Transcending Habitual Discontent

Psychologist, author, and personal growth coach Gay Hendricks tells of a life-changing revelation in his book, The Big Leap. One day, Dr. Hendricks came back to his office feeling good after an enjoyable lunch and work discussion with a colleague. Pausing for a moment, Hendricks’s realization expanded – not only was work going well, so were his personal relationships. In fact, everything was good, and he felt happy. Leaning back in his office chair, he sighed with relaxed satisfaction.

However, a few seconds later, he found himself worrying about his daughter who was away from home at a summer camp. As he kept thinking about her, Hendricks imagined his daughter to be unhappy, lonely, teased by other campers. Quickly, the inner peace and joy he’d been feeling a few moments before dissolved as his mind took over with thoughts that something might be wrong. In a panic, he called the dorm supervisor at his daughter’s camp to check in. The woman calmly and kindly reassured him that his daughter was fine.

Realizing that he’d suddenly gotten worked up about nothing, Hendricks was curious to figure out what had happened to take him from feeling great in one moment to needlessly getting upset in the next. Why had his good mood gone away?

He tells us, “Suddenly, the light of awareness dawned on me: I manufactured the stream of painful images because I was feeling good! Some part of me was afraid of enjoying the positive energy for any extended period of time. When I reached my Upper Limit of how much positive feeling I could handle, I created a series of unpleasant thoughts to deflate me. The thoughts I manufactured were guaranteed to make me return to a state I was more familiar with: not feeling so good.”

This realization was a turning point for Hendricks, who began working to understand why we reach a limit of how good we think we’re allowed to feel, how good we think things are allowed to be in our lives. When we hit that Upper Limit we’re likely to find some means to pull ourselves back down out of that good-feeling place. His intention is to help us understand what the limiting beliefs and thought patterns are that get in our way so that we can let go of them, take a big leap out of those limitations, and live larger, happier lives.

When I first read The Big Leap, its ideas resonated with me and I saw how they applied to some of my own thinking. But it wasn’t until I had my own Upper Limit experience that I completely grasped the pattern.

While driving home after leading a workshop, I was feeling pleased with the day I’d just had. The students had fully engaged with my activities, we’d had lively discussions and meaningful interactions. Everyone seemed to have had a satisfying, rich experience – myself included.

But, all of a sudden, my thoughts turned away from those good feelings. I thought of a friend I hadn’t heard from in a while. Missing her, I found myself wondering if something had happened to our friendship and if she didn’t value it the way I did. My thoughts kept spinning. If she still cared, why hadn’t she been in touch? I got a little resentful, feeling like I was always the one who initiated our interactions…and so on. You can see what happened. In a flash, I went from feeling good about my workshop to feeling disappointed and hurt about my friendship.

And, then it clicked. I was having an Upper Limit moment! I had pulled up a situation with negative associations that managed to blank out the pleased, satisfied feelings I’d been having about my workshop. According to Gay Hendricks’s theory, I’d reached the limit of how good I thought I was allowed to feel, and had found a way to dampen things down.

It was a little startling to realize I’d just sabotaged my own good mood! But the experience helped me identify Upper Limit thinking and also to clarify another negative pattern of my own that keeps me from feeling happy and satisfied – a pattern I call Habitual Discontent.

While Hendricks’s Upper Limit idea is about coming down from a high feeling, Habitual Discontent is a more insidious, continuous pattern that can permeate any moment or activity. It works by my finding just a little bit of fault or misalignment with whatever’s going on – whether it’s a super high feeling or a middle ground one.

For example, maybe it’s a beautiful day, but I find my enjoyment of it dimmed when I realize I’ll be indoors rather than basking outdoors in its glory. Or maybe my satisfaction with my work tasks this week loses its charge when I think about all that still needs to be done next week.

Discontentment itself can serve us at times. Feeling unsettled, unhappy, sensing that something is “off” can all be important signposts that things aren’t right – with our job, in a relationship, in our approach to life. But any quality that creates a feeling that is continuous and thus habitual should be examined to ascertain if its a way of being that serves or undermines us.

We might think that Habitual Discontent is ok, that it keeps things interesting by creating a little bit of drama. Or, maybe it inspires us to improve ourselves when we view things as being “not quite perfect enough.” But, in truth, continuous discontentment essentially keeps us from really enjoying ourselves, from being at peace in each moment, activity, or encounter. This undercutting of life quality is not something we want to perpetuate.

The issues that create our Upper Limit and those that cause Habitual Discontent overlap. Worrying is a big one. We imagine the worst, fret over things, or believe we’re protecting ourselves from the bad thing that we think is bound to happen when something good has come along. Lack of healthy self-esteem is another trap. Holding ourselves with low self-esteem convinces us we don’t deserve happiness or success.

How do we transcend our Habitual Discontent and expand our Upper Limit?

I suggest reading The Big Leap to hear Dr. Hendricks’s suggestions for the Upper Limit syndrome. To transcend Habitual Discontent, my first suggestion is a somewhat playful one that comes from a Bob Newhart comedy skit on Mad TV. Pretending to be a psychiatrist, Bob advises a distraught client trapped in her life patterns and desperate for change to – “Stop It!”

Stop it! If only it were that simple! And maybe, in a way, it can be.

Change begins with consciousness, so identifying a pattern helps us know when it’s active. When Habitual Discontent leads to a niggling unhappiness that undercuts your day, notice it. Catch it, and nip it in the proverbial bud.

Ask yourself if the feeling is a true discontentment (with a significant message), or a contrived one. If it doesn’t have a real purpose, bring your focus back to the content of your moment. The root of discontentment is content, which is both an adjective and a noun. As an adjective, con-tent’ is the state of peaceful happiness we’re striving for that’s being ruined by our discontent. Transcend discontentment by taking a look at the con’-tent (noun) of your situation, identifying what is right, good, and satisfying rather than focusing on the little sliver of imperfection you’re seeing as spoiling that moment. When you put your focus on the true content, contentment will likely be restored.

As we transcend Habitual Discontent moment-by-moment, we can find the satisfaction and enjoyment in our daily lives we’re meant to experience. It might even expand our Upper Limit zone so we can take the big leaps into our larger existence that are the promise of our Essence.

It all starts with a new habit – Habitual Contentment – a healthy, productive, expanding habit well worth cultivating!


  1. Yup … instead, reach for a better-feeling thought. Works for me!

  2. Fabulous article on your blog. So well written and helpful. I will be mindful of when and how I limit my contentment and try to “stop it”!!!! Great advise, not so easy.

    • Spiral Energies says

      Thanks so much for your comment, S.T. Cueing up our mindfulness and seeing where we limit ourselves moves us out of the pattern. Onwards!

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