3 Steps to Stop Self-Sabotaging Behavior From Ruining Your Potential and Happiness

Photo: Getty Images/Bhumika Bhatia
Ever have something really great happen in your life and then you follow it up with an action that's deeply self-sabotaging? If so, you're not alone; whether or not we consciously realize it, many of us engage in activity that directly stunts our potential when things are seemingly going well in our lives. This struggle of not knowing how to stop self-sabotaging behaviors from taking over is what's known as an "upper limit problem," a concept psychologist Gay Hendricks, PhD, coined in The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level.

“The upper limit problem is the way human beings respond to change,” Dr. Hendricks says. “Often when change starts happening, we contract in fear and then that causes us to drop back down to a more familiar level of being.”

This threshold of sorts for allowing ourselves to accept good fortune can show up in all areas of life, but it’s the most predominant in the relationships and career arenas. In relationships, it can appear as conflicts with a loved one right after a period of getting along very well. In the career, money, and success areas, an upper limit can look like self-sabotaging following a big promotion or after receiving an influx of money.

“Often when change starts happening, we contract in fear and then that causes us to drop back down to a more familiar level of being.” —psychologist Gay Hendricks, PhD

So, where do these upper limits even come from? Way back in our personal history. “You pick up upper limits almost by osmosis growing up by the way your particular family thinks or your particular community thinks,” Dr. Hendricks says.

But regardless of your personal upper limit threshold, it is totally possible to learn how to stop self-sabotaging behaviors and allow yourself to experience more love, joy, success, abundance. Below, Dr. Hendricks breaks down telltale signs that let you know you’ve hit an upper limit and then three actionable steps you can take to break through it.

Signs you’ve hit your upper limit

1. You’re consumed with worry

Everyone has different patterns and ways an upper limit can show up for them, but for many, worrying is a big symptom. “Most of the things that people are worried about, they can’t do anything about,” Dr. Hendricks says. "They’re just worrying for the sake of worrying. It keeps you trapped in your more familiar level of being instead of [allowing you to] operate at your highest level.”

2. Your body feels off

Symptoms of an upper limit can also manifest themselves on a physical level. Hendricks describes it as an off-centered feeling in your body. Or, it could even be a specific ailment such as a headache, stomachache, or backache.

How to stop self-sabotaging and break through your upper limit

1. Take a breather

When you notice yourself reaching your upper limit, Dr. Hendricks recommends taking three big, deep breaths and shifting your body a bit by giving it a good wiggle or stretch to break yourself out of the trance. “When you’re in the middle of an upper limit, you usually forget to breathe really well,” he says. “You forget to move your body, and you kind of get frozen.” This is a quick practice you can do in the moment that can provide some relief and distance from the upper limit at hand.

2. Ask yourself what you’re afraid of

“The upper limit comes in response to something your afraid of,” Dr. Hendricks says. So as a long-term strategy for overcoming your upper limit, he recommends digging deep and asking yourself why you’re scared. Although on the surface level, it may seem almost ludicrous that you’d be afraid of good things happening, underneath it all, there is likely a fear driving the self-sabotage.

One fears commonly at play is that of outshining other people. “When people expand and their light gets brighter, they suddenly worry, ‘Uh oh. I’m taking too much attention here. I better contract,”’ Dr. Hendricks says. Another common fear is feeling unworthy or flawed in some way. “When people get to expand more and more, suddenly up comes this fear of ‘I don’t deserve this because I’m not a good person or because I’ve got something fundamentally wrong with me,’ and so they pull back from expressing their full potential,” he adds. Whatever it is that you're specifically feeling afraid about, getting to the bottom of the issue can help you take first steps for learning how to stop self-sabotaging yourself.

3. Ask yourself what you really want

Next, get honest about what you really want, both in the specific situation you’re in and in life in general.

Once you have that clarity, Dr. Hendricks says you'll better understand exactly where you’re going. With everything life throws at us, it’s easy to get thrown off path and forget our goals and intentions, so being able to re-center yourself and shift your focus back to what you do want will help you know how to stop self-sabotaging behavior from taking over.

Here are other strategies for overcoming self-sabotage. And if this isn't a strong issue for you, learn how to overcome other common relationship issues. Here's the top one each Myers-Briggs personality contends with.

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