Too much happiness, just like too much grief or anxiety, can trigger you to respond negatively if you, like myself, struggle with the Upper Limit Problem.
The Upper Limit Problem (which I believe was articulated by Gay Hendricks in his book The Big Leap) is the idea that we all have a comfort zone when it comes to both pain and joy. If we experience too much pain, we fall apart. If we experience too much happiness, we also fall apart.
Sound weird? It still does to me, even though I’ve been aware of the idea for a few months now. But weird as it sounds, it’s true, and it makes sense. You’ve heard of people with a low pain tolerance, but what about people with a low happiness tolerance?
How could anyone be uncomfortable with happiness? For myself, happiness makes me uncomfortable because I’ve encountered so much grief and trauma in my life, I fear happiness gets my hopes up and sets me for a fall. When I experience happiness, it also triggers anxious thoughts like, “Don’t fuck this up. Don’t self-sabotage. Don’t have a panic attack now. Don’t ruin this.” These thoughts feel like so much pressure, it’s easier to just say “fuck it” and self-sabotage. When I do, there’s almost a sense of relief, as if to say, “Phew. At least now I don’t have to live up to the expectation of being and the pressure of continuing to be happy.”
Weird? Yup. But maybe you can relate. For some of us, too much happiness feels uncomfortable because we aren’t used to it. Or maybe we fear it because, as for myself, we fear losing all that goodness just as we may have done many times before. Or we fear we won’t be able to live up to it. At least we’re familiar with self-sabotage, and it doesn’t come with a whole lot of expectations to live up to.
On the other hand, even though it’s easier and in some sense more comfortable (in terms of how familiar it feels), self-sabotaging is scary in a different way and really, really hurts. This is why it’s important to recognize an Upper Limit Problem and begin to understand and address it.
Although self-sabotage takes away the pressure of failing or experiencing something uncomfortable, it does so by guaranteeing that the negative outcome happens.
Self-sabotaging is a relief because it means you face your worst-case scenario and can stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like that pressure of hiding from a monster in a horror video game and the moment where you step out and say, “Just come get me.”
There’s relief in that moment, as all the tension comes to an end, and if you don’t self-sabotage, maybe you can understand why some people do. Because allowing ourselves to be happy also opens the door to the “monsters” of sadness, loss, and fear.
And perhaps the way to address self-sabotage is to shift our perspective and realize sadness, loss, and fear are all aspects that enrich the human experience. They make your highs higher and give you the capacity for deep, rich experiences.
Because, yes, if you expand your happiness threshold you also expand your experience of sadness. You can’t have one without the other, because they are both sides of the same coin.
Experiencing sadness or loss or betrayal or fear is still vastly better than emotions that diminish your human experience and leave you defeated, anxious, and depressed.
These feelings are misery, despair, hopelessness, numbness, self-rejection, and terror. They are all a result of self-sabotage. Self-sabotage also reinforces the belief “I’m not good enough,” which can lead to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
So, yes, not self-sabotaging opens the door for pain and discomfort, but it’s vastly better than constantly experiencing only misery.
How do we shift? We challenge ourselves daily and starting in small ways, not to self-sabotage. This could be a mantra such as “I accept the good in this day,” a conscious pre-planned effort (“I will focus on enjoying the good on this short date to get ice cream with someone I like”) or choosing to adopt the mindset of “I can’t mess this up.” This may well be a daily practice, including journaling, meditating, and dialoging.
Another technique I’ve found really helpful is “catching the good.” The next time something good happens or you notice something pleasing, focus on that for a few seconds. Hold it and absorb it as long as you can. Allow yourself to experience joy.
What are your thoughts? What helps you push the boundaries of your happiness threshold? What insights do you have into the discomfort being happy can provide?
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