Respecting Your Personal Limitations

StressFirst of all, I’d like to thank those of you who visit the site often enough to have noted my absence this past month and written to me with concern. It has been a trying time, in part because of unexpected challenges that have come along but also because I haven’t taken care of myself as well as I should.

In Don Nathanson’s excellent book Shame and Pride, he describes himself as “the driven sort of personality that must ignore or disavow exhaustion in order to conclude what we declare to be the ‘more important’ business of the day.” I recognize myself in this description. As I was working on Cinderella, I felt driven to complete and release it before relocating to Colorado for the summer, imposing an entirely artificial deadline upon myself. At the same time, I was finishing up a proposal for my book on shame, in the hope that I could interest a good agent in taking me on. I also wanted to finish that project before Colorado, although there was no particular reason why I needed to wrap it up in May rather than July. Like Nathanson, I continually made “the decision to trade the comfort of sleep for the work of writing.” By the end of May, I had completed and released Cinderella, finalized my book proposal and driven myself into a state of exhaustion.

This is a perfect example of “do as I say, not as I do.” In my work with clients, as we confront the reality of their shame and the personal limitations it may impose, I’m continually reminding them that they must respect those limitations and not take on more than they can manage. I often behave as if I have escaped from my own limitations and can do much more than is actually possible. Sometimes, I can “get away” with it for a while. Then unexpected life events will come along and remind of who I am, pointing out the importance of sleep and rest. If everything goes exactly as planned, you might be able to disregard your limitations, at least for a time, but if an unexpected challenge comes along, you might find yourself in sudden crisis.

Although quite tired, I was “managing” until the day before I left for Chicago to attend my oldest son’s graduation from college. I had worked out on the Nordic Track but forgotten that it makes my hamstrings tighten up; unless I stretch them out, it puts additional stress on my lower back which has a tendency to seize up if I’m not careful. That’s exactly what happened as I bent down in a slightly awkward way. Muscle spasm, major pain — and a plane flight ahead of me the following day. I’m normally able to release this type of spasm with proper stretching and the help naproxin sodium, but nothing I did seemed to help. Then our flight to Chicago was delayed for 8 hours! We arrived at O’Hare after midnight and didn’t get to bed until two a.m. In the morning, I was exhausted and in greater pain.

We will not consider the contributing psychological impact of seeing a beloved child graduate from college and how that might have affected me!

When I returned to Colorado, nothing seemed to alleviate the muscle spasm or the attendant pain. Coincidentally (?), my daughter’s back had also gone into spasm over graduation weekend, so on Monday, I dragged us both to the local medical center where an obliging physican prescribed a muscle relaxant; within a few days, we were both out of pain and more or less back to normal. By that point, I had stopped writing, stopped maintaining the website, stopped playing the piano. A series of house guests consumed my free time for a couple of weeks during this period, so I wasn’t able to get the rest I badly needed. Having “outsiders” in your home, no matter how much you love them, is an emotional strain.

Last week when the final house guests drove off to the Denver airport, I thought I might actually be able to get back on my feet and return to writing. On Monday, I played catchup with paperwork and was planning to update my website the following day; I hoped to resume work on Snow White at the Dwarf Colony as well.

Just before my final session on Tuesday, I received a completely unexpected phone call about a major medical emergency in my family, which meant I had to be on a plane within hours. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to write about the following few days, but suffice it to say that it was one of the most painful and harrowing experiences of my life. I’m good in an emergency; I rose to the occasion and did what needed to be done, but once the ordeal was over, I felt even more exhausted and often found myself on the verge of tears. I’ve been slowly recovering since I returned home — sleeping in, making sure I get some manageable exercise, eating well and drinking less. I’m making sure that I have the resources to be fully present with my clients and do my work, and not to take on more. For the time being, I’m not trading “the comfort of sleep for the work of writing.” Today, after a good night’s sleep, I felt up to writing this post; thoughts about Snow White have begun to bubble up from my unconscious.

Had I been in better shape prior to Colorado and what happened thereafter, I would no doubt have weathered the last month much better than I did. My back probably wouldn’t have gone into spasm; I wouldn’t have felt so often on the verge of exhaustion, so very close to my limits. I wouldn’t have felt my mood darken at points or been so unhappy about a number of realities in my life I normally take in stride. I wouldn’t have felt so demoralized by the realization that agents and mainstream publishers really aren’t interested in my “downer” take on shame, despite all my credentials, publications, and the respectable sales of my first book.

No doubt I’ll once again disavow the lessons of the past month and deceive myself as to why it’s so crucial that I complete one particular task or another, but for now, I’m trying hard to respect my personal limitations and take better care of myself. I’m going to publish this post and take the rest of the day off. It’s a beautiful, mid-summer day in Colorado and I’m going to make the most of it!

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I’m sorry about your pain Joseph, both physical and emotional. I hope things are as good as can be. Thanks for being so honest and true as always,

    take care of yourself,


  2. Your honesty is so refreshing Joseph – thank you for another great post. I wish you all the best in the challenge of taking care of yourself. I too struggle with giving myself the care and attention I so freely give to others…….until life stops me in my tracks and shows me what I’m doing. I’m trying to be a better listener… myself.

  3. Hi Joe ~
    I indeed missed your posts….but we’re all human. Reminds me of my own naiveté, when I used to think about my own doctors believing them all to be super-human, insulated from the aches, pains and illnesses that befall us all.

