As I write this, it is my one-month anniversary in Costa Rica.
It has been fantastic. I learned cooking, yin yoga and stand-up paddleboarding. I explored beaches and hikes and made new friends. I spent quality time with my kids and husband.
And I hit my upper limit.
Have you heard of the upper limit problem? I first read about it in Gay Hendricks’ book The Big Leap.
The concept suggests that you have a psychological “ceiling” on how much success or happiness you believe you can achieve.
When you reach this perceived upper limit, you may engage in behaviours that sabotage your progress. You want to return to a more familiar or comfortable level of wellbeing.
In other words, you have an internal thermostat. When your happiness or success surpasses the “set temperature”, the thermostat returns you to the set point. Where you feel more comfortable.
The most extravagant public example I have seen of this type of self-sabotage was Will Smith’s famous slap. Just moments before receiving the Oscar, his life’s dream and career pinnacle, he slapped the host and sabotaged everything.
Another typical example is when you feel your relationship is going well and start picking fights with your partner.
Coach Jana Kingsford talks about how she gets sick or down every time she hits a big financial milestone in her business.
There are countless stories about lottery winners who go bankrupt in a few short years after their win.
Thanks to a discussion with my coach, I caught that I was facing an upper-limit problem early. Before it manifested into self-sabotaging behaviours.
How did I experience the upper limit?
Our first month in Costa Rica was so good that it felt wrong.
It was so much fun that it felt like a sin.
The guilt appeared out of nowhere. Guilt about other people who cannot enjoy the spaciousness of time and the magic of this place.
Guilt about whether I was worthy enough to deserve so much happiness. Had I worked hard enough? Had I contributed enough to the family finances?
Was it OK to slow down? Was it OK to be driven by pleasure every single day?
To wake up and ask yourself, what do I want to do today and then go and do exactly that?
Is it OK to simply experience without trying to achieve?
I have seen three common thoughts that come when you hit your upper limit:
– I don’t deserve this.
– If I fully enjoy this, something terrible will happen, or my heart will break when it ends.
– I feel guilty about enjoying something other people can’t.
If you don’t break through your upper limit, you will always stay in the same range of success and happiness, never being able to surpass it.
You need to reset the thermostat. Acclimate yourself to your new levels of wellbeing.
How do you do that?
First, knowing that you are dealing with an upper-limit problem is a huge step.
Most people self-sabotage without ever being aware they are doing it.
Once you notice it, then you can get excited.
You are now building a stronger muscle to be able to hold higher levels of happiness and success.
It feels uncomfortable, just like when you lift a heavy weight. It feels hard, but if you keep on doing it, even imperfectly, your muscle grows. Soon, it becomes doable and then easy.
Here are three ideas to consider:
1. Acclimate to all levels on your way to your upper limit
Before climbing Mount Everest, you need to spend time at the camp.
You must adjust yourself to all the hights on the way to your peak.
The more you practice gratitude, the more you acclimate yourself to feeling good. Mindfulness, appreciation, and celebration are slowly changing your thermostat.
Enjoying the small wins will make you more capable of enjoying the big wins.
2. See the sabotaging thoughts for what they are: false
You can use coaching, journaling, or meditation to review the beliefs and emotions that come up as you approach the upper limit.
They could be guilt, a sense of unworthiness, fear or discomfort.
Be compassionate with yourself. Our society has conditioned us that we need to “earn” our right to happiness.
This led to a vastly burned out, overworked, unhappy and sick population.
What often happens is that no matter how hard we have worked, we never feel that we have done enough to deserve happiness beyond our upper limit.
The premise was wrong. We do not need to “work” for happiness.
Happiness is our natural state of being. All we need to do to experience it is remove the noise.
My first month in Costa Rica was amazing because I went back to experiencing the present instead of striving to achieve something in the future. I went back to being open to wonder.
Worthiness and being deserving have nothing to do with our right or ability to be happy. Wellbeing is our natural state untethered by all the thinking and barriers we have put on ourselves.
Once you bring all your self-sabotaging thoughts to the light, you see how illogical and untrue they are.
3. Explore who benefits from your being happy and successful
Who will benefit if you stay at mediocre levels of fulfilment?
And who stands to gain from you becoming the most alive, happy and blissful version of yourself?
Think about your family, friends and clients. Break through the upper limit for them. And then help them break through theirs.
Just like many people broke through the 4-minute mile limit in running after the first person did it, our breakthrough elevates everyone.
Is there any benefit to you if you stay feeling meh? Is there a period in your life when it makes sense not to enjoy yourself?
Not really. Yes, things might change. Situations might end. Hard times may come. But not allowing ourselves to enjoy the present only harms our ability to deal with whatever comes in the future.
My first month in Costa Rica brought me unprecedented joy and also increased awareness about our self-imposed barriers to happiness.
As I pushed through my upper limit, I desired to help others push through theirs.
Our societal conditioning has perpetuated the erroneous belief that happiness is a reward. A byproduct of relentless sacrifice.
That is not true. Happiness is our inherent state of being.
The journey to contentment is not through achieving and acquiring more, even though there is nothing wrong with doing that.
The road to contentment goes through shedding the self-imposed restrictions and societal conditioning.
It is time we stop doubting our worthiness and embrace happiness as our birthright. Even when it feels uncomfortable. Especially when it feels uncomfortable.
When we transcend our upper limits, our breakthroughs reverberate across our communities. We help others break through their own limitations.
Here is to more untethered joy and fulfilment for all of us.
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