Are You Afraid of Being Happy?
Why We Self-Sabotage with The Upper Limit Problem
You’ve finally gotten the promotion you’ve been waiting for — the one you know you’ve deserved for months now — and you couldn’t be happier.
You feel on top of the world, invincible, and light — for about five minutes, until things start to go south.
You swear your boss has been looking at you funny for a few days in a row, your computer crashes just as you’re about to send in a report, you lock yourself out of your apartment, and you have one too many glasses of wine at the company happy hour.
So much for a few days ago, when you totally had your life together. Now you’re left wondering, “Where did that girl go and how do I get her back?”
This is the Upper Limit Problem in a nutshell: that subconscious self-sabotage that happens when we get a taste of something great, be it a promotion, a financial windfall, a great relationship, completing your first marathon, or any other measure of success. The self-defeating belief that many women have, without even realizing it, that we’re not deserving of success, can quickly make happy moments backfire on us.
Psychologist and author Gay Hendricks, who first introduced this theory, describes an “inner thermostat setting” that determines the amount of good feelings we allow ourselves to enjoy. If we experience an increased level of joy, success or abundance, we approach our upper limit, and subconsciously invite in negative thoughts to bring us back down into the level of happiness with which we are most comfortable.
Often we mask this in our heads as simply “being realistic,” modest, or being careful not to outshine others, but in fact it can hold us back from achieving big wins and can have lasting consequences that sabotage our potential for success down the line. In reality, if you’re feeling unsure or undeserving of happiness, it’s actually a sign that you’re positively challenging yourself and experiencing more abundance than before as a result.
Has this ever been you? Have you ever been celebrating a personal success, thinking to yourself or telling a friend about just how darn good things are right now, when all of a sudden negativity enters the picture (“I know presenting in front of the CEO is an awesome opportunity, but what would my colleagues think of me being chosen for this instead of them? Who am I to have the spotlight?”), and, like a punch to the gut, it knocks the wind out of you. In a moment, the feelings of happiness have been replaced with anxiety, mistrust, and that general bad feeling in the pit of your stomach. This in turn manifests itself externally, and before you know it, you’ve come down with a nasty sinus infection just in time for the presentation.
Understanding what the Upper Limit Problem is, why it happens, and how to get over it is essential to preventing its negative effects from interfering with your life. In order to eliminate the feelings of discomfort and associated self-sabotage that come with success and happiness, we must learn to overcome the Upper Limit Problem.
Here are three steps to take:
1. Get to know your “happiness comfort zone.”
Now that you know what the Upper Limit Problem is and some signs that you may be experiencing it, think back to some times in your life when you experienced this type of discomfort as a result of success. This can give you a sense of how you perceive your self-worth and the threshold at which you’re putting a cap on your happiness. So when you’re flying high about an exciting new opportunity, you’ll be aware of limiting beliefs cropping up to sabotage you.
2. Practice pushing the envelope on your limits.
Lean into the feelings of happiness and try to enjoy them free of judgment or analysis. Catch yourself as you begin to conjure up images of the worst case scenario, and instead return to experiencing the feeling of joy.
Another way to lean in is to share your successes and positive experiences on social media. When compliments or congratulations begin to roll in, practice reading each one and responding with a simple and gracious, “Thank you. I worked really hard and I’m glad to see it paying off.” Resist the urge to shrug off a compliment by chalking it up to luck, good timing, or some other external factor.
3. Re-frame your discomfort.
Now that you’re able to bust through that happiness set point, make it easier on yourself in the future by working to change the way you feel about success and happiness.
Upper Limit Problems happen because our brains are naturally wired to avoid risk.
So when your lizard brain takes over, triggering panic as you’re celebrating a “risky” success, take a step back and do a reality check. Acknowledge this feeling of discomfort as a positive sign that all the hard work and risk you’ve taken is paying off. You’re on the right track, and all you’re at risk of is achieving success you’ve never believed possible.
By recognizing and acknowledging the feelings that come along with the Upper Limit Problem, but not allowing them to take over, you can begin to shake it off. This will enable you to truly work up to your fullest potential, and share your unique gifts with those around you.
Melody Wilding, LMSW is licensed therapist and Professor of Human Behavior at The City University of New York (CUNY) Hunter College. She helps entrepreneurs and young professionals mastery their inner psychology and overcome the emotional challenges that come with a successful career. Melody has worked with CEOs and executives running today’s biggest startups along with published authors and media personalities. Her advice has been featured in New York Magazine, Fast Company, Inc, and more. She has a Masters from Columbia University graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Psychology from Rutgers University.