When Things Get Too Good

I should have seen it coming–should have predicted it a week or so ago. After a glorious 50th anniversary celebration for my small-sized, big-hearted congregation, and the promise of my favorite singer-songwriter’s CD release concert tomorrow night, I began to feel achy yesterday afternoon. “I think I have the flu,” I announced to my husband over dinner. “Would you feel my forehead? Do I feel hot? Cold? Clammy?”

By morning, the aches were joined by a sore throat, pink eye in my left eye, and a deep desire to stay in bed rather than face the day. As I stumbled downstairs, turned on the coffeepot, and attempted to look out the window through my puffy, red eye, Matt and I turned to one another with a knowing smile. “Hidden upper limit problem,” we said simultaneously. It’s the (seemingly inevitable) crash that comes when life gets just a little too good.

Though the particular movie is eluding me, I can hear in my mind a character who has just been asked out by the date of her dreams say, “I bet I get hit by a bus.” In other words, “Life cannot be sustained with this much joy, satisfaction, and success.” Gay Hendricks, who coined the phrase “hidden upper limit problem” in his book The Big Leap, writes, “Each of us has an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy. When we exceed our inner thermostat setting, we will often do something to sabotage ourselves, causing us to drop back into the old, familiar zone where we feel secure (20)”.

While I have become fairly skilled at naming and noticing when I reach my hidden upper limit, I am still developing my ability to ward it off. Perhaps you, like me, experience the limit in your body. Maybe sickness sets in on your first day of vacation. Others might pick a fight with a partner or friend–a sure way to dampen your spirits after a success at work. Whatever your particular pattern, learning to identify and work with your limit is vital to continued growth.

How do I manage the free fall when it begins?

First, I name it–I recognize my symptoms for what they are. I actually take a little delight in this, as hitting the limit means I am experiencing an extraordinary amount of love and success in my life.

Second, I cut myself some slack. In addition to cold and flu-like symptoms, my hidden upper limit often manifests as a magnifying glass to very small problems. When I discovered this morning my daughter had neglected to bring her order form for today’s junior high picture day, I went into full-blown over-thinking mode: “Did she forget it on purpose because I’ve been talking about money more and she thinks we can’t afford it?” And so on. I give myself a few minutes to feel the agitation, and then I move on.

Third, I solve the problems I can fix. I drove the picture order form to school, and I ceased considering whether or not I am ruining her life by being overinvolved in picture day dilemmas. Solving the problems for me is about returning to the basics. I clean my desk. I empty the dishwasher. I change the sheets. I give my life some much-needed order.

Fourth, I name the deeper problems I cannot fix, and I feel whatever comes with them. I learned this morning that a former colleague’s husband has died; she herself is suffering from a virulent cancer. I cried, and I prayed for her and all those who are suffering on this day.

Fifth, I remind myself that I do indeed deserve joy, satisfaction, success, and love….always love. We all do. I am privileged as a coach and a pastor to remind people of this all the time.

Need a little reminder? Let me know. The great news is that those thermostats can be reset. (And my eye feels better already.)

© 2014 Jennifer L. Sanborn. All Rights Reserved.



Paying attention


I am in love with water. Oceans, rivers, lakes, bathtubs….just get me to a body of water. Water was often a centerpiece of our vacation destinations when I was growing up. Cousins may remember the lake we named after the friends we visited there or shared beach vacations, from the coldest water we could imagine (Maine) to the warmest sand we could bear (Florida). Regardless of temperature, the challenge was always the same–be the first to dive in, head fully submerged. My father carried the torch for his generation, and I’d like to believe I carried it for mine, but now that role is my daughter’s and, no matter where we are, she proudly runs for the water.

When I was just eleven years old, our family moved to Martha’s Vineyard. The selling point for my bedroom in yet another church parsonage? If I stood on my toes at a small side window, leaning against the old-fashioned (and often bone cold) radiator, I could see the ocean. My parents took time most every day to walk or sit by the water–they had the wisdom to recognize the gift. I was entering adolescence, though, inclined to see only the inside of my eyelids. On the rare occasion that I return to Martha’s Vineyard now, I lament that I was surrounded by so much beauty and paid so little attention to it. It is somehow easier to see the specialness of the vacation spot; it can be hard to see the treasure right beside us.

Isn’t this often true? A week ago, as many of us celebrated children crossing the threshold into a new year of school or college, I suggested that we think of the year ahead as a pilgrimage–a journey begun with intention and purpose. While this focus suggests looking forward, holding in mind the goal of where we are going, one of our pilgrimage intentions might be simply paying attention to where we are. Who is around you as you make this journey? Is there someone new you’d like to know? What is your natural setting? Is there a place of beauty you’d like to visit more regularly?

Last week, as I walked my son to school, I marveled that we were on-foot after years of being in the car for the drop-off en route to work. There’s something unnaturally isolating about automobiles. As with adolescence, we can see little beyond our own sphere, and what we do notice is sometimes seen through the eyes of judgement. (Yoga pants-wearing moms driving silver SUVs were a regular source of my insecure scorn when we first moved to town and I would drive through the preschool line. If I had been honest about my own struggles with going to work full-time while my husband was raising our children, I might have found a friend or two in that car line! Fortunately, youth sports means a continuing cycle of interactions, and I know and value a number of the women I previously dismissed.)

But I digress…. After leaving my son at school last week, I continued walking through the village where we live. I met the caretaker of the Catholic church I pass each day while walking our dog. I took the time to learn the name of the school crossing guard I’ve waved to from my car for years. These are not simply utilitarian workers beautifying my community or keeping my children safe; with a pilgrimage mindset, they are fellow travelers. I was fascinated to learn some of what makes their lives meaningful–simply because I finally had time to pay attention.


Today, my walk took me with intention to the river just down from our road. While it is my long-term hope to live beside a lake, plumbing its depths over seasons and years, my adult years have been spent in communities with rivers. This morning, as I looked up-river and down, I was so struck by the mystery that exists around the bend. I can only see so far, yet I trust that the water continues. At present, I am coaching a number of individuals with serious health concerns. As we focus in these relationships on how to live fully, even with great uncertainty, this image of the ever-flowing water was a gift of perspective and possibility.

And you? What places or people are calling you to pay attention as you move through this day, week, or year? Peace to you as you take the time to truly notice who and what surrounds you.

© 2014 Jennifer L. Sanborn. All Rights Reserved.