    Take care – recoup – and remember that time, patience and quietude are one of nature’s best healers.
    Herbert Peress

  4. I hope you get better soon!

    I enjoyed listening to your Cinderella book for awhile on my tablet before falling asleep last night. My limitations have also been pushed way beyond possible lately, and then I just found out my abnormal psych professor will have life support pulled on Monday, which is bubbling up a whole host of painful feelings as that course meant a lot to me in my preparation to become a therapist.

    Remember to be gentle with yourself…so many others and yourself are depending on you.

  5. I’m glad you’re back, even in little spurts! 🙂
    As I was reading your above post, I flashed back to my daily life and my ‘try to do it all’ mentality. It often leaves me bone dry.

    I appreciate your authenticity in sharing your personal experiences. Peeling back the layers to reveal the real life scenarios that you have faced somehow makes me realize “I”m not alone”.

    Rest well!

  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, it helps us to realize what can happen when too much is going on and we become overwhelmed, i always feel like it never rains , but it pours, problems come all at once and I get overwhelmed.

  7. I’ve missed your posts! And I’m sorry to hear what a grueling month it has been. No wonder! I appreciate your honest writing about stretching yourself too thin, setting yourself up for exhaustion and as a result, not having sufficient physical or emotional reserves to manage well when the unexpected happens on top of it all. Been there done that – at a similar stage in life with some similar events. And I never want it to happen again.

    Your concluding paragraph began with, “No doubt I’ll once again disavow the lessons of the past month and deceive myself …” That gives me a lot of hope as a reality check against all-or-nothing thinking. I believe I’ve experienced significant growth in the past few years (since my own watershed series of crises) thanks to therapy and considerable self-reflection. (Your website and book have been part of that – thank you!) Now as much as I would like to think that such growth means that I will never again fall prey to such self-deception so as to be my own worst enemy, I’m slowly learning to hold the good with the bad. To accept that my strengths and the most noble impulses at work within me also coexist side-by-side with some parts of myself I’d rather not acknowledge. And that my continued health and growth means a willingness to see these things and not turn away. To not reject MYSELF, in other words.

    So thank you for this post of yours. Good to know that even the most insightful therapists struggle with such things in their personal lives. Thank you for writing about it. And thank you for offering up a hopeful and healthy outlook toward the future, limitations and failings and all.

    1. I find it crucial not to have an idealized view of mental health. None of us can do it perfectly, and if we can all acknowledge the continuing struggle in a real way, without pretending to have it “all together,” it’s such a relief!

  8. I’m genuinely sorry to hear all that Jo – here was me thinking you were taking a well-earned summer break as we Scots are. (Unusually for Scotland it’s hot and sunny, so we’re all running round like eedjits with glakit (stupid) grins on our sunburned faces.)

    I always say of visitors ‘It’s lovely to see them arrive and lovely to see them go’, yet alone with everything else you talk of to deal with. I don’t know whey we take on so: sometimes it’s happenstance, and it sounds like too much came at once. There seems to be a need to stand up and be counted, or just ‘get on with it’ but when we inevitably don’t manage it, we just prove we are human, hideously mortal, and knackered to boot. I know if I manage to conquer everything on the To Do list I feel a little bit invincible, immortal once again. It invites failure but is so bloody tempting!

    It was of course easier to cram too much in when younger, which really stinks.

    I have a weekly timesheet from my late twenties which has 108 hours clocked on it. One ‘night’ I actually planned to get 3 hours sleep under my desk… At 29 I was still immortal, invincible. Well, for 5 minutes. My boss soon put me back in my box, and I got no thanks for all that work. Didn’t even a day or two off.

    Now at 46 I would tell said Boss where to stick it, even if I could do those hours now – which I can’t. Tried it last year and flagged at 60 hours! As for ‘mainstream’, think ‘profit, targets, safety in numbers’. To be interesting and relevant is different. That takes risk, and risk is not a good measure of value: just look at the world’s current muddle. I suspect you know this though. So bloody difficult to see it in ourselves, eh?

    1. It is difficult to recognize that I no longer have the same stamina I did in my 20s. I guess I need to add denial of aging to all the other factors at work here!

      Thanks for the reminder about the difference between profitable and interesting/relevant. I too often lose sight of it when I see other writers I know being successful and making a living at their metier.

    2. Is it stamina or self-worth? Probably a bit of both.

      Any feelings of invincibility were squashed in five minutes so it was completely illusory at 29! While I think we can ‘slog it out’ when asked to do such blatantly abusive hours, it requires age and insight to value what we do and can achieve. That is why I would tell an employer where to go at 46, aside from flagging at a (respectably ridiculous) 60 hours. The invincibility was always an illusion: I was just to naîve to see it when young.

  9. I had the same situation in my writing so clearly understand the feelings described and even the pain on the back. I want to wish you to overcome it successfully! Also I have several observation which could be helpful.
    1 – physically writing, playing piano and others activity requires to support the back by appropriate muscles. According to yoga, acupuncture etc that muscles also responsible to provide the energy of the body and the will. That`s why it could overwork and have a spasm without special exercise (like yoga or pranayama) or changing the pose. For example as I know myself as a person uncare to own health, I change the work pose, painting laying on belly. Not so comfortable for work but prevents back problems.

