Do You Have an Upper Limit Problem?

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I recently read a brilliant book called The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level by Gay Hendricks.

The primary idea in the book is that you have an Upper Limit Problem that controls the degree of overall wellbeing in your life. Hendricks describes this as the only real problem we need to solve (that is, all other problems stem from this one major problem):

Hendricks describes the Upper Limit Problem and its mechanisms as such:

“Each of us has an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy. When we exceed our inner thermostat setting, we will often do something to sabotage ourselves, causing us to drop back into the old, familiar zone where we feel secure.”

The overall premise of the Upper Limit Problem was initially off-putting to me. It felt too out-there and woo-ish the first time I heard it. But then I began to seriously think about the evidence and the ways I’ve seen the upper limit play out in my life. The evidence, it turns out, was overwhelming.

A few personal examples:

I am most likely to get into an argument with my wife when we are either heading out on vacation or heading to a date night. Somehow, I find a way to sabotage these feel-good moments with my pettiness.

My best financial year in terms of income was my worst financial year in terms of net savings. Somehow, I made significantly more than I previously had and figured out a way to spend it all and then some.

I dampened the joy my “once-in-a-lifetime” trip to study abroad in Europe by breaking up with a college girlfriend the first weekend there (in Paris, of all places). Then, I ruined the rest of the trip by being severely dehydrated (and, as a result, a total bitch).

When I went to the oilfields after college, I made a ton of money relative to what I was used to but spent most of my time there feeling worried about the future and my career/job prospects.

When I got engaged to my wife, I took what should have been a thoroughly happy season in my life (being engaged and getting married) and turned it into a stressful time with way too many arguments between us.

When I completed a marathon earlier this year, I didn’t run at all immediately following it, despite spending around four months running nearly every day. I had exceeded my “I’m an athlete” barometer and had to bring that back down to baseline.

And the same thing is true in each of these examples. There’s a saboteur at work  to bring my overall sense of happiness, love, wellbeing, contentment, and joy back down to baseline. And that saboteur is always an inside job, done by me to me. Seasons of abundance, love, and happiness are constantly counterbalanced by me doing something inane and stupid to make sure the good times (or my experience of them as such) don’t last.

Perhaps you’ve noticed something similar in your life.

I hope the examples above will remind you of ways in which you’ve let your own internal saboteur keep you from growing, progressing, and surpassing the limits of your own expectations.

Since reading this book with my wife, we’ve been seeing Upper Limit Problems everywhere. It is truly striking to recognize the extent to which we are so often the sources of our own stress. Yet it’s even more interesting to realize the reason why.

Part of the why is based on each person’s individual fear and false beliefs. In the book there are four different fears and beliefs that keep your Upper Limit Problem firmly in place. These include the fear that you are fundamentally flawed, the fear that you will be disloyal to your roots, the fear that more success makes you a bigger burden, and the fear of outshining those around you. Each of these resonated within my soul to varying degrees, so reading Hendricks’ descriptions was particularly useful.

Each of these fears manifests itself in different ways at different times. If you believe you are a fundamentally flawed person who is not deserving of a meaningful relationship, you will often create that reality through your actions. If you believe that by achieving a level of success you will be alienated from the friends and family that raised you, you will likely figure out a way to keep success away from you. If you believe you are burden, you likely won’t have the friendships you’re looking for (who wants to be a burden, after all?). If you believe that you will make others around you feel bad by living up to your potential, you probably won’t.

One of the keys to getting over this is to simply recognizing what’s happening. When we have our Upper Limit Problems kick in, often reinforced by one of the core four fears mentioned above, we can spot it more easily and limit its spread in our lives.

I saw this recently on a flight to Mexico. I love Mexico. It’s one of my favorite countries to visit. The food, culture, people, and history are all deeply engrossing. So, while on a flight to one of my favorite places, I became extremely worried about the wellbeing of my son. I imagined him having shocked himself in an outlet plug or having stepped on a nail or something similarly terrible.

Suddenly I realized what was happening: I was upper-limiting my experience of the joy of flying to Mexico with these thoughts. So, I bid them farewell and continued along my way. When I landed, I checked in with my wife and, sure enough, everyone was fine at home.

If any of this is sounding familiar to you, I encourage you to read this brilliant book.

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