The one feeling we can’t stand (It’s not what you think)

The one feeling we can’t stand (It’s not what you think)

Do you want to feel happy? It’s a pretty generic concept with universal appeal, so I’m guessing Yes.

So, how often do you feel happy? What portion of each day or week would you say you’re joyful? Maybe less often or less intensely than you’d like?

Last fall I wrote a 3-part blog series called How to build a meaningful career that explored how to identify and cultivate your most desired feelings. Since then, I’ve learned something important. And it is just screaming to be part 4.

No emotion is harder to feel

Feeling happy (joyful, content, successful, good…) can be super uncomfortable.

Wait, what?

How can the most pleasant emotions also be unpleasant?

It’s uncomfortable because we’re so afraid to lose it. In fact, Brené Brown tells us that joy is the most vulnerable of all emotions.

“There is no emotion harder to feel than joy because we are so afraid that it won’t last.”

Brené Brown, research professor, author, speaker

Similarly, in The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks writes about The Upper Limit Problem. This refers to our “limited tolerance for feeling good.”

Is this concept on your radar? I hadn’t thought about this idea until reading his book, and now—especially as someone always testing her limits—I see it everywhere!

The ways we avoid good feelings

Hendricks describes our tendency to bring ourselves back down within the bounds of this limited tolerance. We tend to do two things: manufacture painful images and take self-sabotaging action.

Think about a time you were filled with joy. Then, out of nowhere, the negativity and catastrophizing starts.

You’re walking outside, enjoying the sunny but mild spring weather. You’re wearing the shorts you recently pulled out of winter storage, and the sun warms your arms and legs. There’s a light breeze and very low humidity. It’s hot, but you love it! You’ve been cooped up all winter and can nearly feel your body eagerly absorbing all of the Vitamin D. You pause on the sideway in front of a lilac bush, lean forward, and inhale deeply to take in its uniquely springtime scent. What a beautiful smell. What a beautiful day!

But I don’t know, is it safe to feel this good?

I hate how lilacs only bloom for a few weeks.

Too bad this won’t last, it’ll be so hot and humid soon. Summers here are the worst.

Should I have put sunscreen on? Beth’s sister is wrinkly because she never wears sunscreen on her face. I’m going to get wrinkles and look old, and to protect my career I’m going to have to get Botox like all the other women execs!

Or, say you’ve woken up easily just before your alarm. Calm and smiling from a dream you can’t quite remember, you roll over and see your spouse sleeping. You feel so grateful to have him in your life. He’s sexy, and caring, and finds you so attractive.

Uh oh, this peace and joy is getting uncomfortable…

I wish he would shave that beard.

Is he dreaming of that cute woman at work?

His breathing doesn’t sound right. He’s going to die tonight in his sleep, and I’ll be all alone, and our poor dog will be devastated, and I can just see his poor mother at his funeral…

What stories do you tend to tell to stop yourself from enjoying the moment?

Maybe you can even think of a time you’ve taken self-sabotaging action.

I’ve fallen into this trap with my diet. I would eat super clean for a few weeks—leafy salads, smoothies, snacking on fruit and nuts. I’d feel amazing! Healthy, proud, energized, powerful, even more creative. Then, I’d go into a period of weeks binging on less healthy foods. I’d swap my salads for white bread and processed meals, and add in triple servings of cookies each day. I’d notice the stomach aches and keep at it anyway. It felt too good to eat so clean so often. I don’t yet see myself as a person who consistently eats a nutrient-dense diet.

Where in your life do you tend to self-sabotage?

Lean in and stretch your limits

So, you’re aware that resistance will show up when you’re feeling your best. What do you do when this happens?

Allow yourself to lean into the goodness. Notice the discomfort—the negative thoughts, the catastrophizing, the self-sabotaging actions—and choose something different. This is how we stretch our limits.

“Letting yourself savor natural good feelings is a direct way to transcend your Upper Limit Problem.”

Gay Hendricks, psychologist, author, teacher

Play Dates

Want to keep this conversation going? Sign up for my weekly Play Dates—nudges and know-how to build a career you love. It’s like me showing up at your house and love-bombing your butt into action, but without being seen in your pjs.

Photo by Raw Pixel



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