So in Episode 148, one of the things that we explored is that our mind thinks it's doing its job when it floods us with all sorts of fears and concerns about what might happen when our visibility grows, when we share our story, and when we put ourselves out there. So definitely head back to Episode 148 for a deeper dive in terms of why the mind does this, why it's doing its job and how we can manage it. Because in many ways, even when things go well our mind is still doing its job when it's bringing in all sorts of worries and fears about what's next. It's trying to prepare us for the worst case scenario. So even though you've had this successful outcome, then the question is, “Well, what about next time? Do I have what it takes to keep this up? Can I do this again? Or was this just a fluke?” And we start doubting our own success and we start doubting our own brilliance. Again, this is the mind doing its job trying to keep us safe. And so we need to be aware of that so that we don't wind up sabotaging our own success. And in fact, today, there's two different voices I want to introduce to the conversation because I think their takes on this issue are really important and can provide us with a framework for navigating this kind of discomfort.
And so the first voice I want to introduce to the conversation is Brené Brown. Now, I'm pretty confident most of you are familiar with Brené Brown's work, definitely check out her TED talks, which really kind of catapulted her into fame, because she does a lot of work around shame and vulnerability. So anytime we're talking about voice and vulnerability, we definitely have space for Brené Brown in the conversation. And what I want to focus on today is what she calls foreboding joy. So this term “foreboding joy” is something that she created as a way to describe that experience when we're feeling incredibly happy or joyful about something. And then we are immediately taken over by a sense of fear or dread. Interesting to me, Brené says that the most vulnerable emotion we experience is joy. And on some level, the mind feels threatened by joy. Because if we're in this joyful state, what if we're not prepared for whatever may come next. And so there's this idea that if we don't feel happiness, then we won't feel disappointment. And so foreboding joy comes in as a protective response to keep us safe and keep us small. Again, it's the mind doing its job. But my goodness, it does not feel good to experience foreboding joy does it? One quote that Brené has around this that I think is really powerful, is she says that “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience and if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.” So this is so interesting, it's almost like we need to build a tolerance for experiencing joy, to really give ourselves permission to feel the goodness of that. And recognize that it does not necessarily have to lead to dress rehearsing tragedy. I think that is such a fantastic way of describing it.
So the examples that she typically gives around foreboding joy, and these are ones that I readily identify with. It's love for our children. And so she talks about how we can be watching our children sleep, or we can be watching them doing something momentous like going off to school. And we're so proud of them and we're experiencing such joy. And it's immediately followed by horrific images of something happening to our kids, I'm getting in an accident, or worse. And it certainly doesn't take my mind much time at all, for it to flip from “I'm so proud of my children.” and “I love them so much.” to “What if something were to happen to them? How would I ever survive?” I have experienced that quite a bit recently, since my oldest son is now driving. And I am so proud of him for doing what he needed to do to get his license. And he has been such a responsible and safe driver. I'm proud of him. And I'm excited that he is able to have this level of independence in his life. And I'm also terrified every single time he gets behind the wheel. I have that sense of foreboding joy. What if? What if something happens? And this idea of foreboding joy certainly comes up professionally as well, something that I struggle with. If I become well known for something, what if I can't keep it up? If I put myself out there as an expert in coaching and coach training, and then I experience failure? Or maybe I just experience kind of a plateau where things are going fine, but I'm not really growing. What does that say about me? Is it safe for me to put myself out there in my business? What if I experience the sophomore slump or the equivalent of a one hit wonder in my business? Just because I've had success once does that mean that I'm automatically going to have success again? Not necessarily. And so that's the fear when we experience those successes in our business. Foreboding joy comes in when we immediately start doubting ourselves and we create worst case scenarios for what could go wrong now that we've experienced this type of success. And the truth is, the more visible we become, the more vulnerable we become. We've talked about that before. And so being more visible and more successful means that your vulnerability is increasing. And so that fear of being a fluke, being a fraud, what if I can't maintain this? It's real, and it's understandable. And I'll share personally, I know that this is something I really have to be on guard about, because I have seen the ways that foreboding joy has negatively affected me personally and professionally. So that's why I appreciate that not only has Brené Brown called out foreboding joy as this phenomenon that happens, she also talks about what we can do to respond to it. And the very first thing we need to do is to be aware of it. So as we have that response, as we notice the pit in our stomach, or we notice our breath gets short or we start to contract, pay attention, notice how we are closing down and responding to success in a way that doesn't feel good, because on some level, we feel threatened. The very first thing we have to do is acknowledge it, and own it, and see it for what it is, which is “Ah, this is foreboding joy, I know what this is.” Once we are aware of it, then we can respond to it. And Brené Brown would say that the best antidote to foreboding joy, is gratitude, to ground ourselves back in the present moment, and to express gratitude for the joy that we are experiencing, and for whatever's contributing to that joy.
