Have you ever steered clear of something you know you’d knock out of the park?
And not because you think you’d fail.
Maybe you’re complacent and change makes you uncomfortable (hello, it’s us). Change can be very scary and it’s almost easier to keep things on an even keel.
Whether it’s job-related, a new hobby, or even a sport you’ve always wanted to try, if you find yourself avoiding success — or downplaying your accomplishments in an attempt to shrink your very being — this phenomenon is known as upper limiting.
And it’s not doing you any favors.
What Is Upper Limiting?
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Upper limiting is a term Gay Hendricks coined in his book, The Big Leap. Upper limiting occurs when we act out of our ‘zones of comfort’ and the levels of happiness and discomfort (serotonin) in our brains fluctuate past what we’re used to.
Humans are creatures of routines. We have a steady pattern that we follow in our day-to-day lives and while it can get monotonous, our brains benefit from these routines.
But when an event happens that changes the routine or affects the positive and negative emotions in our daily lives, our brains attempt to grasp at the previous normalcy by neutralizing the new addition.
Our brains are used to a certain amount of serotonin and when life alters that serotonin level, whether it’s negative or positive, our brains see that shift as problematic and unstable.
Our favorite visualization of upper limiting is that of two parallel lines. Our emotions fluctuate up and down between those two lines, but when our emotions cross the lines, our brains go into panic mode and try to create stability again. The old adage of, “things can’t be all bad” and “life can’t truly be this good” both stem from two extreme upper and lower limits. Our brain doesn’t let us experience success in every section of our life and even seeks out destruction in another section to bring our emotions back between those two lines.
Why We Upper Limit
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Hendricks says one of the factors that causes upper limiting is our brain’s deep fear of being truly happy. One of the core beliefs in life is that we will never be truly happy. That we have to work, toil, and suffer for happiness all our lives and we still may never be truly satisfied.
That is a truth we’ve told ourselves for years, so when something occurs that might bring us true joy, we squash it before it has a chance to disappoint us.
Upper limiting can often grow from childhood trauma as well.
If you grew up in a house that never had enough money and you always were wanting, it doesn’t matter what your paycheck is now, you most likely will always have some aspect of that “wanting” mindset. If you grew up being told you’d never be enough for someone, your brain has been trained for years to accept that statement as fact, so you might never allow someone to love you fully.
Recognizing Upper Limits
It can be hard to distinguish when you’re upper limiting and when you’re just thinking critically. Some things to note are:
What’s happening around you. Have you just experienced great success that you’re not sure if you deserve? You’re probably going to upper limit from that.
Your worry increases. Worrying is natural, but if you feel as though it’s becoming more than usual or unbearable, take a step back and distinguish if it’s upper limiting beliefs or reasonable worry.
You won’t let yourself enjoy life. This is a huge part of upper limiting. There is a small part of us that doesn’t want to enjoy the things we’ve earned because we don’t feel as though we’ve earned them.
You feel guilty. We’ve all had successes and either hid them or felt horrible about sharing them with our loved ones. Guilt surrounding your hard-earned successes is one of the most telling signs of upper limiting.
Upping The Upper Limit
It is astounding how quickly our brains can reach an upper limit. While upper limiting is a defense mechanism created by our brains, it is very, well, limiting. Everyone wants some form of success, but when success is always paired with distress, consciously or subconsciously, we begin to avoid it.
Upper limiting might be the reason you’ve stayed in the same job for five years now, even though you know you can do better. You can blame upper limiting for doubting that you can get past a point in relationships. Can’t seem to keep up a difficult task or routine? That’s because you’ve allowed your upper limit to control your level of success.
In order to overcome upper limiting, we have to teach our brains that we are allowed to break through the glass ceilings we’ve built for it. Slowly, we need to allow ourselves to get used to new and better levels of life.
I think of this as introducing a puppy to its new home. You let it out and let it sniff around. He might get confused and probably is not as comfortable as he was in familiar territory, but soon, he’ll get used to it and fall in love with his home.
We need to do that for our brains. Let your mind rest in the truth that you are at this level of success — nothing is wrong, and you’ve earned it. Once your brain has gotten comfortable with the next level, you can continue to level it up.
Upper Limits Or Red Flags
— Olya Kornienko (@olyakornienko) November 7, 2021
There is a difference between upper limiting and red flags. If you’ve been at a job for a long time and have earned a raise, then your brain starts to tell you you’ll get fired soon or they’re just phasing you out, that’s upper limiting.
If you’ve just achieved a new stage in your relationship, but then you start to notice little red flags in your partner, that might not be an upper limit.
The key is to be open with yourself and others. I (Markey) presented the upper limiting phenomenon to my partner early into dating him because we moved quickly into our relationship. I told him the signs to look for and gave him my permission to sit me down at any point and tell me I’m allowed to be loved fiercely and it won’t just go away.
That doesn’t mean that any time I see a problem, we just blame upper limiting and move along. It means there is a chance that I haven’t fully accepted that life is allowed to be in my favor.
Past Experiences Feed Into Upper Limiting
There is this thing called the “upper limit problem” which is where you feel scared when things start going well, so you self-sabatoge them before they have the chance to go well.
But things can go well. Good things happen all the time. Even in the bad.
— Maggie (@MaggieLBrown7) August 17, 2020
I (Molly) joke around with people that I begin each day thinking everyone is mad at me and go from there. That way, when everyone is not mad at me (hopefully) it’s a pleasant surprise.
Except I’m not joking — this is how I start my days, using gallows humor rooted in the truth that my day is going to be shitty so there’s nowhere to go but up.
I wasn’t always this pessimistic, but when you go through certain events (traumatic or even mundane disappointments), you can wind up in the headspace I’ve backed myself into — a sad, extremely limiting corner.
Until learning about upper limiting, I thought this was just how it was and that not many people experienced this anomaly. I’m not alone by any means, but knowing why my brain reacts this way is helpful in going forward — and knowing is half the battle.
From here on out, it’s onward (discussing with my therapist) and hopefully upward.
Breaking The Glass Ceiling
We aren’t certain that we will ever truly stop upper limiting. After all, we’ve trained our brains to be okay with failure and heartbreak, oftentimes entering situations “hoping for the best and accepting the worst.”
We are shocked when someone respects us or congratulates us. Life isn’t bad, but we’ve accepted the narrative that we have to hustle and grind to get to the top.
Upper limiting isn’t an archaic belief that we’ve been spoon-fed all our lives. It’s something that our brains naturally do because we are so used to scraping the bottom of the barrel that it’s unnatural to just accept success.
Stop allowing upper limits to take your life. Stop bowing out when you feel as though you don’t deserve to achieve the next level of success. Go for that promotion, apply for that job, break every glass ceiling you have put up in your life because you can. It will feel uncomfortable. It will be gutsy and horrifying and you might do it alone. But you’ll do it and you’ll achieve a new level of happiness. And maybe you’ll get used to that new level of success and try again. And again. And again.
Upper limiting is a fear-based response that our brains have created. Combat that fear with confidence and knowledge of who you are and what you’re capable of, and those glass ceilings will shatter.
Have you ever heard of upper limiting? What do you most limit yourself to in life? Comment below.
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