We all know what it’s like to be stuck in lives that are too small for us… Here’s how to get out.
“I feel like I’m living in a cage.”
There are some transcendent human experiences – experiences that straddle cultures, countries and history.
The feeling that comes when a mother looks in her child’s eyes for the first time is the same here as it is in China, as it was in Rome 2,000 years ago.
There are things we can all relate to. Watching your crush walk off in the arms of another. Watching your child’s first steps. Watching your team come from 4 goals down at three-quarter time to take out the flag.
And I think this is another one: The feeling that your life is just too small for you.
In this particular case, I was talking to a mate who was having some trouble at home. He and his wife were arguing about a particular career move he wanted to make – a move that would have meant less money and less job security, but more freedom and creativity.
She was having trouble coming to the party, and I could get that. With three small kids her appetite for risk was probably at a life-time low. That’s perfectly natural.
And my mate could see that too. Still, it felt like he was being stifled – held back from the life he really wanted to be living.
And I feel like I should give another example now. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m playing into a “wives are a handbrake” trope. I’m sure just as many women as men feel limited by their partner.
I mean, even my mate’s wife probably felt limited in this situation. “I just want to be free to love my kids and relax into our life, but numnuts here wants to go an quit his job and tip over the whole apple cart.”
But as I said, and based on my experience, I think this feeling that our lives are too small for us is fairly universal. It’s a very common experience. So I think there is a jewel of understanding here – something here that might will shed light on the whole human condition.
So let’s go looking for it.
For me, the first place I want to go looking is in our social mind.
If we have a feeling that our life is a cage, then the walls have been built by other people.
Like, I sometimes wish there wasn’t so much gravity around, so I could fly like the condor my spirit really longs to be.
(Soar, spirit-bird, soar.)
But despite the limitations gravity puts on my life, I don’t really feel ‘caged in’ by it. I never lose sleep over it.
And that’s just one of the restrictions placed on my physical body. Human is a pretty limited experience. I’m marooned on the land-masses of a watery planet, confined to the more pleasant climatic ranges, with my movements defined by current technological limits and my own capacity to endure red-eye flights.
But you know, that’s just how it is. It doesn’t plant the seeds of dissatisfaction in my soul…
… the way social limitations do.
And social limitations themselves come in different flavours as well. We could call them ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.
The hard limits are encoded in law or contained in explicit cultural expectations. So I don’t steal stuff, or drive on the right hand side of the road, because that’s against the law.
I also don’t cock my leg and let rip with a massaman-curry-flavoured-fart on a crowded tram. Not that there’s a law against that or anything. But there’s a pretty clear cultural understanding that that kind of thing is not ok.
(We’re a sophisticated culture.)
Interestingly, even though these hard limitations are more heavily enforced, I don’t really feel like they impinge on my life.
I mean road rules literally determine where I can go and how fast I move. That’s a pretty tight constraint. But most the time I don’t even think about it.
So that brings us to the soft limitations – the binds on our life that emerge from complex and nuanced social relationships:
The expectation that you’re not going to make risky career moves when your family is depending on you.
The expectation that you’re not going to invite Bryan, the PT from the gym, out for a drink, even though you’re totally just friends and totally both ok with the attraction you feel towards each other.
The reluctance to enrol in that art class because that kind of stuff makes your partner feel insecure.
The way you don’t tell your family about the new investment course you’re taking, because you get the sense that they’d prefer it if you were poor, like them.
The decision that you’re not going to challenge your mother in law on her interfering, because that just triggers her insecurities, and creates whole worlds of drama.
The social world is complex and navigating it is hard. We are constantly having to make concessions against our own instincts and our own interests, just to keep the peace.
But, after a while, it gets frustrating. We start to feel like we’re not living our truth. We start to feel we’re living in a cage.
That old chestnut.
But notice here how it’s only as we move right along the spectrum from hard to soft limits, that we start to feel frustrated.
That’s odd, isn’t it?
I think the key to understanding that is ‘inevitability’.
Like, gravity is a constraint. But it’s very hard to imagine a universe without it, and it’s not going to change anytime soon, so why worry about it. It’s inevitable.
Likewise, our laws are set in stone, pretty much. They evolve slowly over time, but that’s not a process you’re going to engage with, no matter how silly it is that it drops down to a 50 zone just there after that bend, and what was he doing there anyway, it’s just revenue raising.
The laws are the laws, and you just get on with it.
Same story with the more formal cultural norms. I personally think my duck imitations are hilarious, but I can see that society is better off if we don’t generally sanction farting in crowded spaces.
These structures give us hard limits, and because they are hard – inevitable – then we just get on with it.
BUT… those limitations that come from our immediate social relationships, they don’t have the same sense of inevitability.
We recognise this truth: different people create different limitations in our life.
And in that sense, we recognise that if there’s a limit that is holding us back, if the person creating the limit changed, the limit itself might change.
If you were braver and had more faith in abundance, you wouldn’t mind if I took a gamble with my career.
If you weren’t so controlling, you wouldn’t mind if I caught up with other men socially.
If you weren’t so insecure, we could have an honest conversation about your engagement in our family life.
If you weren’t so afraid that I might actually succeed, you’d be happy for me to be taking this investment course.
And here it is. The cruel and bitter truth:
When our lives feel too small for us, it is because the people around us are too small for us.
We can deal with limitations on our life. We deal with them all the time. The human experience is fundamentally limited. Most the time it’s fine.
But it is a bitter pill to swallow when those limitations come from a smallness in others, a smallness that could, perhaps with a little work, be overcome.
And so of course we feel frustrated. Of course we feel angry. Of course we feel resentment.
So yeah, screw that.
I thought I was going to write a piece about how limitations are a part of life and you just have to find some freedom with in it.
But that’s a cop out.
The truth is that if someone is making you live a life that is smaller than the life you want to be living, you should call them on it.
You have a right to be frustrated. You have a right to be angry.
(And hiding that anger and frustration from them doesn’t honour them. Filtering the reflections so they never see what impact their actions are having doesn’t honour them.)
And I’m not saying just go our and do whatever the F you want. That’s a quick way to call a tonne of chaos and drama into your life.
But I do think you can own your feelings front on.
“When you don’t want me to take this job, it feels like it comes from a place of fear, and that makes me angry.”
“When you stop me having friendships with other guys, I feel that’s all about your insecurities, and that makes me angry.”
“When you take the piss out of my desire to be financially secure, I feel that’s about keeping me in your comfort zone, and that’s frustrating.”
I don’t know where that conversation will go. It’s not going to be an easy one.
But I do think you have to go into bat for what you believe in. You have to call BS when you see it.
That might not win you the freedom you want, but you will have been true to yourself, and that will make things a lot easier.
And I think this will be an important evolution in our society – when we get to a space where it’s not ok to make people live small lives – where we look at a situation where someone’s unwillingness to do the inner work restricts another’s freedom and we say, that is just not ok.
It’s been a slow road. This is has been around forever. It’s a universal human experience, because we are all social beings.
But maybe it is changing. It has to change.
And maybe it’s up to us to take it there.