So when I'm working with my clients, and they are experiencing the vulnerability that comes with success, that's where we start. If they're not familiar with the concept of foreboding joy, we talk about that, if they're not familiar with the concept of how our mind exists to help keep us safe, we talk about that. And so part of it is helping raise the awareness of what my client is experiencing and then also placing it into context and letting my client know that this is a normal, understandable response and here's why. So once we've done the awareness work and the acceptance work, then we can talk about specific strategies that my client can use, when foreboding joy comes up again, and gratitude is always one of them. So awareness and gratitude are key, they help build our resilience, and prepare us for when foreboding joy happens. Because that's the thing, it is going to happen. And for some of us, it's going to happen more often than not, because that's simply how we are wired. So the goal is not to eliminate that sense of foreboding joy. But I think the goal is to shorten the period of time we feel distressed about it. And that comes by awareness, acknowledging, responding with gratitude, and doing whatever we need to do to manage our own nervous system response so that we can feel good in our bodies, with our emotions, and so that our mind will follow. So that's the first voice I wanted to bring into this conversation around how we can manage the vulnerability that comes when we experience success, and bringing in this idea of foreboding joy, and how that plays a role in it. So, thank you Brené Brown. Thank you for your body of work and for contributing to this conversation.
The second person I would like to invite into our conversation is Gay Hendricks. He is the author of the book, The Big Leap, which I highly recommend reading, if you haven't. Now, admittedly, there are some parts of the book that are a little problematic. I think we are hearing about this from someone who is male, white and privileged. And so you do need to keep that in mind as you're reading this book, that maybe the lens he is viewing this through is limited in scope. So that's a bit of a caveat there. And yet I also think there's quite a bit that we can take from his work and from the book that is helpful, and certainly speaks to how we can handle our own discomfort and vulnerability as we experience success. One of the things he talks about pretty much from the start of his book is the “upper limit” problem. And I'm going to read a quote from the book to describe what the upper limit problem is, and so this is from The Big Leap. Gay Hendricks writes “The problem: I have a limited tolerance for feeling good. When I hit my upper limit, I manufacture thoughts that make me feel bad. The problem is bigger than just my internal feelings though. I seem to have a limited tolerance for my life going well in general. When I hit my upper limit, I do something that stops my positive forward trajectory.” So that is how Gay Hendricks defines the upper limit problem, he proposes that each one of us has a limit as to how much joy or happiness or satisfaction we can experience. And when we hit that limit, that is our upper limit, and it no longer feels safe to exceed that limit. And so we may have thoughts or emotions that are designed to kind of bring us away from that upper limit. So if the upper limit is feeling good, those thoughts and emotions have us feel bad, sometimes they can influence actions or behaviors we take that can go against our success. So it's a self sabotage cycle. And it's all because we are experiencing an upper limit problem. So the two questions at the core of the upper limit problem are, how much love and abundance am I willing to welcome into my life? And how am I getting in my own way? So here we are examining where our threshold is, where our upper limit is for happiness And how might we be contributing to that upper limit problem? In what ways might we be sabotaging our own success?
In The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks introduces a metaphor of a thermostat to describe our upper limit problem. And so he says that, essentially, we each have our own inner thermostat. And that thermostat has a setting, which determines how much abundance and joy and love and success and creativity and all of those good things, there's a limit to how much we can enjoy it. And so when we exceed that thermostat setting, we do something to bring us right back down. And so even though we might not be experiencing as much happiness or joy, we bring ourselves back to a familiar place. And that familiarity is comfortable, we feel secure, we may not feel joyful, but we feel safe. So again, this goes hand in hand with the idea that the thoughts that our mind generates, the desire is to keep us safe and secure, even at the cost of our own happiness. And the thing is this thermostat setting that Gay Hendricks talks about in his book, it typically gets set at some point in childhood. So we have an experience or a series of experiences early in our development, that lets us know just where that threshold is and when it is no longer acceptable to feel joy or security. And so we kind of get that setting programmed in at a young age. So that in the future, when we hit that limit, we essentially are rewarded with guilt and fear and all sorts of uncomfortable emotions, in order to ensure we don't exceed our capacity for happiness and joy. And I have to tell you, the first time I read this, I got teary. I highlighted it actually, in my book. I remember highlighting it and I remember doing so with tears in my eyes, because I was immediately brought back to my own childhood experiences. And there are two experiences that I think were formative in me creating my own upper limit. So the first experience was in kindergarten, so I was five years old, we're really going back here. And I had already been reading for a few years, I was an early reader. And by the time I started kindergarten, I was probably already reading at like a third or fourth grade level. So it didn't make a lot of sense for me to stay with my fellow kindergarteners for reading. Because many of them were just learning how to read. And I was already fairly proficient in it. So instead, I got pulled out of class to go receive tutoring with a reading specialist. And at the age of five, all I knew was that being a good reader meant I couldn't be