    2 – sometimes it could be a prise to turn plans into reality. Sometimes it`s a small one, sometimes not so. Who knows may be it was the best time to make a project completely? 3 months ago I did 21 big paintings in 5 weeks, it was the amount I do in an year. I payed by 3 weeks being ill. But it was the only right moment to do the project so I coped with the price even as I don`t like it.

    3 – Complex of factors with the exception of described above.
    Wish you to overcome everything includes feelings about agents and publishers. Hope it will be the way next day, next month, because the job is finished and will rise one day.
    Concerns to overcome limits… Creation is the way to overcome own limits, so it seems creative people getting involved in such waterfall needs a kind of special trening or discipline… I am trying to gain it with my yoga and hope it is possible… especially if you describe an analysis of such process one day. Good luck!

    1. Your number (2) is where I am prone to deceive myself, offering justifications for why I HAVE to work so hard right now.

      I know that I need to do yoga. I have a set of stretches that I’ve learned but I would like to have a more regular practice. But right now, the thought of trying to fit something else into my schedule feels like another burden.

      1. So we should pay the price, isn`t it?
        Sometimes it is not so big, for example… sometimes I know how to make the price less doing yoga and an appropriate breathing technigue, but many times I failed the system. Even being a yoga practitioner I must confess everything fail when the creation stream comes… May be it`s something new creative people should learn: how to be out of borders but don`t be a prisoner of such freedom… I don`t know. It seems a good Buddhist way.

        Just trying to understand it and then do everything right in good proportion. It seems the chemistry of human brain make such effect (dopamin etc reactions). I felt something like physical compulsion doing creation without a minute to take a breath.
        If you found the psychological reasons for it please don`t hesitate to publish it. So complicated thing it is despite the exercise itself is not complicated and also needs not so many time… a lot of DVD yoga to do it at home… No real reason to avoid it, but it seems the real reason exists.
        Looking forward to you investigations while I am doing mine. May be it will be interesting to compare results.

    2. I’ve been thinking this thread for a while since it rang a lot of bells, especially thinking of your later blog post on hyperactive states, Dr J.

      Personally I’ve never found the creative work I’ve done in a ‘hyper’ state to be of any less worth than work done under normal time pressures. All that happens is my output is sporadic and patchy, it’s deeply stressful and only fleetingly satisfying. I end up feeling lost and worthless, usually for longer than the ‘creative period’.

      I wonder what you feel like after ‘paying the price’ Anna: do you find it worth it, or do you just accept it? Can you perceive of creating work as a matter of course?

      Retrospectively I can personally see no difference in the quality of my work created when hyper: I see no more insight, nor application finesse. I could let my heightened emotional state put extra value on my work, but I think that’s erroneous. I also notice I’m more ‘balanced’ in my output when working with others: my hyper states are a lonely affair.

      Worse still, there is a random quality to creativity that seems to be outside my control. The best stuff is often done exploring, when I’m playful and don’t mind what happens. All of this is contrary to work done when hyper – well for me.

      I worked as a studio manager for a number of years, and a large part of the job was working to create a conducive atmosphere for staff to work in. There can be a lot of hyperactivity, bitching and sneering in studios, so much of my task was to nurture, encourage and reward, as well as jump on spitefulness (which was usually insecurity and a lack of focus) to provide a ‘creatively safe’ and exciting place to work. I encouraged staff prone to overwork to find a life away from their desk as well: creative hothousing causes burn-out. OK – you can’t always. On a big pitch, things get very close, very tense and helping to keep a realistic perspective is a big part of the job but there are usually tears. (Literally.)

      If you think all this sounds like managing kids, you’d be right, but then I’ve always suspected that the best designers and artists access their creativity through child-like qualities: playfulness, exploration and fearlessness. As a manager I made it clear that exploring meant getting it wrong as well as right, but that was okay, and that it was important to respond and really be yourself. And to have a life away from the desk/easel: diversification adds perspective, colour and balance.

      I find it’s a lot harder to manage just myself: I guess I find it harder to stand back!

  10. How wonderfully human. Thank you for letting us in on your experience. As a medical massage therapist I am often confronted with clients running themselves into the ground. They become so completely driven. Then suddenly their tank is empty, reserves are spent and the engine siezes up. I also often have to remind myself to listen to the words coming out of my own mouth regarding self care and balance.

  11. Somehow your story reminds me of when I go backpacking. I pack all this stuff that I think I’ll need and then the backpack is so heavy it almost makes the trip a chore. Then I don’t use a lot of the stuff I take.
    Also, I wonder how all of this would of turned out without that 8 hour flight delay.

    1. Gordon, it probably would have been easier without the 8 hour delay … but then, what I say to my clients (and to myself, if I’ll listen!) is that, because you never know what unexpected challenge might come up, you can’t always be pushing yourself up against your limits. Life can throw you a curve ball that will throw you right over the edge so you need to leave yourself some reserves.

  12. Dear Joseph,

    I discovered your site about two months ago, as I began a course of treatment for my third episode of major depression. I’ve been participating in weekly therapy for 2.5 years addressing family of origin issues that I know trigger these depressions. We have much in common: my mother (now deceased) was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder with narcissistic traits in the mid-70s but refused to continue with therapy. My father’s inability to cope with this and the rest of life’s pressures led him into the downward spiral of alcoholism.

