I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the notion of restraint: on whether it is a concept that is positive or negative and on what would happen if we were free of it. Restraint would have been lauded in Victorian times, I suppose; in those days it was intricately linked to dignity. But that only makes sense if you assume that deep down we are naturally feral and need to be controlled in order to be civil.
You could say that we sometimes need to apply boundaries to our behaviour because without them we would all become lazy, unfit, obese, indulgent and selfish. But I don’t share that view. I don’t think we naturally tend towards wildness or excess. I think we may need to moderate ourselves from time to time, to check-in to see whether some of our habits make long-term sense, but we don’t need restraint. Restraint means self-control; it means keeping ourselves within limits. And in my book, that’s never good.
So for me, it is a negative concept. I feel a sense of scorn when I see it written or say it out loud. Probably because I have spent so many years under its spell: feeling that I needed to restrain parts of myself (physically and emotionally) in order to fit in, in order to please others, in order not to be ‘too much’.
For example, until recently, I’ve always envied quiet, shy, retiring violets; introverts who think before they speak, or even more elusively, don’t say much at all. Because onto these types of people I could project just about anything I wished I could be. They were the ideal blank slates. I also envied them because I knew deep down that they provided the perfect antonym to my (usually) loud and intense presence.
So in order to emulate them I would use restraint. Or rather, since I’m not very good at restraint-on-the-spot as it were, I’d be BIG by mistake and then regret it (usually because I felt I was the only one in the room being quite that big) and would resort to retrospective restraint in the form of guilt, shame and self-blame: "I’ll be less direct next time, less passionate next time…”
But I don’t do that anymore. Firstly, because I saw that there was no point. I never was able to curb my bigness. And secondly because I realised that all of my self-imposed limits were based on an entirely subjective appraisal of myself and of what others might think of me.
For there are degrees of bigness. And I saw that there was no point beating myself up for being at one end of the spectrum rather than at the other. Because, the spectrum can start and finish wherever you choose it to and my judgement of what was too much or too little was equally arbitrary! I realised that I will always be louder than some people (especially in withdrawn, stiff-upper-lip, collar-buttoned-up UK) and I will always be more introvert than others (perhaps why I love Spaniards, Italians and Americans!)
Our self-perception is dependent upon the precise sector of humanity against whom we choose to compare ourselves, as well as upon the set of values we decide to attach to our bigness (or smallness or anything we pick as not being ‘good enough’). Tact, passion, discretion, restraint and assertiveness are all culturally relative: they hold different values according to the nationality, culture and social setting into which we are born.
And when I finally got this, I started allowing myself to be more authentic, more natural, less forced: I stopped depending so much on others for approval, and started caring less if I didn’t it get it. It felt GOOD. The only thing that had been stopping me was fear. Fear of accepting the unrestrained version of myself, a fear of indulging my authentic self.
And I think this is a sentiment that is far more widely held than we care to admit. We are so used to being controlled by the system, by others, by ourselves, that most of us fear what would happen if our limits weren't in place. Because as the inspirational 'spiritual activist' Marianne Williamson so beautifully puts it in the oft-quoted passage from her book: “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
So to this end, I would like to propose a New Year's experiment: what if we each had as our aim this coming year to feel good rather than to be conventional? What if we each took up our unique niche on the beautiful, far-ranging scale of bigness with pride instead of timidity or shame? What if we ditched the restraint and let ourselves be as big as each of us is meant to be? As messy and naturally responsive as our bodies and emotions allowed?
Just imagine if we could all commit to becoming a little more authentic this year. Because ultimately, authenticity leads to acceptance that each of us comes in different flavours, shapes, tones and volumes. And that each is as perfect as the other. Now wouldn’t that be awesome and worthwhile?
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Artwork: Christian Schloe