You know that moment when everything just feels right? The weather is gorgeous. Your hair is falling perfectly into place. The kids haven’t been driving you up a wall, and things just seem to be going so well.
Then, there’s a little voice inside the back of your head that starts to tell you that those things cannot all be happening without something bad looming in the future.
Suddenly, you’re stressed, anxious, and on edge because there’s no life can just be okay for a moment. According to experts, this is a form of self-sabotage called hitting the “upper limit.”
One woman on TikTok is calling out to moms specifically to try and explain that the constant worry and fear moms seem to be plagued with is not intrusive thinking but more their brain’s inability to feel relaxed, calling it an “upper limit problem.”
Moms deserve to enjoy those pockets of peace and realize it’s just their “upper limit.”
What is an “upper limit problem”?
TikTok creator and author, Mami Onami, spoke to her mom followers in a now-viral TikTok, asking for them to recognize and work to overcome their “upper limit problems.”
She began, “You know when you have a quiet moment to yourself, the kids are down at the beach with their dad, you're eating some ceviche, enjoying the nice weather, and a little voice goes on in your head and says, ‘Yeah, your son's probably drowning right now.’?”
“That's not your intuition. That's your upper limit problem.”
She continued, “It's something you use to sabotage yourself when you're feeling too much joy and you can't handle it. When you recognize something's an upper limit problem, you can be like, ‘Oh, that's what I'm using here.’ When you don't know what it is, you think it's your intuition, running down to the beach and immersing yourself back in the trenches of motherhood. Don't do that.”
“It's not a sign. It's not going to come true. It's an upper limit problem because you were having a good time.”
An “upper limit” is a defense mechanism that our brain uses as a form of of self-sabotage, like Mami Onami says, and it's the brain's subconscious way of ensuring that we stay within our “safe zone.”
The term was first coined by psychologist, Gay Hendricks, in his book, The Big Leap.
So many moms are programmed to always be running on empty, with little support, and just basically living in survival mode. At times, moms believe they function better in the chaos of life over actually taking the time to enjoy life.
This is an upper limit. It feels unnatural to “have it all” and feel content in the moment. So, instead of enjoying it, anxious thoughts and paranoia sink in.
In an interview with Forbes, Hendricks explained that the first time he experienced his upper limit was after he had finished his doctoral program at Stanford. He had just scored his "dream job," feeling "as good as I could remember ever feeling in my life."
He noticed that despite all of these amazing things to feel good about, his mind would not stop worrying about random things, such as whether or not his daughter would be homesick at a sleepover.
He continued, “I’ve worked with hundreds of extremely talented, capable executives and professionals over the past 45 years. Yet even with their awesome skills, there were still areas of their lives in which they kept hitting upper limits and then sabotaging themselves.”
“In my work, we identify the underlying issues that trigger the Upper Limit Problem, so that people can rise smoothly to higher and higher levels of their potential without bumping their heads against the false ceilings that are held in place by negative belief systems.”
While some have traced the upper limit problem to feelings of shame or fear, the most common reason, especially for moms, is that we’ve been programmed to believe that life and motherhood has to be filled with hardship and suffering.
The ever-present “mom guilt” could also be a contributing factor to this kind of thinking. Moms are “supposed” to be these selfless, all-giving creatures who live for their families, so when they get the opportunity to enjoy some alone time, get out of the house, and feel some sort of happiness outside of being of mom, it goes against our internal belief that we don't deserve to feel that joy.
Intuition vs. “Upper Limit” reactions
After Mami Onami’s video went viral, several commenters wanted to know that if what they were experiencing was not a true gut feeling and more so an upper limit problem, how can you tell the difference when those feelings arise?
She answered in a follow-up video and explained that a true help to understanding the difference between a gut feeling and an upper limit problem is knowing yourself.
“So the first thing you want to check is how is it making you feel. If it's making you feel like afraid and nervous, that's not coming from your intuition. If it's talking really, really loud, and then it switches off ... it's not your intuition,” she explains.
One user noted, “So wild & true. When my intuition is speaking, I go into automatic mode. More doing less thinking.”
How to overcome an upper limit problem
According to Hendricks, there are a few concrete steps one can take to help overcome an upper limit. First, Hendricks emphasizes the important of “keeping an attitude of wonder and play” while learning about your own upper limit problems.
He recommends affirming yourself, out loud with the following sentence: I commit to discovering my Upper-Limit behaviors, and to having a good time while I'm learning about them.”
“You can learn a lot more with a spirit of wonder and enjoyment than you can with an attitude of criticism,” he writes.
Next, write down all the feelings and behaviors that come with personal upper limit problems such as anxiety, blame, feeling ill, and deflecting.
Hendricks also advises a mindset shift when those upper limit problems start to drip in.
“Shift your attention to the real issue: expanding your capacity for abundance, love and success,” he continued.
Overcoming an upper limit problem takes practice, reminding, and so much time. However, with a conscious mind and a firm grasp on your own self worth as a mom, there is hope that soon, you will be able to achieve a few moments of that unabashed comfort and joy that all moms deserve to feel.