    Your many posts, and the comments of the other visitors here, have been of tremendous value as I continue to probe my issues, learn about their origins within my family, and work steadfastly to heal. Facing limitations, processing and releasing shame, and learning self-nurturing skills are major areas of work for me. Although I have always admired many of my own traits and accomplishments, and I don’t actively dislike myself, my present focus is to *feel* real love for myself as I carry out my self-care and continue healing — to love myself for being rather than admire myself only for producing, for doing. To generate satisfying feelings through outer work output is an easy escape from the deep inner work that continues for so many of us. That this escape happens to coincide with a real source of life satisfaction makes it especially tempting. It’s no wonder then that even the most mindful lose balance and forget limitations periodically….

    Thank you for writing about this so personally, too, and modeling self-awareness, reflection and the need for periodic “mid-course” corrections. I’m sending you positive thoughts that you continue to recover from your recent physical and emotional challenges. And I promise to rest more and honor my own health and limitations if you will do so, too, Joseph.

    Fond regards to all here, and yours in the hard, beautiful work of healing,

  13. Coming into contact with our own personal limitations seems like something we all must face time and time again — no matter how well we think we have learned this particular lesson already. Thank you for sharing your disappointments and vulnerabilities with us, Joe. Hoping you’ll have a more restful time for a solid while.

  14. I’m reluctant to post a comment as to respect your need for rest and not add any more to your “to do” however little time it would take to read and approve of a comment. However, I’m compelled to comment on the synchronicity of this post to my own internal process at this time. I’ve been a long time reader but been unusually busy myself and haven’t kept up with reading your blog for a few months it seems. But each time a post hits my email, I’m at least reminded of reading. Just yesterday, I was dealing with matters of respecting my own limitations AND it came to mind that you hadn’t posted for a while now. My thoughts were — glad he’s taking a breather and hope all is well otherwise. Your “?” On the coincidental injury of your daughter was as well a touch on synchronicity of it all to me. Glad to hear your voice again, in the literal as well as contextual sense. Enjoy the beautiful Colorado summer days!

  15. Hi Joe,

    I now regret not sending you my regards when I had noticed the blog had gone quiet (especially after you responded recently to one of my comments with ‘it’s been a rough few weeks’). I had thought of you and wondered if all was okay (often visiting the page in the hope that I would see new comments from you) but initially I presumed this was what happened when you went away for the summer – that you concentrated maybe on writing and relaxing and less on the blog. I let my own self-esteem issues affect my behaviour as well because I always think people will assume I am being nosey and looking for ‘gossip’… this of course is never the case, there was genuine concern and I didn’t follow through with showing it. Considering the time and effort you have gone to with responding to my comments – that was inconsiderate of me, I am sorry about that. I guess it was easy for me to forget that you are human and can have ups and downs like the rest of us – I would feel like I could not offer you anything in way of support but I can see now that no matter what profession you have you are still vulnerable and have needs. Even if that means me dropping a line saying I hoped you were okay.

    I do hope that you are feeling a little more ‘yourself’ both in your mind and body and that you have been able to take time to recuperate. It sounds like you’ve been through a great deal and it has affected you in a number of ways, including your faith in yourself! Please don’t give up on the possibility of a publishing deal – there just needs to be that one publisher who has the insight to see what you have to offer. History holds stories of many great and inspirational people who overcame hundreds of knockbacks before breaking through to success.

    Sending you warm wishes,

  16. Take care of yourself. All books can wait – like wine they improve over a certain period of time.

  17. A wonderfully honest and truthful account of a painful time in your life. Thank you for sharing this as it allows me to see that we are all human and that no-one is perfect, not even a Psychotherapist.

  18. Hi Tony,
    One more Nathanson/Affect Script Psychology adherent chiming in to say I am glad you survived your ordeals and I appreciate your honesty. Sometimes I feel disqualified to speak/write because I do not always practice what I suggest to others. It feels shameful to have made the mistakes I’ve made and then to try to help others see a better way. And yet, wouldn’t it be worse to keep silent when we know how powerful a small word of encouragement can be.

    1. If you and I can model ongoing effort, even if we can’t do it “perfectly,” that’s a good thing. All any of us can do is try, and try to learn from our mistakes.

  19. Hi, Dr. Burgo. I am sorry about your family emergency. Unfortunately, due to family of origin damage these situations are traumatizing. Take really good care of yourself. I hope you know that people are drawn to your work and writing because you present your true self and we benefit from your aha! Insight. Just wanted you to know my husband is referencing what he has read in Why Do I Do That! and applying it in his life. My husband has a Narcissistic Mum so he is hanging on to boundaries to cope. We all have times in life that are majorly stressful and you are doing well in taking care of yourself. Enjoy Colarado big time. You need a retreat!
    Meanwhile, I am behind in my reading and group work but, know why and have respected the need to take a break. It’s good to know we are all human and have the same needs to be healthy. Nurturing is necessary.

    All the Best,


    P.S. I do not need a reply. ;0) You get to accept the support without feeling the need to give back. It’s all good.

  20. Your last sentence is the most important for we who are “driven personalities”: It’s a beautiful, mid-summer day in Colorado (Southern California in my case) and I’m going to make the most of it!

    How often do we neglect those beautiful moments to drive ourselves to exhaustion?

    I’m a casual reader of your posts, and have never been in therapy. I enjoy the insights. They truly make my life more meaningful.

    Thank you. Welcome back!

