What does living your best life look like for you?

How would you spend your time?

What habits would you have or not have?

What’s stopping you from living this version of yourself?

There are many reasons, conscious and unconscious, that we stay stuck in unhealthy, limiting, or unsatisfying behaviors. 

In this episode, I break down some of those reasons and share questions you can use to identify where you might be self-sabotaging and why. With this awareness, you can make different choices and begin living your ideal life.

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

Self-Sabotage and the Upper Limit Problem

What things do you feel disappointed about in your life?

Are there behaviors you want to stop or start, but can’t?

Maybe you want to get into better physical shape, stop binging Netflix, or stop smoking weed. You’ve tried, many times, but it never seems to stick.

We don’t stay stuck because we’re “crazy” or love being miserable. For many of us, there is an actual psychological device at work: self-sabotage. 

Gay Hendricks, author of The Big Leap, also refers to this as having an “upper limit problem.” 

According to Gay, when we get into a groove and start to flow, our instinct is to contract and keep the status quo.

Long before I knew about Gay or his work, I saw this in my own life.

Each time I got to the “next level” of visibility, success, or financial abundance, I unconsciously tried to mess it up.

In 2008, I was a life coach for my pal Kris Carr’s business, and she was set to appear on Oprah. I decided it would be a great time to do a “social experiment” to see if I could handle drinking again after being sober for 20 years

After 10 days, the answer was conclusively no, I could not

I used the tools and strategies I cultivated in those 20 years to claw my way back out, but it was a reminder I could have easily lost everything that mattered to me. 

This is a perfect example of self-sabotage and having an upper limit problem. As soon as I felt all this visibility happening, I contracted.

Gay Hendricks says four hidden barriers contribute to having an upper limit problem: feeling fundamentally flawed, disloyalty and abandonment, believing more success leads to bigger burdens and the crime of outshining.

Let’s look at how each can show up.

Hidden Barrier #1: Feeling Fundamentally Flawed

Believing something is fundamentally wrong with you is a barrier to reaching your full potential. 

In this 2009 article from Experience Life Magazine, Gay shares the story of Dr. Richard Jordan, who attracted and lost a $3 million offer for a business he had built, over lack of vacation time.

Two fewer weeks than he had before, to be specific.

After a heated argument, the offer was retracted. 

You might be wondering what drove Dr. Jordan to scrap a $3 million deal over two weeks of vacation.

Eventually, he realized the cause was his unconscious belief that he wasn’t worth $3 million.

I see this happen with my therapy clients in relationships, too.

If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone you considered “out of your league,” were you so afraid they would ditch you, that you ditched them first?

This is the “feeling fundamentally flawed” barrier at work.

Hidden Barrier #2: Disloyalty & Abandonment

The feeling and fear behind this barrier is, “If I become successful, I will end up alone.” There’s also the belief that becoming successful is a betrayal to your family.

It makes sense – families of origin often condition us to have certain thoughts about success and money. 

When you break the unspoken agreements of how successful you’re “allowed” to be, or what you’re “allowed” to do for a career, your choices may be seen as disloyal inside the family system. 

It’s not just family, either. Sometimes we come up against it just by taking risks as women

From a psychotherapeutic perspective, separating and individuating as women is often challenging because our connections are integral to our identity. 

The roots of what we “should” do with our lives run deep.

If you’re curious to dig into the reasons why you might self-sabotage, download the guide I put together for additional questions and guidance.

Hidden Barrier #3: Believing Success Brings Bigger Burdens

This barrier is about thinking success equals hard work becoming even harder.

It speaks to the saying, “More money, more problems.”

I’ve experienced this. The more successful I become, the more responsibility I feel I have. 

When things are good, the responsibility feels great! But when I’m exhausted, I wonder why I signed up for a life with so much visibility. 

This feeling became evident when I wrote my next book, Too Much (coming in October). It felt like I had put a target on my back for people to be critical of my work, which made me afraid to fail in a way I hadn’t been before. I couldn’t rest.

I am happy to report that those thoughts disappeared when I finished writing the book, but getting through the writing process was tough!

Hidden Barrier #4: Crime of Outshining Others

This barrier looks like concern for what will happen if you do better than your parents, siblings, partner, or close friends.

Fear of success and fear of failure are both sides of the same coin: fear of change.

We don’t want to outshine others if it means risking the relationships we have.

Having had big careers throughout my life, this is another barrier I’ve navigated, because I had my share of relationships where I felt like I had to stay small.

After those experiences, I knew I wanted someone with their own big career so mine wouldn’t threaten them. 

And Vic, my husband, does have a big career. He is a successful and celebrated artist. We cheer each other on and support each other as a team and always have throughout our 27 years together. 

In my therapy practice, I see many women afraid to outshine their partners. It can be a major problem.

Tall Poppy Syndrome

Tall Poppy Syndrome is a cultural belief seen more in Australia and New Zealand. It refers to the risk of being cut down for being a “tall poppy”- someone standing out by having more money/success/ambition/etc.

We see this play out in the double standards for women in most industries: men are allowed (and encouraged) to brag, but if a woman is proud of her accomplishments, it’s seen as self-indulgent or in bad taste.

Tall Poppy Syndrome can be a reason to self-sabotage, too. You may not want to be the “tall poppy” because your childhood experiences taught you that blending in was safer.

Secondary Gain

We don’t do anything for no reason at all. We stay stuck because we get something out of it- a secondary gain. The gain is “secondary” because it’s typically hidden, unobvious, and counterintuitive. 

It’s also a great tool to use to gain a deeper understanding of why you might self-sabotage.

To uncover your secondary gain, ask: what do I get to not face, not feel, or not experience by staying stuck here?

Often, the answer is we get to feel safe. 

Here are two examples:

  1. An alcoholic might continue drinking at the cost of their family or job because they get to numb feelings they’re unconsciously afraid to feel. 
  2. A person who says they want a relationship but doesn’t date avoids having to be vulnerable.

When exploring the reasons we self-sabotage, compassion is important. Ask, “Why am I choosing to do this?” with curiosity rather than making yourself feel bad about the reasons why.

You’ll find the secondary gain questions and additional resources to stop self-sabotaging in the guide, which you can download here.

Which hidden barriers resonated with you? What did you discover by exploring your secondary gain, and what might you need to do about it? Let me know in the comments or on Instagram (@terricole).

I hope you have the most amazing week and as always, take care of you. 

Big thank you to Elise Loehnen’s article for the inspiration for this episode. 

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