16th January, 2023

Embracing Your Limits in a Limitless System

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

Everyone praises those who work hard — so it’s not unusual for people to think that it’s good to push your limits and do as much as you can.

But what’s the best thing to do when you’re tired and exhausted? Should you see how far you can go, or take a break?

In this short episode, we discuss embracing our limits as a choice. With so many things out of control, we need to discern when to take a rest because work will never stop for us. We also discuss how you can start to recognise warning signs. Remember, people don’t go from okay to complete burnout overnight, it’s a long process.

If you want to know how to embrace your limits and live a happier life, stay tuned to this episode.

Show links

Reasons to listen

  1. Why do we need to embrace our limits and take a break more often?
  2. How can we recognise our limits and take action before burnout forces us to stop?
  3. Understand that we don’t need to feel guilt and shame about our limits.

Episode highlights


Learn to Embrace Your Limits


You Always Have a Choice


How to Recognise Our Limits and Take a Break


The Guilt Around Rest


Learn to Recognise Warning Signs


How to Embrace Your Limits

Episode transcript

Rachel Morris: This is a You Are Not a Frog Quick Dip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea, so you can return to whatever else you’re up to feeling energised and inspired. For more tools, tips and insights to help you thrive at work, don’t forget to subscribe to You Are Not a Frog, wherever you get your podcasts.

Today I’d like to talk about how to embrace your limits in a limitless system. Because I think we get this so wrong, particularly as professionals in high stress jobs, working on the front line, feeling a lot of responsibility for other people. Now doctors often think that whether they accept and embrace the limits is their choice. For example, getting enough sleep, taking a break, or resting.

If it’s a choice, then you will end up feeling guilty if you choose to take some time off, or you choose to have a coffee break or a lunch break. Or if you make a mistake, because your brain isn’t working because you haven’t got enough energy, then you think it’s because that you are deficient as a person — that you’re not good enough. And there was an interesting Facebook post in one of our groups the other day that some GPs were actually rewarding themselves for their hard work — if I just see another patient, I will let myself go to the toilet, I will reward myself with a drink of water.

This is crazy. Those aren’t rewards. Those are basic human needs.

So firstly, we think that our limits are a choice. Secondly, we think that we have some control over the demands of everybody else in our world. Now, we know that we can never be in control of other people, we can only ever be in control of what we do. So this thought that we can somehow reduce the demands. Well, that is a myth, you don’t have any choice about that. The system does need to sort it out. But until that happens, thinking that you either have a choice about embracing your limits, or that you have any control over the demands in the system, is the mindset that will get you nowhere. In fact, it will get you straight into stress and into burnout.

Now everything I do is about choice. So how come I’m recording the podcast telling you that you have no choice? Well, you don’t have any choice about the limits that you have. But you always have a choice. The choice that you do have is about how you embrace your limits and when you embrace your limits. Those of you that have been listening to the podcasts will know that I’m pretty obsessed about how we start to embrace our limits how we start to say no, how we start to prioritise, how we start to focus on the important things, and ditch the stuff that isn’t important without feeling really, really guilty about it.

I will certainly be addressing this in further podcasts because the stories that we tell ourselves, our own innate perfectionism, our own innate beliefs, we always have to be superhuman, and we have to please everybody and serve everybody with everything they want all the time, is the one thing that is causing our resilience and our boundaries to crumble.

But before we do that, we need to first of all, recognize what our limits are, and when we need to be enforcing them. And for this, I find the concept of a runway pretty useful because it’s very rare that somebody goes straight from slightly stressed to full on burnout. It’s very rare that someone goes straight from completely healthy to incredibly unwell, although, of course it does happen. But there very often is this period of time. All these things that happen on the way to it there is a runway and those of you that know anything about planes know that on a runway, there is a point of no return at which the plane is committed to taking off.