  21. Joseph,
    So sorry to hear all that you have been going through and I hope that life is quiet for a bit. Thank you so much for this post. I saw so much of myself in what you said, and I appreciate more than I can say your willingness to be vulnerable and address your own struggles so openly. You have provided a valuable model of self-care for me. And congratulations on your son’s graduation. My oldest daughter also just graduated from college and I understand the amazing bittersweetness of the event. I have bought a Kindle copy of your book and put it on my “stack.” I am looking very forward to reading it.


  22. Hi J, I’d not been concerned about your not blogging ‘cz I figured you were relaxing and enjoying Colorado. Little did I know …
    I’m glad you’re good in emergencies, and that your body got your attention, to let go unnecessary tension and worry. It’s been Real wet here, so different from the beautiful and relaxing weather and times in Colorado. Have fun, and don’t write until the time is right.
    Warmly, bd

  23. My advice is to read, eat (exactly what sounds good to you), and walk. I hope things get better soon, and it’s so nice to read your words again.

  24. Am new to your site, so did not notice any absence – but my goodness, what a month. Praying things are better for you. Glad you are giving yourself some time to relax. I live in upstate New York, extremely hot here.

  25. “No doubt I’ll once again disavow the lessons of the past month and deceive myself . . .”

    Dear Joe,

    Lately I’m struggling to hold onto insights rather than slip back into self deception as well. Your blog has helped me make some sense of things when I slow down enough to reflect a bit. Reading content that hits too close to home, I often drift off to sleep no matter how strong my intention to face truths. I had a long road trip this weekend dropping off a beloved child at a 3 week residential summer camp and took advantage of the solo drive home to finally face up and listen to the unabridged version of Gabor Mate’s ‘When the Body Says No.’ I purchased the audio version almost a year ago now after several failed attempts to read the library’s copy. When taking time to take care of yourself reading or listening to this work may be beneficial for you too.

    Don’t worry about this reader. I certainly prefer you pause and care for yourself and your family as long as necessary. When you return to blogging I’ll still be here reading.

    Take care,

  26. I’ve been worried about you, Dr. Burgo! Glad to hear you are making your way back to feeling better. I often act like I don’t have limitations either. I hate it when I realize that I do have limitations; that I am not super-human after all.

    By the way, I would LOVE to read your “downer” shame book. I actually think your take on shame is not a downer at all–it is so much better to feel like I am truly understood (shame-wise)than to be fed the same old garbage about how one day I will “get past” it all and turn into some perfect, shiny person. Ugh.

    Keep on taking care of yourself, Dr. B.

      1. I resonate with that too, I’m very sick of this unattainable ideal being presented as a goal. I’ve found a lot more peace from understanding my limits and respecting them. And in doing that have taken more risks than have ever done before because my self understanding and self care is a lot stronger. I wholeheartedly agree, I am looking forward to reading your book, and I know I will learn as I have done from your previous books, thanks again Dr Burgo.

  27. I just spoke with my therapist today about knowing and respecting our limitations (my back also went out this week). I am amazed at the discipline it takes to NOT wear ourselves out. Whether it’s, “I’ll write just one more page,” or “I’ll move just one more boulder,” you would think that we who are old enough to have grown children would be seeking more relaxation — not more stress!

    May we all work to be well!


  28. thoughts are with you and enjoy your summer, hopefully taking a learning with you for the future, good to hear from from you



  29. Hello

    I find it very interesting to read through the articles on this website, and I think many are very insightful.
    I have a question for Joe – I wonder how, or if at all, you see faith/spirituality tying in with many of the issues you address here, which I think fundamentally address how we should best live our life, how we can be happy, how we can best “become the person we were created to be”.
    I myself approach this as a Catholic and it is interesting that so much of what you say ties in with Catholic belief/teaching. In my opinion I think that is because both are addressing the basic human condition – what it is to be human!
    I am just interested to hear your take on this, if you have one? I know some people might consider this question a bit personal, please don’t answer if you’d rather not.

    1. Hi Sarah. No, it is not too personal to ask. I’ve written about my views on religion and psychotherapy in another post you might not have read. You can find it here. I agree about addressing the basic human condition. Where my views differ from, say, Catholicism, is when religion tries to impose absolute “moral” values that seem to be sexist, oppressive or guilt-inducing.

  30. Dear Dr. Burgo,

    I am very sorry to hear what you had to go through. I did visit your website several times during the past weeks, saw that there were no updates and thought “oh, he is off to Colorado, having a good time”.
    Reading about your reality, I so wish you had had that good, carefree time I thought you were having. Next summer, please do it next summer, okay?

    Your post about respecting ones personal limitations comes at a very crucial time for me. I have also disrespected my personal limits in a very unresponsible way a few weeks ago, and I am still paying for it.
    Due to arrested development in early pregnancy, my OB decided that I needed to have a D&C at a hospital. Only two days before surgery, I learned that it had to be done under general anesthesia. Knowing myself very well, it was clear to me that I would have a very hard time dealing with the total loss of control, so I asked my OB if there were alternatives. She said no. At the hospital, I did not ask for alternatives another time, thinking what my OB had told me was the truth. I endured everything, including a very unprofessional kind of touching by a male doctor during the final examination. All of the time, I was thinking: “Don’t make a fuss. The hospital staff is extremely busy. I want it to be over quickly. I can handle it. I can handle it.”
    Afterwards I had to realize that I can not handle it. Not at all. The grief for the lost pregnancy I perceive as someting natural, something that comes and goes like the tide. It makes me sad, yes, but it does not keep me awake at night.
    But the way it was done… it was the most other-directed, impersonal and humiliating thing I have ever allowed to happen to me. And I did allow it to happen, did not recognize my own limits, did not protect my boundaries. All because I thought I needed to function.
    There is no need to function all the time.
    Please have a better summer next year, Joseph.

