Self-Sabotage and How to Overcome the Self-Limiting Beliefs Standing Between You and Success

Has this ever happen to you?  You get on a great streak and all of a sudden disaster strikes?  You get so far in your savings goal only to have a freak accident that wipes it all out?  Or you have wins in a couple of projects and start to look like a superstar at work only to mess up the next project over the simplest of tasks?

Or how about this: you see an athlete who is performing well; suddenly they “choke” in the finals?

This is what I want to talk about today because a lot of us encounter this. I know this has been going on for much of my life. Sometimes I called it being “Even Steven”, you win some and you lose some.  But what if it were possible to win more than you lose?

This is the concept behind the book “The Big Leap” by Gay Hendricks. Hendricks is a counselling psychologist who has worked with some of the biggest names in tech, coaching them to higher success. He noticed through his life that both he and all of his clients sooner or later come across an invisible barrier.  This is what he calls the upper limit problem.

Another version of Bootstrapping?

These upper limits keep us playing small and not entering the larger arena. They are self-limiting beliefs. I want to make a distinction this is not the same as a glass ceiling or redlining.  Those limits are external, but external factors can also influence our self-limitations.  In a nuanced way, they are beyond just “mindset” work.  It’s not just repeating “I believe I can” to yourself.  Yet we have to understand the internal ones before we can dismantle the larger societal ones.

Internal Thermostats

Upper limits are kind of like our default settings. There are a lot of ways we might have come to them. Think of this default as a setting on a thermostat.

There is a band on the thermostat that is very comfortable. Anything below that band will motivate us to change our circumstances to relieve discomfort; get a blanket so to speak.  Inside this band, it feels comfortable and familiar. Anything above feels uncomfortable and scary.  And just like some like it at a specific temperature and you think it’s freezing, everyone’s settings are different.

It’s important to note when I say you’re comfortable in this band, it doesn’t have to mean you like it or you enjoy it or it’s good for you.  It’s just familiar.  It’s comforting to you, even if it makes you miserable.  You think: I’m used to this, I know how to deal with this. To go above this band means that you are getting more of something then you are used to.  Maybe it’s money, maybe it’s a relationship, maybe it’s success.

Breaking a Sweat

What happens next is that once you get above this comfortable setting, things start to inexplicably go wrong.  This is when you lose your wallet or you get into fights with your partner.  You think to yourself, of course, it was too good to last.  It could even be worry and anxiety just waiting for the other shoe to drop when things are going right.

This is a way to get you back below the upper threshold of the band.  Your terrible feeling of losing your wallet or fighting with your partner brings your emotion back down to “normal”.  The bad feeling cancels out the good emotions.

Hidden Barriers

Dr. Hendricks gives us four causes of these settings on our thermostat.  He calls these “hidden barriers”. Every self-limiting belief can be different, but they tend to fall into these four big categories. While we call them “self-limiting”, they usually don’t start out that way.  We usually arrive at them from messages we receive from the outside.  Over time, we come to internalize these beliefs and then make ourselves live within them.

The first one is the belief somehow you’re fundamentally flawed.

There’s something wrong with me? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get this everyone seems to be catching on so much faster. So there must be something wrong with me and therefore I don’t deserve success or money or love. This shows up as “I’m not ___ enough.”

The second one is that you believe you’re a burden.


Therefore all of your gifts, achievements, things you would create would also become a burden. For example, you might spiral into be thinking, “Oh, if I got this, it would be so great.” But you jump right into thinking “oh, it would cause all these other problems for everyone, so it’s better not to achieve it”.  For example, you might be up for a promotion and while you qualify and would be deserving, you think “oh but this means it would be long hours and my partner would have to shoulder more at home. That would be such an imposition upon them, so it’d be better if I didn’t get it.”

The third one is disloyalty and abandonment.


This one can also be culturally established or family-based.  This is when you pass a certain thermostat that is beyond all of your family has achieved.  This causes you to feel you’re being disloyal to the clan. You are afraid they will think you’re too good for them. For example, if you are the first of your family to go to university and everyone says, “Oh, you’re such a hotshot now”.  It’s possible they will not think or say that, yet, you live in dread of it.

