I read a lot of books. Being in the leadership business, I devour personal growth, mindfulness, and psychology books at an alarming rate. I recently read Gay Hendrick’s The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level and its surprisingly simple premise kept resonating and re-emerging through many aspects of my life.
“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.”
— Gay Hendricks, The Big Leap
Hendricks calls this the Upper Limit Problem. That when we hit our Upper Limit of good, positive emotions, we hit a wall and self-sabotage in some way to become more secure in a familiar, more negative zone.
This hit home hard.
You see, I am a high performer and through all external measures, have had a successful career and life. Yet while getting these medals of external validation has always felt good and given me a brief moment of happiness, it was never enough. One moment later after the fast flash of relief is the look ahead to what’s next. That insidious little voice tells me:
“Don’t stop. Don’t relax. If I slow down, I’ll lose my edge.”
My fierce self-critic tells me that the things I do aren’t enough, that I need to keep going, keep striving and do more. I won’t give myself permission to celebrate, immediately going back to the familiar stress/competition/drive to find the next achievement. I had set my own inner thermostat of love, success, and creativity with a low upper limit and refused to let myself savor any success.
Hendricks’ research identifies four hidden barriers that limit our happiness thermostat, which he calls the Upper Limit Problem. He goes into more detail in the book, however, you can read about all four barriers in this article. The barrier that resonates with most with me, and my harsh internal critic is the the first hidden barrier of feeling fundamentally flawed.
“The first barrier is the false belief that we are fundamentally flawed in some way. If we carry this feeling within us, we sabotage our success because we think we’re essentially bad.” — Gay Hendricks, The Big Leap
Even reading this sounds a little silly to me. What? How on earth could I think that I am fundamentally bad? Yet it comes back to a basic fear that I am not good enough. It’s the imposter syndrome of working at a world-class company like Facebook surrounded by thousands of brilliant minds and feeling that I don’t belong here. I’m a fraud and a sham and only made it in here by accident. It’s the feeling that makes me externally strive for more gold stars and medals whether it’s another job, another promotion, another degree because that external validation of my worth must mean that someone else thinks I’m good. And if enough people think that I’m good, perhaps it will be true.
I grew up with a tiger mom in true Asian tradition. She had high expectations of me and kept pushing me to do more. Love was won by achievement, the things that I did. Growing up, this was mainly through grades (“A-? That’s it? You couldn’t get an A?”) and being a dutiful, quiet, well-behaved daughter. I learned that what I did was more important than who I was, and that there was always more that I could do. Growing up like this created a fierce drive and ambition, and it also limited my thermostat of believing that I deserved love, success, and creativity.
Limiting my Thermostat in Career
I was Valedictorian at my elite private school in New Delhi, India, surrounded by diplomats’ kids, expats, and wealthy Indians. My striver had to complete all the Advanced Placement classes plus complete the much harder International Baccalaureate diploma. There wasn’t much doubt in my mind that I would be Valedictorian. I got another hit of external validation when I got accepted to all the universities I applied to. I was already looking ahead to the next rung— how well would I do at Stanford. And then ahead to the next ones— what job will I get after, when will I start managing people, and when will I get that promotion. It was an endless, exhausting treadmill in the corporate world.
Limiting my Thermostat in Relationships
After getting divorced some years ago, I am in a new relationship. Things are going wonderfully and we fell in love remarkably early. The way that I feel when I’m around him is buoyant, adventurous, giddy, funny— all positive signs of love and happiness. This happened in our early new months and kept continuing after 12 months, 18 months, and kept going even as we better understood each other’s quirks. I noticed early in the relationship that I kept “looking for the cracks.” I looked for all the things that could go wrong, silently judging us together, and having this critical commentary running through my head 24/7. Even worse, I justified this behavior by letting him know that this is just how I am, I am a person who keeps “looking for the cracks” and needs to control and perfectly plan out the future. Happily, he loves me despite that.
Starting to Recognize the Issue
One of the most brilliant leaders at Facebook told me something that I’ve never forgotten. He’d been my mentor for over a year and now we were sitting down to have breakfast and talk about how our relationship was changing from mentor/mentee to manager/direct report. He said:
Tutti, I believe in you and support you unconditionally. I think you’re great and I wanted you on this team because of who you are and the qualities you bring. You’ll make mistakes and that’s OK, and underneath it all, you have my full complete trust.
It was the first time a manager saw me for who I was, warts and all. As my mentor, he’d seen all my mistakes of failed projects and broken relationships over the past year, and it didn’t matter. I’d been used to measuring my success and value based on the accomplishments of what I did. He wanted me on his team for who I was, and because of that intrinsic belief, it didn’t matter what I did. Because no matter what I did, he would continue to support me for who I was. The warmth of this moment has been one of many that’s helped me recognize the negative power of my vicious self-critic.
Breaking through Upper Limits
Various strategies have helped me break through and expand past my upper limits. I continue to practice them throughout my life and work.
1.Name it to tame it. Becoming familiar with my fierce self critic and the language she uses helps me to recognize that vicious language. It gives me perspective and a name to the negative emotions that I’m feeling. That might not completely help in coming to a solution, but it’s a first step to acknowledge that my self critic is speaking. Similarly, books like Gay Hendrick’s The Big Leap gives language to a familiar feeling of continual stress & striving. It helps me name that I don’t give myself permission to celebrate because of my Upper Limit Problem. And it helps to realize that I am not alone, that many people share these same behaviors.
2.Surround yourself with people who believe in the best version of you. When we look in the mirror, it’s easy to fixate on what’s wrong — the wrinkles, gray hair, chubby belly, sagging arms. We find it easier to focus on our issues and not our strengths. It’s easier for other people to see the beauty within us. Find these people in your life. Find the friends, the bosses, the colleagues, the lovers who believe in the best version of you, no matter what. Because they can help you see that for yourself.
3.Imagine beyond the goal-setting
You’ve likely got some career goals ahead, whether it’s to find a new job, get a promotion/raise, or shift into new responsibilities. As part of the goal setting process, take some time to imagine what it would feel like the day after you’ve achieved the goal. For example:
- Who would you want to joyfully share the news with? What would it feel like when you’re sharing?
- When you’re alone after getting the news, what emotion bubbles up? Where do you feel it in your body?
- Picture the small details of how your life will change for the better after achieving this goal.
Notice what emotions if any interfere with the positive feelings the day after. If it feels a little hollow, perhaps this might not be the right goal?
4.Practice savoring positive emotions
Staying in the moment and experiencing all the positive emotions that happen in a day helps the practice of savoring. It could be appreciating the colors of a sunset, the juiciness of biting into a plum, the pleasure of a cool breeze on a hot day, or the unexpected humor of a wry joke in a meeting. Many people find a daily gratitude practice to be helpful. My 9 year old daughter and I have it built into our bedtime ritual.
I found The Big Leap to be a valuable & resonant resource to identify the Upper Limits that I put on my love, success, and creativity. I continue to be a work-in-progress in my continued practice to create better work and relationships from a place without Upper Limits. I remind myself to surrender and give myself permission to savor all the feelings of success.