  31. Hi Joe, thanks for another brilliant and honest post. I do this a lot too, set deadlines for myself which don’t exist, try and fit a million things into a week and arrange to meet people, have family over when I often need valuable time to myself. I have been exploring the reasons I do this recently. I think for me it’s about hiding from undesirable feelings and creating chaos which was the theme of my child hood. I also think that when parents have not been available emotionally or even taken an interest in anything it creates a panic mode. Everything has to get done because who s going to be there to pick up the pieces when it all goes wrong? As for the publishers who are not interested in shame. Of course there not going to be interested, shame is such a difficult subject maybe for them to be interested would mean they would have to address their own difficult issues with shame. I feel this has no reflection on you and I personally think your writing is brilliant. I’m giving the middle finger to those publishers on your behalf! : )

    1. Thanks, Andrea. Publishers are interested in shame if you make it upbeat (Brene Brown) or offer way to heal or cure it completely (Bradshaw). Nobody wants to hear about lasting scars!

  32. Glad to hear that you are ok Joseph. I did wonder why things were quiet your end but I thought you might be taking a break as you’re on holidays. Sorry to hear you had so many stressful events.
    I know all too well about the issue of not respecting my limitations. I have M.E./fibromyalgia (called CFS in the US I think). Although doctors claim they don’t know the cause of it I think it’s caused by chronic stress and not respecting our limitations. Now, I do respect my limitations but only because I have too. How I wished I had listened to my body many years ago!

    Anyway good to have you back and do take care.

  33. Dear Doc…. you not switching off much all the same now are you??!

    I am doing a not getting to sleep on time here now. but I will get enough sleep for tomorrow.
    Your experience reminds me to wise up next few days as I have a thesis deadline to submit and am leaving it late without factoring any possible life demands that might come my way in the meantime.

    Joe – when I read your post what struck me was when you said you were ‘on the verge of crying’ or tears… I find if I can release the tears, crying -I then a} can feel immense relief and b} it tunes me into my body better and I am more likely to do what I need to do – rest, eat, sleep etc whatever, after I have released the emotional affect. I sometimes push back the crying to either avoid what I IMAGINE is unbearable (tears always make it bearable) or to continue on in that ‘ I must keep going’ mode. Sometimes when we most need to PAUSE… is when we push ourselves even further.

    I hope you can access that sadness, distress and shock of whatever medical crises called you away. That you can cry whatever needs to be felt and so process it easier.

    Of course I assume your life is just completely hassle free……and presumed you were on vacation…..

    Be kind to yourself. Oh – today I started a yoga class – Iyerengu or something like that – a kind of mixture, mostly stretches. I have been relaxed ALL DAY SINCE – my entire body has unwound and I am more flexible already. I kept putting it off – too busy etc like you said. I went RELUCTANTLY today – so much other busyness I could have been getting hooked into. After the class I realised I have needed to do this long before now. Now I cant even understand how I got myself into a state of thinking I was too busy for ME. just one hour……. think about it. A small class of two to five would be perfect for you maybe….
    gentle yoga, stretches….. then its done. dont pressure yourself to think you have to practice every day……baby steps. Get a class once a week. worry about more regular practice once you are well established in the weekly class. I cannot recommend it enough and yesterday I would have said ‘oh I should go to this bloody yoga class having paid for it’.
    After the class Joe – I realised I badly and I mean badly needed it. You’re tired, You think a class will be too hard, too much, no energy for it. The exact opposite will happen. Sounds like you might be ripe to get a great benefit even from the first class as I did. I was so tired, over worked etc – this was when I most needed to go… therapy Joe…… when you least want it you probably most need it?????


  34. Hi Joe,

    I guess it´s rather crucial to accept that those things just happen in life. To me the important point is to remind ourselves that we all grow older and lose strength and health so that after all we have to accept those things to happen if we want to live our life to the fullest. I think if we were aware of limitations and health all the time (which has become a current rhetoric nowadays) we would prevent life to happen to a certain degree, don´t you think? I guess those people who excessively devote themselves to health and sustainability secretely assume that they will never die 😀

    1. I agree about the excessive devotion to health and sustainability. I guess the trick is to find the right balance, something I haven’t been so good at of late.

  35. Hello Dr Joe! Thanks for this post and I’m so happy that everything is ok (assuming everything is ok). I also appreciate your honesty and willingness to share so openly. I also am glad you are taking the rest you need. I am from Colorado and have been in the mountains often this summer and I can’t tell you how much it renews me to breath the crisp air and gaze and the blue sky.
    I wanted to mention something I sensed which you can respond to or not. When I was reading this post I kept thinking about your post on self pity. It struck me that this post may be a culmination of what seemed like a lot of pressure you were putting on yourself at that time. Of course the post on self pity had a lot of truth to it but it seemed to me you were being awfully harsh in some way. You labeled it self pity but I wonder if you look back on it if you have the same feeling. Was it the start of some denial about how much you were putting on yourself? I know this is very un-expert couch psychology but I just wondered what you thought. I wonder how early I would be able to see the signs of heading towards complete self exhaustion and if it would be helpful to catch myself in the act of running into the burning building. Anyway, glad to see you back!