The fourth one is the fear of outshining.


This is generally based on some spoken or unspoken rules in your family. You’re afraid of outshining another family member and getting all the attention. This is usually set in when you’re very small.  As children, we’re very sensitive to visual and non-verbal cues. It could be that you get a look when you do something that outshines your brother.  It could be you’re even told not to bring attention to yourself because you are outshining in a crowd.

Limits provided by society


Not only are some of these hidden barriers from personal experience, but some are also collective as well.  These are the beliefs that society gives us and we live within their confines.

One of the popular beliefs perpetuated by society is for women, success in a career means failure in love and romantic relationships. Or vice-versa.  We’re told again and again how these things don’t go together. To give you an example, in my career, in the weeks before I would get a promotion, I’d go through a breakup with my then romantic partner. This happened three times in a roll.  A bit more than coincidence.  It could be just the folly of youth in picking the wrong partners, but I can’t discredit the idea that perhaps there was some self-sabotage going on as well.

There are self-limiting beliefs that you give yourself.

A lot of times these limits come about very naturally. I’ll give you an example from my own life. A couple of years ago, I started to learn martial arts called Krav Maga. During my first lesson, the instructor paired me with an intermediate student. The idea was that she would help me and show me the ropes.

She was brilliant and had a blue belt. I remember during the class, I thought, “Wow, she is amazing and I’d be happy to get to her level!” Fast forward two years. I got my blue belt.  This is an intermediate step with a series of belt tests still to go. I was about to go for the next level up when my Upper Limit Problem kicked in.

Two days before the test, I’m practicing with a classmate.  We are going over a couple of exercises to enhance our muscle memory. These were exercises we had done dozens of times without incident.  But on this day, I landed awkwardly on my shoulder during one of them. I ended up hurting my shoulder so bad that I wasn’t able to test.  My instructor had even told me that I was well prepared and should do very well.

I was on the verge of crossing that upper limit of the thermostat, I sabotaged myself so I would stay where I was comfortable.

What to Do about it?


Ok, now what?  Does this mean we are destined to live below these defaults?  Absolutely not.  It is possible to push these defaults higher and higher.  It’s not comfortable, but growth is rarely comfortable.

Steps to Conquer the Upper Limit


The first thing to do is to be aware of where it might be happening.  Is it with relationships?  Is it with your career?  Is it with money or budgets?

Then identify which of the 4 hidden barriers that might be causing these limits.  It might be more than one of the barriers, it might even be all four.  It’s important to remember that none of them are exclusive, but they are not additive either. Meaning just because there may be more than 1 barrier, it’s not more difficult to overcome.

Next comes the uncomfortable part.  We should just be aware of this feeling of discomfort when we do near these limits.  We may start to feel anxious (which might cause us to snap at our loved ones, prompting a fight).  We might feel scared (which might distract us so that we forget where we put our wallet or forget to pick it back up once we set it down). We might start to procrastinate (which robs us of time to spellcheck our work for that big project at work).

When we feel that discomfort, we should not rush to any action in hopes to relieve it.  Instead, slow down and actually take a deep breath.  I heard a great quote which was that fear is excitement without the breath.  So breathe.

In. Out. In. Out.

Notice that this feeling isn’t the end of the world. With a couple of deep breaths, we can now realize that our hidden barriers are just thoughts.  Upper Limits are thoughts.  We can insert other thoughts if we don’t like these default programming.  We can catch ourselves during these tape loops and switch to a new one.

With anything in life, it takes many repetitions before it feels natural to us.  Practice does make perfect.


P.S. In case you were wondering, I did take that next belt test that following month and passed with flying colors.

1 thought on “Self-Sabotage and How to Overcome the Self-Limiting Beliefs Standing Between You and Success”

  1. Pingback: Plutus Awards Weekly Showcase: January 31, 2020 - The Plutus Foundation

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.