Many of us make the mistake of thinking that we will only stop when we hit burnout, we will only stop when we are incredibly ill, not realising that if you go past the point of no return and actually you’re not going to be able to stop. And the further you go down that runway, the longer it’s going to take you to stop and recover — a bit like braking distance in a car. Those of you that know me will know that I broke my ankle a few months ago when I was ice skating — another example of the limitations of the human body. It turns out that your leg is not supposed to go backwards while your ice skating boots stays in one place. And I fell backwards — snapped my fibula. So I was forced to stop straightaway.

And sidenote, those of you that say to yourself, I can’t take time off. I can’t stop. You know what if something happens like that, you will be forced to. We all know of times where we’ve said I can’t possibly slow down and then we’ve ended up in hospital or in the case of my broken ankle there. Lots of things I thought I can’t possibly cancel. Of course I could, I had to, I had absolutely no choice. So when it comes to the crunch, you can stop doing stuff. The only thing that’s stopping you is the worry about the inconvenience to other people, what it’s going to mean for you as a person. And the shame and the guilt if you do.

Most of us, and this is a recurring pattern for me, I get to the time after Christmas, New Year, feeling utterly exhausted, and not at all looking forward to the year ahead because I just overdone it over Christmas. I’ve had too many people over. Not enough time, not enough space, and I’ve not looked after myself. This year, however, it was quite different. Even though I had a broken ankle and I was hobbling around the place.

What I found happening was that whenever my family decided to go on a walk, I just wouldn’t be able to go with them. Instead, I thought to myself, well, I might as well use the time wisely. And I would go to the gym and walk up and down the swimming pool as part of my rehab my ankle and then spend ten, fifteen minutes just sitting in the sauna to relax afterwards. And something curious happened. I found myself on January the second, rather than feeling completely strung out and overwrought, as I usually do, I ended up thinking I’m actually feeling alright, I’ve got quite a lot of energy. Whereas I must say someone in my family who hadn’t been able to do that we’re pretty knackered.

Now I was forced to take that time off. And it really benefited me. Why on earth haven’t I done that in other years? Why on earth don’t I do that regularly? It’s not difficult to take two or three times in a week where you can go and just have a little bit of time and space — if you prioritise it. But I just hadn’t been doing that. And so I ended up in that mess. It needed something to stop me before I actually went and did it.

This is the point of the runway, we leave things far too late. We don’t take action when we need to. We only need to do small things, small course correction, small adjustments, that will make things an awful lot better. And when we leave it for far too long, as we near that point of no return, it will take us longer and longer to put on the brakes. And we’ll need to make much bigger, coarse adjustment. And I think in aeroplanes, they have to sort of put the thrusters in reverse, so they can avoid a disaster.

So firstly, recognizing when you’re starting to get nearer and nearer the end of the runway, and that point of no return. We had a recent discussion in one of our communities and permission to thrive about when should a doctor go off sick. It was amazing the guilt that people felt about basic sick leave with normal illnesses such as colds, flu, things like that people were feeling guilty. Even if they were off sick because they couldn’t go in because they had COVID they were working, doing remote calls from their beds because they were feeling so guilty about this.

I was really surprised that even though people understood the risks that they put themselves under for carrying on working when they’re still sick, not just the fact that it will take them longer to get better. But also the fact that if you make a mistake, because you’re under par, that won’t be taken into consideration, no one is gonna give you a gold medal for going to work, when you can’t really function and making mistake, nobody’s gonna say, ‘Oh, there, there, it’s okay, because you weren’t really 100% they’re not, you’re going to be expected to perform as if you were firing on all cylinders.’

So you’ve got the runway of your health, you’ve got the runway of your time and your energy. Are you going to stop when you start to feel a little bit tired and overwhelmed? Or are you going to wait until you are literally one crisis away from not coping and where are the different steps along that journey? What about resources? I remember going and helping out a practice who were really worried that the senior partner was going to retire and they didn’t feel they were able to ask them and it would have been a disaster for them, they would have been really poorly staffed and the practice would have been under a great amount of stress. So they were just about coping.