    1. Thanks, Kim. I think that the self-pity has similar roots in the anger I described in my subsequent post. See if my description there answers your questions; if not, let me know.

  36. Dear Joseph, Hi from Sunshine Coast, Queensland
    Australia… I’m a new reader to your blog…
    But even in the short time I have read your
    Words, and others.. I have felt a strong connection
    To the authentic sharing.
    Sorry to hear of your pain over this last month
    Or so.. And hope you continue to “allow” yourself
    To self- nourish..

  37. I’m sorry to hear about the hard time that you have been having lately. I hope all was resolved with the medical emergency. I can empathize with you. I recently had a ‘nervous breakdown’ of sorts and I felt unhinged for a while. I had been pushing myself past my limitations for about a year and a half in a very stressful environment, had no social support and was neglecting myself. I had started binge eating as a way to soothe myself. One of the smallest things sort of broke me. I hope that you enjoy your time in Colorado and I hope that you get lots of rest and downtime.

    1. We all have our “breaking points” and we’re all vulnerable to breakdowns if we drive ourselves too hard. Nervous breakdowns aren’t experienced only by people with serious mental disorders. Sometimes a breakdown can be a breakthrough if we’re able to learn from it. Thanks for the good wishes.

  38. Great to have you back ! I have noticed your absence but assumed it was vacation related. I too had an awful episode last year with my physical health(neck, back, abdominal issues). I was very down but I refused to acknowledge or do anything constructive about my depression so my body made it abundantly clear how much pain I was in. (Pain killers don’t work when the pain in your muscles are psychic sadness/anger). I did hit the gym pretty hard but my thoughts were often angry or sad and I could feel them migrating to those calf muscles as I pedalled harder to banish them. Is it easier for us to address physical pain rather than mental anguish?

    The physical toll mental distress and exhaustion places on the body became very real to me when a close family member “became” paralysed from the neck down (for some considerable hours) because they were extremely anxious(waiting for nearly 24 hours in emergency) for medical assistance. This got the hospital’s attention and she was subsequently diagnosed by a neurologist with “conversion disorder”. I have never felt such relief and confusion in my life when this wonderful woman dragged the person from the bed and made them move up and down the ward with assistance. The family member fully recovered except for “a bad leg” that took a few weeks to (in her mind) heal. Therapy was accessed to help them manage their thoughts. Big emphasis placed on mindfulness and CBT and riding the wave of anxious thoughts. No dramas since and the person is very happy and confident.

    Finally, I have just finished reading Ruby Wax’s excellent “Sane New World” Taming the mind”. She argues that mindfulness has helped her in her battle with depression and that includes mindfully exercising, noticing in your body what your muscles et al are doing. Being a comedian she provides a very funny take on how our thoughts beat us up (including physically). Let them go and be fully present with whatever you are doing and listen to all the “stuff” that makes up you, including your hamstrings. If your body feels the need to rest do so mindfully or suffer the consequences. Pain is a great teacher in the sense that it gets us to pay attention and deal with it. We are not our minds. Our minds are a part of us that we can choose to control or observe but not be enslaved by. Take care and I look forward to whenever you are able to post your pearls of wisdom.

    1. “Pain is a great teacher in the sense that it gets us to pay attention and deal with it.”

      I couldn’t agree more and continually “forget” this important piece of wisdom.

  39. Joseph,

    I’m so sorry to hear about the medical emergency with your family member and so feel for you about your back. I have sciatica that is chronic, but acute can send me to the ceiling in seconds! LOL!

    It’s really not funny, but excrutiating when back problems occur. Self care is a very difficult thing for me, even today after growing up in a pathological home and having spent the majority of my life in pathological relationships. I do believe the unrelenting stress played a part in the autoimmune illnesses I have today, so self care means SELF. CARE. That’s hard because I too, am very driven and as a writer, I sometimes deceive myself and tell myself I’m indulging in self care as I type from bed when moving isn’t an option.

    I hope things settle soon…well, at least to the point where you can remember to rest and take care of you. I find I’m not at my empathic best when I’m not well or exhausted.

    Thank you for your post.

    1. I find the empathy issue can go either way: sometimes when I’m really tired, I also find I’m “not at my empathic best,” as you put. But on other occasions when I’m tired, I find that I become much more porous and surprisingly in tune, as if the exhaustion has stripped away my more cognitive functions and made me more intuitively available.

  40. I’m sorry for the pain you had to endure recently, and glad to hear you are feeling better.

    I’ve struggled with intense back pain for years, and I am 100% certain that the root cause is un-acknowledged emotional pain. There have been times where I literally could not walk because of the pain in my low back and/or legs. Then doing some thinking about what it is I might be holding back emotionally relieves that pain at least enough to get me mobile. The back also strikes almost like clockwork when my therapist goes away on vacation.

    My sister and brother-in-law have two sons. One has been out of college for two years and the other will be a senior this year. Both absolutely wonderful young men. The day they sent my youngest nephew off to college, my brother-in-law’s back seized up so badly that he could not move. I mean, he had to be ambulanced to the hospital it was so bad.

