We physicians interact with many different types of people. While some of us may prefer more action-oriented patients and others prefer more introspective patients, one type that is challenging for most of us is the patient who immediately tells us why none of our recommendations will work. It’s frustrating to have our ideas dismissed without even a try or a consideration.
It’s hard to admit, but I do the same thing myself.
I know I feel better when I exercise. Yeah, but it’s dinnertime and the gym will be too crowded. I know my day is more enjoyable when I sit and meditate every morning. Yeah, but there are probably 100 emails waiting to be answered. Someone once complimented me on a presentation I gave, sharing how much they learned and how inspired they felt. Yeah, but I knew that I forgot to mention something and could have done better. When I feel the excitement of planning a group coaching program I want to offer, a voice inside of me says, “Yeah, but what if no one signs up?”
This is what Gay Hendricks calls the Upper Limit Problem, described so well in his book The Big Leap. Dr. Hendricks explains that most of us have a limited tolerance for feeling good. As we reach our limit, we sabotage ourselves with a variety of behaviors that serve to move us back into more familiar, less joyful, territory.
Worrying is one of the most commonly used behaviors. As we enjoy any type of great feeling – an accomplishment, a celebration, an anticipated event – worry thoughts often enter our minds, even when the worry is quite implausible and serves no useful purpose. I’ve had many experiences waiting for my husband to return home after working late. I start out thinking about how happy I am to be married to him and, before I even know it, I’m worrying that he’ll be in a car accident on his way home. Other upper limit behaviors include criticizing ourselves or others, squabbling, getting sick or hurt, not keeping agreements, deflecting – the list is long. Yeah, but…is certainly on the list.
The solution is to become aware of our patterns and gradually increase our tolerance for joy. Each time we begin to feel really good about something, we can stay with that feeling as long as possible. If we find ourselves reaching for an upper limit behavior, we can interrupt it and return to feeling good again. Eventually something will steal our attention or we’ll bump up against our upper limit again. But in the meantime, we’ve stretched our ability to acknowledge and take in the good that each of our lives hold.
As for me, I’m committed to laughing at “yeah, but…” and doing what I need to do to step over or move through it. I know there’s a lot more fun and joy on the other side.