goal you are seeking, keep trying and answer to this unwanted thought by affirming,
I CAN!”  

–Edgar A. Guest

Let’s think together again, soon.


1. John Maxwell, The Winning Attitude, (Nashville:Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993), p. 131.

1. Bruce R. Hafen, "Love Is Not Blind" address of 9 January 1979 in 1979 Devotional Speeches Of The Year, pp. 14-15.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. It has been a few years since I've read this. This message makes me grateful for the parents I was given who, amidst some physical challenges I faced starting out, never raised me to know that I was "limited" or "different" in any way. I am ever-thankful for them not imposing limits on me before I even would be able to know better! I will be sharing this message with my son in the future!