    They gave him an MRI. The doctor met with him and said, “not only is your spine in perfect shape, but you have the spine of a 22 year old.” My BIL insisted this must be mistake and demanded a 2nd MRI. No surprise, same result.

    Eventually, the pain went away, but it took like 5 months. He refused to consider the pain had anything to do with seeing his last child “out of the nest.”

    So many people seem to prefer to ignore the role unfelt or unacknowledged emotional stuff can cause tremendous physical pain. I’m glad you are self-aware enough to know how these things influence one another.

    1. Your account of your brother-in-law’s back problems really illustrates the power of “psychosomatic” pain and how most people have no idea about its meaning. I’m glad that you, too, are self-aware enough to see how experiences in your life play out in your back.

  41. It is obvious you are doing what you love to do, that you push because it means a great deal to you and those engaged in life with you. Your willingness to share the accumulated knowledge is a gift to all of us “out there”; your perspective and the shared thoughts of the commentators helps me clarify my own. I hope your downtime rests, restores, and inspires you with new insights. Enjoy the fireflies of summer.

    1. Hey Beth. The fireflies are back in North Carolina — along with the heat, humidity, mosquitoes and ticks! Out here, we’ve got hummingbirds and ospreys that circle above us, then swoop down on the river as they hunt for their young. It is inspirational and restoring. Thanks!

  42. Hugs, Joseph, for your difficult month. Glad to see you’re taking care of yourself once again. If you’ll pardon a question from a layperson about what drove you to work (and exercise) so hard, do you think your son’s upcoming graduation had anything to do with it? I was curious because in your post, you said you were managing right up until then. (Not withstanding of course the effect of the flight).

    1. Yes, I do think my son’s graduation had something to do with it. I’m still considering the implications, but wanting him to be proud of his father’s success, too, is a big part of it.

      1. Wow – I couldn’t imagine him being anything BUT proud of everything you’ve done, AND of who you are … don’t you think? Mind you, I think if we struggle with being proud of our own accomplishments (and who doesn’t?? Do even psychologists as yourself struggle there?) , it’s hard to hold onto the idea that the ones who love us most will be. You must hold him in very high regard; I bet he thinks the world of you.

        1. I do hold him in high regard, and vice versa, but I’ve lately come to realize he’s also quite competitive with me. I think he aspires to have the kind of life that I have … and I hope he will find a way to get it!

      2. Cheryl’s comment reminds me of how easy it is to recognize and accept our love for our children, and how difficult it is to recognize (and try to accept) our ambivalence within these all-important, close relationships: our fears, jealousies, anger, competitiveness, curiosities, doubts, insecurities about -you name it, etc. – it’s all in there along with our care and support, joy, hopes, deep love. Congratulations on your son’s graduation. Don’t fret, they keep growing and returning in various ways (raising our fears of aging). I remember putting myself through college, gradually letting go of much of “the blaming of the parents”, graduating and facing difficult life events/decisions. Scary. I bet you remember all those transitional times well…Lots of triggering. Lots.

        1. Thanks, Beth. Nobody wants to have those other, difficult feelings — fear, jealousy, anger, competitiveness, etc. — but you’re right, it’s all there, whether or not you like it.

  43. Dr. Burgo,
    I have to admit that I was triggered by a post you wrote quite awhile ago about bringing up shame in people with BPD, and how they have a kind of shame door-knob unleashing that left you with all of the shame to sit with (:. I am now with a therapist who focuses a lot on shame and on validating my emotions. It has made a huge difference, although the shame still gets me and I have a lot of work to do.

    I wanted to tell you how your post felt then, but I suppose it was too much for me to put into words that would allow anyone else to hear them, and I apologize for that. I do believe that I have done this with my therapist, and maybe vice versa also.

    I am of the belief that shame is not only alive in the patient, but also in the therapist, as you have so poignantly pointed out. I think we all carry it around with us to some degree, and when it enters the therapy room if neither party is aware, it is a fight to see who has to hold it until the next appointment. However, once it is named for what it is, realizing that we just have to sit with our own shame is key here, but is difficult as hell. I love that you are bringing shame to the foreground, because that is where it needs to be. I have made a lot progress because shame is a focus, and I thank you for bringing up shame and how it impacts pretty much all of us. Thank you for making a difference, Jill

    1. You’re welcome, Jill. I like what you said about who is going to hold the shame until the next appointment. When therapist and client can be TOGETHER in their shame, it can be a powerful, healing experience.

  44. Limitations? What limitations? I don’t even recognize my own limitations, or don’t admit to them, as I continue to plod along like “goody 2 shoes” in my quest to take care of my narcissistic vindictive mother who is in “hate” mode right now. I resent her and have butterflies in my stomach just thinking about talking to her, dread her phone calls with her incessant criticism and abuse, and yet I don’t know how to disengage! What is my payoff, I wonder – to try to absolve myself of the guilt I feel for disliking her so much? Perhaps. I have been helping her for the past 6 months moving to an ALF, selling her furniture and condo, traveling 100 miles to and from her location once a week or more, all while holding a full-time job! I must have limitations, but I don’t acknowledge them. And so I put it out there for anyone to comment: What is my payoff? Why do I not disengage? Is it because she is now too old and it’s too late? I’ve put up with it all my life, and now to abandon her would be cruel? I wish I could escape. I wish this would stop. And she doesn’t even acknowledge her abuse, and blames me for things that have never happened. It hurts.

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