What emotional reaction do you have to the words “boundaries,” “limits” and “rules?” These words often have a negative connotation, inviting dread or annoyance. Certainly, if overdone, boundaries, limits and rules can be demoralizing or even oppressive. Why then, if a situation does not already have boundaries, limits or rules, do we work so hard to create them? And once they are created, why do we so often have some people on one side challenging and testing them, pushing the limits, and some on the other side enforcing them?

It’s how you play the game

In organized sports, we see clearly defined boundaries, limits and rules. From basketball, baseball and football to hop-scotch and shuffle board, we have painted lines which distinguish in-bounds from out-of-bounds. A college basketball court is defined by a boundary that’s ninety-four feet long and fifty feet wide. The team is limited to five players on the court at a time. The game is limited to two twenty minutes halves. The team with the ball is given a limit of thirty seconds to make a shot. There is a rule book which spells out exactly what a player is or is not allowed to do on the court. There is a predictable, non-negotiable and reasonable consequence for violating any of these boundaries, limits or rules.

Sounds pretty harsh. Why don’t these kids just stick a basket on somebody’s garage and have fun? Well, they could, but before you know it, they’d probably be chalking white lines on the driveway, dividing themselves into teams of limited size and making up rules about what you can and can’t do. And some will fight to test and challenge  these boundaries, limits and rules while others will strive to enforce them.

The paradox

When we come up against boundaries, limits and rules in life, sometimes we complain and protest. Yet when we don’t have them, we tend to seek them out or create them. Perhaps the bottom line is that in order to do extraordinary things, we need clear boundaries, limits and rules. If we’re out to do things in a light and casual way, we can be more lax about it. Tossing a ball back and forth just for fun can be a delightful way to spend time with a friend or family member. But it is not likely to yield any of the awe-inspiring feats of human performance that we see in tightly regimented competitions such as March Madness.

By design, the boundaries, limits and rules are restrictive. They create a frame or container around a chosen human pursuit. Whether this pursuit is running an athletic competition, operating a business or growing a marriage, the frame restricts what we’re allowed to do. But paradoxically, this frame, which restricts us in one way, also creates an arena which provides the safety and freedom to vigorously pursue the endeavor. And by sometimes pushing up against the insides of this frame, we find a way to transcend the ordinary and achieve heights greater than we imagined possible.

On the bright side

Working within a well-designed frame can afford three particular benefits: enhanced perseverance, creativity and sense of community. If we have unlimited time, space and freedom to function however we want, we might feel little incentive to strive for excellence. But when these parameters are finite, we might rise to the challenge and work harder and persevere longer, even through times of exhaustion and hopelessness. We might also dig deeper into our creativity to come up with innovative solutions. And rather than going it alone, we might take more of a team approach and assist each other in the pursuit of excellence.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by tommy bebo on Unsplash 

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.