Why We Make Ourselves Feel Bad to Feel Better

making ourselves feel bad to feel better

A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of sitting down one evening to read a collection of pretty amazing feedback I had received following a workshop I facilitated. As I scrolled through the comments and began to absorb the glowing and powerful sentiments that were expressed by the participants, I was simultaneously humbled, honoured and over-the-moon elated.

For a glorious ten minutes, I was smiling from ear-to-ear, completely lit up and filled with an immense satisfaction knowing that I had been of service to others. A deep, contented sigh left my lungs and I was totally overwhelmed with gratitude.

Pretty incredible stuff, right?

And then something shifted. I began to feel uncomfortable and a subtle burning sensation started to rise up in the back of my throat. I felt anxious, unsorted and unnerved all at the same time. 

So in a swift attempt to distract myself from this unpleasantness, I propelled myself into productivity mode and promptly pulled up a rejection letter from my inbox that I’d received in response to a proposal I’d recently submitted. In all honesty, I really hadn’t given it a second thought until that moment because it wasn’t an arrangement that I was particularly keen on entering into in the first place. I actually had to perform an advanced search in my trash to locate it.

I proceeded to read the letter a couple of times through. Then I went back and poured over the original proposal for more than an hour trying to pinpoint what went wrong. After some time, I successfully found a typo, berated myself for my carelessness and then I went to bed where I tossed and turned for a few hours before drifting off into a fitful sleep.

But, I somehow felt much, much better. And I had accomplished this by making myself feel bad.

Um, how messed up is that? And, what actually happened here?

Well, it turns out that I had bumped into a big, bad upper limit problem. 

What’s an upper limit problem?

In his book, The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks explains that each one of us has an internal thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, health, wealth and creativity we will permit ourselves to enjoy. When we exceed our personal temperature setting, we’ll often do something (usually unconsciously) to interrupt or impair this enjoyment or achievement to get us back to that familiar zone where we feel most secure.

While this zone varies widely for everyone, many people actually have a limited tolerance for feeling good. By manufacturing bad thoughts or circumstances, we can quickly downgrade to our comfort set point.

Hendricks calls this the “Upper Limit Problem,” the universal human tendency to self-sabotage when we have exceeded this artificial barrier we place on ourselves. Upper limit problems are the culprits that serve to keep us playing small and prevent us from making the contributions we are meant to make in the world; they are essentially unconscious and sneaky distractions that keep us from doing our most important work.

Just as our thermostats settings vary, so too do the ways that we undercut ourselves.    

For example, remember when you initiated a completely unnecessary argument with your significant other on Sunday evening following a fun, uneventful and restful weekend?  

Probably an upper limit problem.

How about that time you got really sick right before giving an important presentation or immediately following a monumental achievement?

Also likely an upper limit problem.  (Never underestimate the masterful hold that the subconscious mind has over our physical wellness!)

Have you ever read the stories of lottery winners going bankrupt within a very short time of their windfall?

Definitely an upper limit problem.  

And it explains why instead of popping some champagne and celebrating the knowledge that my work had impacted people in some very meaningful ways, I actively went out of my way to diffuse my joy, undermine my accomplishment and feed my ravenous inner critic with a whopping scoop of not good enough.

In essence, I made myself feel bad to feel better; I’d set about hurting my own feelings in order to restore this bogus state of personal equilibrium that I’ve somehow established. All of that love and encouragement from those genuine and generous women was simply more than my internal thermostat could handle in that moment.

Of course I didn’t cognitively recognize that this is what was happening at the time, but I certainly knew it as soon as I woke up the next morning. And given that I’ve read The Big Leap more than a handful of times and I regularly teach on the concept, I felt more than a little embarrassed that I’d let some weird inadequacy complex hinder my happiness, while also managing to quietly dishonour the beautiful intentions of the warm thoughts that were so graciously offered.

The many ways we self-sabotage

Self-sabotage comes in all shapes, styles and sizes. Outside of consuming gallons of ice cream and/or wine, it turns out that there are a number of other insidious ways that we compromise our health, happiness and success on a regular basis. Among the most common upper limit behaviours:

Worrying: Perpetually constructing worse case scenarios and making up irrational stories in our heads.

Deflecting: Brushing off compliments or deliberately interfering with positive energy flows.

Blame and criticism: On the one hand, not taking responsibility for our actions and re-directing fault outside of ourselves. On the other, personal perfectionist tendencies and beating ourselves up over disappointments or mistakes.

Arguments: Starting a fight is a fast and sure way to make yourself unhappy in a hurry.  

Getting sick: In the book, Hendricks points to both migraine headaches and laryngitis as upper limit problems that can be physically manifested. 

Not keeping agreements: Breaking promises we’ve made to ourselves and others.

How to overcome your upper limits

Make a hand-written list of your most common tendencies towards self-sabotage. This simple act of putting pen to paper will significantly heighten your sensitivity to defeating thoughts, along with any destructive actions and patterns, that show up for you on a regular basis.

Once these ideas are engraved on your subconscious radar, you’ll find that you'll organically start implementing minor adjustments to your thoughts and behaviours (often in spite of yourself!) that will have a major impact in the long run.

Knowing that we all live with upper limits is really half the battle in learning how to navigate and bust through them. And, the fringe benefit of this knowledge is often the enhanced capacity to recognize these behaviours in others, empowering you to respond with more compassion and understanding across your personal and professional relationships.  

Unfortunately, while all of this awareness is a beautifully powerful thing, it'll never lend itself to immunity when it comes to self-sabotage; there’s no such thing as a one-time upper-limit clean sweep. Resetting your thermometer is entirely possible, but it's an ongoing maintenance job that lasts a lifetime. 

Truth be told, I almost upper-limited myself right out of sharing this post. 


Curious about other strategies for dealing with upper limit problems? Check out Rise by Design in Saskatoon this fall.  

*Photo Credit Aaron Burden.