May 25, 2023

I am Writing, And Upper Limiting

Writing is coming so easily... so that must mean something is wrong, right??

I want to let you know that I am writing a book about selling a business that primarily depends on selling yourself. Now, to be clear, most businesses, nonprofits, lawsuits, college applications, and dating profiles depend on this, but my book is at least ostensibly trained on solopreneurs.

I want to let you know that YOU are the reason I’m doing that. I wrote this post to offer a three-hour workshop on this topic. Twenty-five of you came. You validated that there are at least 25 people who might be interested in this topic, and you gave incredible feedback that incorporated some straight-up validation that I might have something useful to say on this topic. You also (by saying you would show up) pressed me into writing an outline and delivering a three-hour firehose of quasi-organized information mixed with exercises for you.


So I’m writing this book. I am writing right now about writing. And other than this blog, I’m not talking too much about it.

I’ve read Bird by Bird, I’ve watched the documentary by the same name, I’ve started writing a couple of other books and then lost interest because it felt too heavy. This time I’ve given myself permission to write the shittiest first draft I could ever imagine. And now, this book is flowing out of me like love admixed with water. It is the river, I am in the river, I am the river.

It feels extraordinary. It’s one thing to talk about Zone of Genius. It’s another thing to get to touch it just about any time I want during a day. Wowee. Highly recommend.

I am also experiencing some upper limit thoughts.

Now, every time I allude to Upper Limits in this blog, I go to look for a prior blog post that quickly covers the notion of Upper Limits, and I realize I’ve never written one. So here goes. I’m going to write a bit about Upper Limits, a concept coined by Gay Hendricks in his phenomenal book, The Big Leap.

The idea is that each one of us carries ingrained, unconscious ideas of just how happy and successful we can be. There’s a sense over our lifetimes of a ceiling on joy, connectedness, love, and success. These start early, when a parent tells you to calm down at the playground because you might get hurt. You may have received early messages about how much you might be able to progress in a career given a theoretical limitation posed by some reason or another. As we get more entrenched in our lives, we incorporate these background notions in our way of being, imagining in those moments of peak joy or accomplishment that “the other shoe is about to fall,” “we’ll see how long that lasts,” or “I’m crazy about him, but we’re just in the honeymoon phase.”

Hendricks identifies four types of “upper limit problems” or “Hidden Barriers.” I’ve identified the four below along with a little context or an example for how that upper limit problem might show up in life.

  1. Feeling fundamentally flawed (e.g., I have this big chance at a promotion, but I will never be successful. They see me at this company as a superstar, but they’re wrong. They just haven’t figured out yet that I only look good at first, until my true colors shine. Then they will see they’ve made an error, and I will be out.)
  2. Disloyalty or abandonment (i.e., If I shine brighter in my career or in my personal relationships, my family of origin or my high school friends will think I’m being disloyal to them by stepping out with such strength on my own. I should stay in my lane, be seen as one of the gang, and tamp down my hopes and expectations for what’s possible so I’m not alone and my people feel like I’m one of them.)
  3. Belief that more success makes you a bigger burden (i.e., I have a cycle in my life of making big breakthroughs and then feeling like I’m a burden to people close to me. If I dial down my successes, I might imagine that I also dial down the extent of my guilt for being a burden.)
  4. The crime of outshining (e.g., I’m thinking of starting this new company, and investors are really juiced about it. I also have three customers ready to sign as soon as I greenlight the project. But if I do go forward, I’m going to make people I care about feel inferior, and I don’t think I should cause them that kind of pain. So I’ll steer clear of this big opportunity to save my intimates from feeling small in relation to me.)

The objective with upper limits is, first, to become aware of them. If you notice that you have developed an unconscious ceiling for your success and happiness, you can start to see the contraction that might arise as you get more and more successful or happy. You can see that you might literally or figuratively be setting yourself up for stubbing your toe after or leading up to a big win. As you get more familiar, you can start to break down the connection between the win and the proverbial stubbed toe. You can see the “story” or even the false connection you have made and are currently making around your personal advancement. You can notice which core patterns or unconscious commitments are holding your upper limits in place. To tie one more thread, upper limits often keep us from leaning in more to our Zones of Genius. And you can begin to chip away at them as you start to understand your specific personality patterns in this arena.

Around my current push to write, I can see that one upper limit problem is a sense that I am fundamentally flawed. Whatever shitty first draft I’m writing is shittier than I think it is. It will be complete bunk. My 50,000 word draft will have exactly 335 words of value. I had one good moment of sharing this information in that one workshop, and it’s a memory.

My second upper limit is the exact opposite of this fear of failure. It is a fear of success, which underlies many upper limits. If I actually write something meaningful, if I’m drawn to writing, I may do something great. If I do that, then how can I explain the 10-20 years in which I’ve been unable to put font to digital paper? How many books have I missed? How bad have my career and personal choices been to have kept me from this pursuit? This upper limit allows for this mental patter: “I really want to write. Look over at that office and how appealing that setup looks for writing right now. Notice how yummy it feels that this book is being written through me, like a river. YUCK. I can’t allow this. No. Something must be WRONG!”

When upper limits get noticeable, I recommend doing something grounding. Sweeping the floor, going for a slow walk, breathing through difficult and seemingly contradictory motivations and stories, and…writing. So here we are.

Anne Lamott says in that documentary: “Maybe you want to write. Maybe you don’t want to write. Maybe you just want to read. But if you want to write, the thing you need to remember is that life is flowing by very quickly, and you don’t want to end up being 80 wishing you had done your work.” She then says “I don’t believe that at 80 we are going to sit around wishing we had cleaned our houses more.”

There are two more things I want to tell you. I have a title. The workshop title was Suemanship, Leah’s name for my style of selling. So it is fitting that Leah came up with my working book title: Youmanship! I also want to tell you that notwithstanding all of the perils of the urgency of the Enneagram type 8, my type is paying dividends right now. Yes I do run a word count every time I stop writing for the time I’ve been writing. It takes some downright healthy lusty 8 to write 20,000 words of a shitty first draft in eight days.

Here’s to genius, passion, longing, noticing upper limits, and being in touch with your future 80-year-old self.

Photo by Daria Volkova on Unsplash.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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