I stood in line at the UCLA administration building, turned in the stack of papers, paid my filing fee, and walked out, holding the receipt--I had just gotten my Ph.D. My relationship had broken up and my friends were gone for the summer, so I took myself out for breakfast at a West LA delicatessen.

Reaching for a goal, then feeling alone and abandoned was a longstanding pattern in my life. Another summer years earlier, I was packing up for my freshman year at UCLA when my mother told me, “Your father and I transferred your acceptance to UC Riverside so you won’t have to go away to college.” “Have to?” I wanted to. I had dreamed of going to UCLA—it was the first step on my journey to adulthood and personal freedom. But she said they couldn’t afford the dorm fees. That year my mother got a new Mercedes and a mink coat for Christmas and I went to UCR, commuting from my parents’ house.

The next year I got a part-time job at the local newspaper, then moved out, declaring my independence. I loved college, excelling in my studies, and won a scholarship my senior year, but my boyfriend broke my heart. One night in May, he proposed, I accepted; then he said, “If you love me, you’ll drop out of school and work so I can go to grad school.” “Why can’t we both go to grad school?” I asked. “You’re being selfish,” he said, and broke up with me that night. Alone, I graduated summa cum laude with a graduate fellowship to UCLA.

For years, it seemed that with each attempt to follow my calling to the next level, I’d be dragged down emotionally. Psychologist Gay Hendricks calls this the “upper limit problem.” We each have a set point for happiness, he says, like the setting on a thermostat. Whenever we reach beyond it, we unconsciously drag ourselves back down to the level we’ve gotten used to. We do this by making a mistake, getting sick, ruining a relationship, or finding another way to sabotage ourselves so we don’t exceed our set point for happiness.

According to Hendricks (2009), we develop this set point based on old scripts from childhood. Do any of these sound familiar?

  1. I’m flawed. Deep inside you believe there’s something wrong with you, so when you reach out for your goals, you put yourself down or pull back because you’re convinced you’ll fail. Many of us have this script.
  2. Disloyalty and Abandonment. You feel your quest for happiness means abandoning your family of origin, rejecting those who love you. This was one of my scripts.
  3. Success Means Being a Burden. You feel that your happiness and success will be a burden on other people, so you hold back, not wanting to displease or inconvenience others. Some women still block their own career success, fearing that it will threaten their husbands.
  4. Outshining Others. You believe that embracing your full potential will outshine a favored family member. My friend Anne disparaged her own musical talent because her little brother was “the family genius.”

In The Big Leap, Hendricks offers powerful strategies for breaking through these barriers. The first step, he says, is to recognize the pattern, then look for the greater good behind it.

So the next time you meet resistance when you reach out to achieve a new goal, ask yourself:

  • What old script is this bringing up for me?
  • What positive new reality is about to come into my life?

Then embrace and celebrate that new reality. Feel the surge of energy as you move to the next level, using your gifts to create new possibilities in your life.   


Hendricks, G. (2009). The big leap: Conquer your hidden fear and take life to the next level. New York, NY: HarperCollins.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book, about living with greater power and purpose, is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Follow Diane on Twitter: Diane Dreher (@dianedreher) on Twitter

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