with my friends, I couldn't be with my teacher, I was singled out. And I don't have particularly fond memories of that reading specialist she was uh, she was pretty rigid. Even my mom now would describe her as a rather unpleasant woman. So my little five year old self equated being successful with reading with being pulled away, even ostracized from my peers, and from my teacher who I loved and having to go spend time with someone I didn't like. So that was one formative piece about how success leads to bad outcomes. And then the other piece was a little later in elementary school. I was in fifth grade, so I was like 9 or 10. And I had gotten the lead in the school play. I was Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. And there were actually two casts because there were a lot of kids who were interested in being in the show, so there were two Eliza Doolittles and there were two performances. One during the day for the school, and one at night for family and the community. And while it was never explicitly stated, there was an understanding that the night performance was like the really special one. And so you wanted to be in the cast that got to perform at night, not the cast that got to perform for the school. And I was selected to perform for the evening production, so I had succeeded. And I remember when that was announced, the other Eliza Doolittle burst into tears. She was so upset that she would be performing during the day for the school and not in the evening for the community. And I remember very clearly thinking to myself, “Oh, my goodness, when I succeed, and when I get what I want, other people fail, and they are hurt, and they don't get what they want. Therefore, it is not safe for me to succeed, because when I succeed, other people fail.” Now, that is a fairly reductive way of viewing the situation. But you have to remember, I was like nine years old. And this was not my first experience with this. I remember when I got cast in that role to begin with, there were a lot of other little girls who wanted to be Eliza Doolittle, and they didn't get the part. And they were upset. And I remember tears when the cast list was posted. And so at every turn, whenever I got a role that I wanted, whenever I got the production that I wanted, other people were disappointed, and other people got hurt. And so I internalized the message that it was not safe to succeed. And that message when I succeed, other people get hurt. I can see now how that shaped my adolescence, and my early adult experiences. It's probably not a surprise that I went into a helping profession, as a career. First, as a social worker, then as a therapist, finally, as a coach, because these careers allow me to have success when other people are successful as well, or when other people experience help or relief, because of what I'm able to provide.
So I'm sharing those stories from my own childhood as examples of how our upper limits are created, and to see if this resonates with you. And if you can acknowledge your own experiences likely from your childhood, that may contribute to whatever beliefs you hold around success, and whether it is safe to be successful. And so in the book, Gay Hendricks talks about that we really have to expose the beliefs that we have held onto likely for decades, these beliefs that have created the very foundation of our upper limit problem. Because if we don't expose those beliefs, we will not be able to reprogram our own internal thermostat. And so again, going back to this idea of awareness, which Brené Brown talks about, with foreboding joy, we need to increase our awareness of our own thought processes and how they influence our comfort, our ability to experience success and joy. And as coaches, this is really important work because this is a lot of what we do with our clients. So many of my clients come to me and they are experiencing, I would say moderate success, they're doing fine, things are good. But on some level, they know that there's more they could be achieving, and yet they feel blocked. And that block to their success can often be connected to an upper limit problem. So as coaches, we need to be aware of that. And we need to understand how we can support our clients in navigating these old beliefs, and developing new ways of thinking about success and approaching success in their own lives.
So, in The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks also talks about the four zones. And so if you've ever heard the phrase “zone of genius”, that comes from The Big Leap. And the four zones that Gay Hendricks talks about are the zone of incompetence, the zone of competence, the zone of excellence, and the zone of genius. I'm not going to go into all four zones today, though, that could be a really interesting podcast topic for the future. So we'll put a pin in that. But what I do want to say is that many of us stay in the zone of excellence. Or maybe we kind of hop back and forth between competence, the things we're good at, and excellence, the things we're great at. And on the surface, it might not seem like that would be so much of an issue. I mean, if we're excellent at something, if we do something well, if it comes easily to us, why not just stay there? Why should we rock the boat? Is it worth it to look for that zone of genius? But what Gay Hendricks would say is that our zone of genius is where we find not just true success, but also satisfaction. So when we're working with clients who feel like “You know, things are going fine. I don't really know why I feel this way but I just get the sense that I'm not living up to my potential, or I could be doing so much more,” that is often a sign that they are in their zone of excellence and not their zone of genius. And it's difficult for most of us to break through the zone of excellence and enter into the zone of genius, due to four common barriers. And these are the barriers that Gay Hendricks talks about in his book.
The first barrier is that on some level, we believe that we are flawed, that there is something fundamental to our nature that is inherently wrong or bad. And so we have a deep fear of failure because if we are flawed then even our genius must be flawed as well. And so it's not safe to go into our zone of genius, because we will likely fail, because there is something innately wrong with us. So this is on a deep level where we believe “I am flawed, I am not okay.” So that's the first barrier.