I asked them ‘Well what happens if one of you wants a sabbatical or somebody wants to reduce their sessions or someone else gets ill?’ Let’s not wait until you lose an entire partner to make some changes and take action. What about right now, when you consider predict what might happen in the future. So there are all sorts of warning signs along the way and you know how you’re feeling. I know that when I start snapping at people, when I start feeling a little bit and loves getting cross at my children for not helping around the house, that’s a pretty good sign that I’m going along the exhausted route and it’s much better to stop there than wait till I’m in complete meltdown and yelling at them all.

Likewise, in relationships, you might have a runway between a great healthy relationship and, and relationship breakdown at the other end. Many of us leave it far too late to address problems in our relationships. You might start to notice that you’re not spending as much time together, you’re not able to really share things you want to share, you might be bickering a little bit more, and we leave it until things are falling apart, to even start to address things. So what about addressing that earlier as well?

Often, we know that the things that we need to leave, we know that we need to stop a role or stop a job or drop some sessions or give up some commitments. But we stay for too long, and we’re getting closer and closer to burnout and exhaustion. And as Rob Bell, one of my guests in a previous podcast and a fantastic podcaster himself says that if you stay too long somewhere — it should feel like a graduation, like a natural progression, often ends in being a divorce. I know there’s been times when I stayed far too long and things just went a bit pear shaped towards the end.

We’re often hearing stories, really tragic stories about our colleagues who everyone else can tell that they’re not doing well. And they stay for far too long before they get help. Often with disastrous consequences. Something dreadful happens at work, there’s a mistake, there’s a complaint, or they end up having a severe health problem, they are in severe burnout. Because here’s the thing, Mother Nature has put this early warning system in us. We know when we need to take a break, we know when we’re starting to feel overwhelmed, there will be these warning bells. So Mother Nature will start to whisper in our ear, ‘There’s something wrong, you need to do something you need to address this.’

But if we don’t listen, next thing that happened, we’ll get a tap on the shoulder from Mother Nature going, You know what, there’s something really going wrong. But if you don’t listen to Mother Nature, she will make it pretty clear, she will force you in handcuffs. You will find that at some point, you’ll end up with no choice about what you then do to address things. Whereas if you’d listened when you got that gentle tap on the shoulder or whisper in the ear, you’d have had the choice about how you address these things.

My hope for you is that you are able to make these choices about how you embrace your limits, and when you embrace them before your limits are forced upon you. And you end up in hospital or in burnout or even worse. Because we are human. We cannot carry on without rest, sleep, water, food, connection. And as I’ve said a million times before, the great thing about that is that these are the things that make life worth living. If we embrace our limits, we will enjoy life more, which means we’re happier, which means we will perform better.

So have a think about your limits. Have a think about your runways. What are they? What points have you got on your runway? What’s the early warning sign at which a quick course correction could work? For example, if you’re feeling a bit tired, a quick course correction would be just having a really early night. If you find you’re heading towards exhaustion, then the mid course correction could be cutting out a load of stuff in your diary. And if you find yourself almost at that point of no return, thinking to yourself, ‘I’m nearing burnout here,’ then what about getting some help? What about taking some time off work and actively seeking some professional help like practitioner health, like your own GP, or talking to a colleague.

So plot out your runways, plot them out for health, for relationships, for energy, for time, for resources even, and work out what your early course correction is going to be, what your mid course correction and what your emergency stop procedure may be. Because even though we don’t have any choice about what our human limits are, and we don’t have any control over the demands and a limitless system, we do have choice and we do have control over how we embrace our limits and what we do to do that

So fully embrace the fact that you are human. Put an early warning system in place to recognize when you’re starting to travel too fast down that runway towards the point of no return. And embrace your limits knowing that that’s what makes you fully human. Knowing that’s what’s going to enable you to thrive in work and life.