If you’re curious about what this is, how this might show up in your life and what to do if you do indeed have an Upper Limit Problem, keep reading…
What’s an Upper Limit Problem?
I’ll be honest, the reason I’m bringing this whole Upper Limit Problem topic up with you is because I’ve recently had a flood of wonderful things happening in my own life: I recently got engaged, had several of my blog posts get picked up by a major mental health website, fulfilled some big career milestones, and have just generally been feeling good in my personal life, too.
And then recently I noticed how uncomfortable I was starting to feel about all these good things.
I started to notice how, frankly, unfamiliar and uncomfortable I was with this whole new level of wonderfulness and started to reflect on this and dig into it to figure out why. That’s when I remembered this concept called “the Upper Limit Problem” that psychotherapist Gay Hendricks PhD coined and started to get curious if this was playing out in my own life.
Upper Limit Problems, according to my understanding of what Dr. Hendricks explains, assumes we have a sort of internal thermostat for how good we are willing to let ourselves feel.
When we surpass our set “thermostat level,” we unconsciously or consciously act out in order to help regulate our internal emotional state back to a place where it feels more comfortable, more familiar. That’s when Upper Limit Problems start to show up.
Upper Limits Problems – or in other words, how much joy and goodness we’re willing to let ourselves experience before we start to self-sabotage – like most of our patterns and behaviours, were likely formed by some cluster of formative early life experiences and messages which showed and told us (implicitly or explicitly) “You’re only allowed to feel *this* much goodness.”
When we surpass the level of goodness we unconsciously or consciously believe we’re allowed to have, it’s common for most of us to feel discomfort and perhaps even to act in self-sabotaging ways.
Examples of Upper Limit Problems.
What are some examples of how Upper Limit Problems might show up in your own life? The leading questions to the blog post are great examples but here are some other ways upper limit issues can manifest:
- An inability to tolerate happiness and peace and calm and instead scanning the horizon for danger, problems to solve, or things to worry about because being anxious is more familiar than being at ease;
- Picking fights with your honey when everything’s going swimmingly because being in a state of conflict is more familiar;
- “Forgetting” deadlines, important emails, or critical details in your work after leaping to a new level of growth because struggling at work is more familiar than succeeding;
- Getting sick the day before a big talk that you’ve been dreaming to deliver because some part of you feels threatened or anxious about playing big.
These are just some of the limitless ways Upper Limit Problems might manifest – the possibilities are really endless. In order to help you get clearer on how you personally unconsciously self-sabotage or play out your own Upper Limit Problems, I’ve crafted a series of prompts for you to help deepen your awareness and understanding.
How do Upper Limit Problems show up in your own life?
Crack open your journal or a fresh Google doc and jot down your answers to the prompts below. Trust me, you’ll receive far more value from this exercise if you write your answers down versus just read through the questions.
- What are the messages you received growing up about being happy or having good things happen to you?
- Do you believe there’s only a certain amount of good things you’re allowed to have happen to you?
- Do you ever feel guilty or uncomfortable when good things happen for you but not for others around you?
- Would you say that it’s more familiar for you to feel discomfort than to feel peace and ease and joy?
- What do you know about your own capacity for tolerating good things? Is there a certain point at which you feel saturated and like you’ve hit your limit?
- What do you know about how you might sneakily act out in order to sabotage your own happiness? (hint: these sneaky ways might show up in the categories of fighting, freezing, or fleeing.)
- Why do you imagine you act out in those ways in particular? Are those patterns familiar for you? Did you watch anyone in your family-of-origin also do this?
- What are you afraid of if you go past your limit of happiness? What might happen or become true for you?
How to recalibrate your own Upper Limits.
If you read through this article and saw yourself in my words and are thinking to yourself, “Yep, I definitely have Upper Limit Problems, now what do I do?” I have some suggestions for you about how you (and I!) can begin to recalibrate our own Upper Limits.
First of all, I think that you’re doing the biggest and most important part of the transformational work already: you’re bringing curiosity and awareness as to whether or not you have Upper Limit Problems and how they might show up in your life. Good for you!
Once we begin to bring our awareness to our issues, we begin the process of change because when we’re conscious about something we actually get to have a choice as to whether or not we continue acting in that way.
I’m not saying that changing the way we act is going to be easy, but over time and with continued awareness and repeated new behaviors, I really think it is possible to change and expand how much goodness and happiness we’re willing to let in, essentially recalibrating our own Upper Limits.
Here are some behaviors you can practice that may support recalibrating your own Upper Limits:
Talk it out!
Talk to your friends, partner, your therapist about how much goodness and happiness you feel comfortably letting yourself have. Talk about what you do when you hit your “max.” Get curious with them about why this is and how you can work on it.
Literal expansion of your container.
And by container, I mean your body, the container of your soul and psyche and heart and mind. One suggestion I received from a mentor long ago was to practice literally stretching and expanding my container through yoga, dance, or movement that felt good when I was trying to expand my capacity to tolerate new and bigger feelings. Try it out and see if intentionally stretching out your tissues helps you make more room for your issues.
I’m a big fan of compassionate self-talk to help transform limiting beliefs and I think that when dealing with Upper Limit Problems, it can be particularly helpful to repeat a few mantras to ourselves in the form of compassionate self-talk reminders. I encourage you to create your own phrases but here are a few example mantras to get you started: “I get to receive this – it’s okay for me to feel this happy and to have good things.” “I am worthy of joy, goodness, love, and luck. It’s okay to feel this way.”
If you find yourself acting out in self-sabotaging ways to limit your own happiness and the amount of goodness you feel comfortable tolerating, persist and keep going. Keep publishing those articles, keep being in relationship, show up for that talk, say yes to that second date, keep up your healthy self-care practices. Keep going in the direction of goodness and know that you may meet resistance. That’s okay and, in fact, it’s normal and natural. We all have Upper Limit issues. The goal is not to get rid of Upper Limits but to continue expanding our capacity to tolerate more and more goodness in our lives. So persist in your plans and keep putting one foot in front of the other, and don’t forget to breathe into it all.
I hope today’s article felt useful to you in some way and that you now have a better understanding of what Upper Limit Problems might look like and how they might specifically show up in your own life.
Now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: Can you notice where your own Upper Limit Problems show up? Can you give an example of one way you personally self-sabotage when you hit your Upper Limit and also one example of how you practice recalibrating your own Upper Limits? Leave me a message in the comments below and I’ll be sure to respond.
Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
- The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level by Gay Hendricks, PhD*
*This is an affiliate link and any purchases made through this link will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you).