The second barrier he describes as disloyalty and abandonment. If I become successful, then I will betray my earlier younger self or my sense of identity, or perhaps my family or friends will feel threatened by my success, and therefore I will be abandoned by them. And so when I think back to my experience with my reading specialist, and being pulled out of my classroom, that fear of disloyalty and abandonment was very much present. Because all of a sudden, I was pulled away from my friends. And so there was this fear of being abandoned by them because I was successful in this one area of my life. So I can definitely see how that particular barrier has shown up in my own life.
The third barrier he talks about is that more success means that you are a bigger burden. And so this is kind of a riff off of that first barrier, where on some level, we believe we're fundamentally flawed. Here, we believe we are fundamentally a burden to other people, that we cause other people grief or pain, or we make it so that they have to do a lot for us. And so as our success increases, the needs we place on other people become greater as well. And therefore, it's not safe for us to succeed, because it just means we're going to be an even bigger burden on the people we love and care about.
And then finally, the fourth barrier he describes, and yet again, this was a tearful moment for me when I hit this in the book. The fourth is the crime of outshining. And this is another passage that I've highlighted in the book, but essentially, it is not safe for us to succeed because when we do, we outshine everyone around us. In the book, Gay Hendricks says that this is very common among gifted and talented children. And that oftentimes children who have been identified as gifted or talented, they respond to this by turning down the volume of their genius, because they don't want other people to feel threatened by it or to be hurt by it. And I definitely remember feeling this way when I was witnessing the other little girls cry because I got the role that they wanted. So instead of being proud of myself and celebrating my success, I went into caretaking mode. I moved the spotlight off of me and on to the other person, it felt much safer to attend to their needs, and to gain their love, their admiration, their support by being helpful, instead of really allowing my own talent and brilliance to shine. So very early on, I internalized the idea that it was not safe for me to shine, because every time I did, someone else got hurt. So when we know these four barriers, we can see which of them one, two, three, or maybe all four of them have contributed to our own beliefs that have kept us playing small and kept us from really embracing our capacity for success, love and joy.
And so from sharing my stories, you can probably see that the two barriers that I struggle with most are disloyalty and abandonment and outshining. And so I would encourage you to think about the formative experiences you had around success, the messages that you heard, or maybe internalized and how they connect to the barriers that Gay Hendricks describes in his book. Because again, once we understand the specific beliefs that we have held on to, that have compromised our success or our ability to tolerate success, then we can see those messages for what they are: our minds' way of keeping us safe, of keeping us in the herd and connected to our other people. And then we can ask ourselves, is this belief continuing to serve me? Or would I be better served by a different thought, a different belief, or a different way of engaging in the world? And of course, in the book, Gay Hendricks goes into greater description as to how we can overcome our upper limit problem. But I think it really does come back to those first two steps that Brené Brown talks about, number one, awareness. And number two, gratitude. This is an issue that I think affects each and every one of us as coaches, both in terms of what our clients are experiencing, so we need to be well versed in this so we can support them through it. But also, let's be honest, most of us, I'm tempted to say all of us, but also most of us experience our own upper limit problems, our own sense of foreboding joy in our businesses, in our relationships and in our lives.
So this is a topic I suspect we'll be returning to in the podcast. And I would love to know your thoughts on this. Do you experience foreboding joy? What is that like for you in your coaching practice? What does that like for you in your life? What is your take on the upper limit problem? Is this something that resonates with you? Do you notice if any one or more of the four barriers are showing up in your life? I would love to know how this resonates with you. And perhaps in future podcast episodes, we can explore the next steps. So once we understand why we experience foreboding joy, or why it feels so scary to experience success, what do we do about it? So this is definitely a topic we will continue to explore on the podcast. And of course, I want to make sure that everything we discuss here is relevant to you and your coaching practice. So if you've got an idea for a podcast, if there's someone you'd love to see interviewed on the show, I would love to hear from you. So please reach out. You can find me on social media, Instagram and TikTok @CoachWithClarity or please send me an email. I love getting emails, I love hearing from you. You can send it to email@example.com, I would love to know your thoughts about this episode and what you'd like to see more of in future episodes of the Coach with Clarity podcast. But for now, my friend, we have reached the end of this episode. And I am so grateful that you are a listener of the show. If today's episode really inspired you. I would be absolutely honored if you shared it with a friend or colleague that you think might benefit from listening to it as well. That is the very best way we can grow the show and ensure the message of Coach with Clarity is heard by the people who most need it. So my friend, thank you again. I will be right back in your feed next week with another episode. And until then, my name is Lee Chaix McDonough reminding you to get out there and show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity.