Has Your Ambition Hit a Wall? Look Up!
Even the most ambitious among us hits a wall, or rather, a ceiling — believing more in what is not possible rather than what is. If you identify as a Type A personality, or just find yourself striving harder and more joylessly for little reward, and wondering why, you might want to look up. Discover how you may be keeping yourself tethered to your lowest expectations, and resisting your own rise.
Do you think of yourself as ambitious…maybe even a Type A, would you say?
I’ll fully own that myself. I always thought this meant I lean toward:
- high energy
- high achievement
- need to be in control of (basically any) situation
If you’re like me, that may mean leaving voice-text responses about work lying in bed at 10:30pm, doing laundry at 7am when no one else will be doing theirs, and getting stressed about seating arrangements for dinners that are days away.
But hey—you’re also an achiever right? Type As usually get…As. They tend toward a lot of “A” words: accomplishment, achievement, ambition.
What Is “Type A,” Really?
If we go by the original definition of Type A, coined by cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman in the 1950s, the terms associated with Type A* (and with an increased risk of heart disease) are:
Whether you see yourself as having low self-esteem or being outright hostile (though I hope not!), the key here is “joyless striving.” Because anyone who has ambitions for more is likely dissatisfied with where they are right now.
But. If you believe that you can’t achieve what you want, that you are currently and forever limited and incapable of having and doing what you want most? Enter joyless striving.
We all know what this feels like. And yet it’s particularly tough on the Type A peeps who continue to berate themselves for limits that they swear are real.
The question: How do we know if it’s a ‘real’ limitation? In this regard, we are all unreliable narrators. We do a pretty bad job of knowing what’s possible, especially if we’re convinced that that “ceiling” of potential is solid and immutable.
In fact, that struggle and resistance we feel may have everything to do with the limits we put ourselves—particularly the ones that determine how high we can rise.
Discover what other half-truths are hindering you.
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When Everything You Want Seems Way Out of Reach
It’s an old song, and I’m guessing you know the tune. The lyrics go:
“I don’t deserve more than this.”
“I’ll never have more than this.”
“I don’t have a talent for ___ (insert dream here!).”
“I could never do ___ (whatever you actually wish you could do).”
And—sing it with me now—
“This is it. It won’t ever get better, and probably only worse.”
We may not cognitively “think” these things to ourselves or say them out loud.
You also may not “think” all that much about gravity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not at work on you, right now.
The belief in the ideas that we are inherently limited in our ability, skills, and potential exerts a kind of gravitational force that can take its toll. These untruths about ourselves and our potential form what Gay Hendricks describes in The Big Leap as an “upper limit.”
This internalized and self-imposed ceiling dictates how much success you can have, how much money you can make, how happy you can be.
Upper Limits Are Usually Self-imposed
For many years, I loved to tell anyone who would listen—my family, my friends, boyfriends—why I couldn’t: Be a “real” writer, write or publish a book, earn a good living. I was almost too passionate about policing that limit; I defended it ruthlessly.
Hendricks writes, “I’ve discovered that if I cling to the notion that something’s not possible, I’m arguing in favor of limitation. And if I argue for my limitations, I get to keep them.”
Oof. And I did. Successfully. Too successfully, for too long.
And YET, if you’d asked me if I had an upper limit problem, even a few years ago, I would have looked you dead in the face and said, “No! Of course not.”
Cut to me….
…Throwing up in the bathroom of a steak restaurant the night of my book launch, after drinking too much and eating too little, very out of character for me.
…Picking a fight with my sisters on Thanksgivings. Yes, that’s plural.
…Delaying or avoiding time-sensitive decisions that would benefit me, and then paying a very real price for it.
In short, every time I’ve soared a little too high, or things seemed too good, I consciously or un (mostly un), found a way to knock it down and ruin things.
That’s the upper limit, in a nutshell.
Upper Limits Are Usually Invisible
But here’s the most surprising way my upper limit revealed itself:
My sister Lori came to visit. She’s really, really good at creating cozy spaces, and I mentioned that I didn’t love my apartment, and felt bad about not loving it, since this was clearly my fault.
“What don’t you like about it?”
“It just feels cluttered and heavy, and I hate everything I’m looking at.”
She took a look around. There were boxes and baskets—too much stuff—on the ground.
“Look up,” she said. “What is that?”
That’s when I saw it: A 2-foot margin all around the top of the walls of the room, as if the ceiling were lower than it was. I had actual, physical proof of my upper limit, and how I’d steered clear of it!
We got stuff off the floor, rehung pictures, put plants on top of the shelves, making better use of the vertical space—all of which gave the entire apartment a sense of being lifted. It was as if I suddenly had more room.
WE ARE ALL DOING THIS in one way or another. In ways we don’t even realize. And, of course, you cannot change what you don’t see.
This was a breakthrough for me.
I started seeing evidence of my upper limit problem everywhere and could then consciously push through it.
By the way, this doesn’t mean I have to change who I am or become the inverse of a Type A and neither do you. It’s not like we can be like “whatever” about stuff now.
But what I realize is that my ambition isn’t real if I really never believed I could do it.
Four Steps to Crushing Your Upper Limit Problem
Here’s what I do when I catch myself crouching under my own self-imposed limits, whether they’re in business or in life:
1 | Take an emotional screenshot.
I love when I catch myself in the moment of saying I can’t do a thing that I clearly want to do. Snap! There you are. Caught you red handed.
Then, I study it, question it. What triggered the thought or feeling? How does it represent a challenge to my upper limit? What’s actually at risk? Also: Where have I done this before?
2 | Say it out loud, even if it sounds irrational.
When you say it out loud, in the simplest way possible, it may sound ridiculous. That’s the point.
You might not even agree with it: “If I go for that promotion, and I get it, everyone else will hate me,” “I can’t earn more because people who have money are materialistic and greedy.” The more you boil it down, the more blunt you are, the clearer you can see the limit at work.
3 | Question the source.
There’s usually someone—a person, living or dead, an entity, a community—whom we think would not approve of our action. Or who would criticize or judge us in some way. Who? Who says? How valid is this fear, and why do we still care? Is it your dad? Your old teacher? Your ex? The church? How will any one of these entities suffer if you make a choice that works for you? Less than you think.
4 | Don’t mistake others’ expectations for your goals.
Truth time: I’ve never met an expectation I didn’t want to meet—or exceed. That’s not a bad thing. It will certainly win you accolades and approval, possibly financial success or recognition. But sometimes all it does is…check someone else’s boxes.
So ask yourself: Do I want this thing, or am I doing it because someone else wants this thing? Doesn’t mean your own goals must only be self-serving. The problem is when we think of “meeting others’ expectations” as the goal—and also the measure of our potential.
Because if we only ever reach for what someone else expects, we may supplant our own vision for our lives.
Bottom line: Your success, your fulfillment, all of it, can be far bigger and wider and more than you expect.
It has to be. Because as we’ve established, sometimes we don’t expect much! We hold back, hesitate, pump the brakes, and stop short of potential because we believe that’s the best we can do.
You can’t change what you can’t see. And it’s only when you finally see that the limit is there that can you blast through it like Charlie through the ceiling of the Chocolate Factory—and then, there’s no telling how high you can go.
…Want to trash your baggage and bust through your blocks? Do it! I created a program specifically designed to help you rewrite your rules—and raise the roof on your potential. (Learn more about the program here!)
Mirsky, Steve (2019 November 1). The Stressful Discovery of Type A Personality. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-stressful-discovery-of-type-a-personality
Hendricks, Gay. (2016). The Big Leap. HarperOne. pg. 10.