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When Happiness Feels Like Self Betrayal

Today, I’m going to reveal to you one of the most painful and insidious patterns that a human being can fall into. It is a pattern that can lie at the root of a person’s suffering in their life. And this pattern, is the pattern of using suffering as a substitute boundary. Before you get afraid that this is going to be just one more article where an expert tells you that you are somehow attached to your pain or are causing your own pain or that you have the power to be happy, no matter what is happening to you or in your life, I need you to know that this article is not going to be one of those articles. And I ask you to come along with me as I un-pack this pattern for you step by step. 

Let’s start from the beginning. Unfortunately, some of us came into families where our caregivers, such as parents, are only truly focused on their own best interests. And thus, are not in an actual relationship with us. When I say this, I need you to be very careful not to fall into the gaslight of parents who seem to be focused on the best interests of their children, but are in fact not actually. Some of these caregivers are very covert in that it seems like they are so dedicated to their children, after all, their identity is wrapped up in just how for their children’s best interests they are and just how self-sacrificing for their children they are. But somehow, their child or even all their children are not happy at all, especially in their relationship with that parent. Keep in mind that those two things do not add up. To understand more about this, you can watch my video titled: Self Sacrifice, The Most Self-Centered Thing in The World.     

Caregivers like this fail to perceive their child. This is because they are relating to their child through their own projections. They make their mind up about what is going on with their child, regardless of whether it is true or not. They make their child the problem to avoid looking at their own dysfunction. They play zero sum games, rather than find win-win scenarios. And they have no intention of changing something that doesn’t suit them to change, no matter how much it is hurting their child. Their child’s happiness is not truly a part of their happiness, no matter what they might say. Because they cannot truly perceive their pain or their pleasure. They can only perceive their own. Because of this, it will seem like they have a very high tolerance for their child’s pain. After all, they watched their child indicate their distress, but changed nothing about what was causing that distress, if it somehow went against their own perceived best interests in the moment. And yet, they still expected their child to be happy. Maybe they even took to gaslighting by saying things like “You have no reason to be unhappy”. Or “You have so many things to be happy about”. Or “All I want is for you to be happy.” 

So, here we have a caregiver that is either doing things that are causing distress to their child or are failing to do things, which is causing distress to their child. But instead of respond to that feedback, they tell themselves alternative, self-esteem affirming stories about why their child is in distress. And they expect their child to be happy anyway. In fact, they require this from their child in order to not perceive their child as the enemy to their own happiness. This is a very dangerous situation for a child to find themselves in. And now, the child is in a bind… Act happy and their parent, the god of their world, is safer to them. But by doing so, they betray themself. Or, continue to indicate the reality, which is their unhappiness, and by doing so, don’t betray themself, but accept the dire consequences. 

In all of this, what is important to see is that in a situation like this, when the child asserts boundaries for themselves against what is harmful for them and for the limits they have, those boundaries are instantly dishonored, if they are even seen and acknowledged in the first place. There is no way out of the distress. They are expected to put up with whatever is harming them, and worse than that, to be happy anyway and despite any of it. 

For many people who encountered this kind of childhood, boundaries and limits were pointless because you couldn’t run away and you couldn’t get anyone to recognize or honor your boundaries and limits, so as to change things so you were not suffering anymore. You were literally trapped in a torture chamber. Keep in mind that a torture chamber can be very, very gilded. 

And because of this, you let go of your boundaries and got a substitute one. You found a way to stand by yourself and for yourself in a different way. That way, was to refuse to be happy. To maintain a resistance to feeling good, even if you so badly wanted to. Why? Because if the people who hurt you, expected you to be happy no matter what they were doing to you, then you being happy no matter what they were doing to you, is exactly what they want. It means they got away with everything they did with no consequences. For those of you who experienced this, you began to associate happiness is self-betrayal. And so, your substitute boundary, became suffering. And it’s not like you had to invent your suffering, you were and are genuinely suffering. On the one hand, you are desperate to be happy. And on the other hand, becoming happy, especially saying you are happy, feels like kissing the foot that kicked you. For you, the old saying, “happiness is the best form of revenge”, is total bullshit. Because for the abusers you were dealing with, you being happy, no matter what they did or failed to do, is exactly what they wanted. That would in fact be their win. To use a common expression, that would be them getting away Scot free. 

When we fall into this pattern, we tend to hate life. We try to improve our life desperately, while being unable to. Why are we unable to? Because we lack all the boundaries that a person would normally have in life. Especially regarding other people. And so, we end up in a position that is a total NO for us. When we should put the pressure back on someone, we take it. When we need to hold someone to their agreements, we let them change them. When we need to say no to something, we say yes. Where we have a limit, we push ourselves past it. When we should leave, we don’t leave. We fall right back into this pattern of extreme pain tolerance. We yell about our unhappiness and get angry and cry without giving people any actual consequences beyond that for the things they are doing or are failing to do. In fact, our only boundary is: I will suffer when you do this. I will refuse to be happy when you do this. You still allow it to happen, but you absolutely will not be happy about it. Of course, this substitute boundary is very ineffective with the people who are not connected to and therefore moved by your pain, only their own pain. And your suffering might just be worth whatever they are getting out of doing or not doing something. 

And guess what? They won’t be moved by your pain. The reason for this is that without knowing it, with this substitute boundary, you are walking around as a literal tractor beam for people who, just like your parents, are only truly focused on their own best interests. And thus, are not in an actual relationship with you. People who, at a conscious or subconscious level, want to be in a relationship with someone who will be unconditional with them. A person who they can do whatever to you or fail to do whatever to you, and know that there will be no consequences. After all, the message you are sending out into the universe is: I will stay in that pain. I just won’t be happy about it. You are a literal tractor beam for people who only have relationships through a narcissistic and codependent (covertly narcissistic) relational schema. You will line up with people whose definition of love is for you to suffer for them. To learn more about this, watch my video titled: The Suffer So I Can Feel Loved Relationship Dynamic

So that you can understand this pattern better, I’m going to give you an example. Thea had a mother who caused her distress in many, many ways. Her mother refused to consistently respond to her distress cues even as an infant. She treated Thea like a doll in that instead of responding to Thea’s cues, she decided what Thea did and did not need and when (according to her own want to meet those needs or not). She was obsessed with Thea learning to play alone and develop independence far too early. Whenever Thea got into a needs conflict with her mother, her mother would shame her by saying, “what are you, a princess?” She kept Thea in a house which was up a canyon, nowhere near other children because that was the lifestyle she preferred. This made it so that Thea had no friends. She only did things for Thea that she decided should make Thea happy. When they didn’t, she decided something was wrong with Thea. Thea’s indication that she was an unhappy child, damaged her mother’s self-concept. So, she saw Thea as the source of her own suffering. Thea came to the conclusion as a toddler that no matter what she did, she could never make her life feel good, so she would suffer forever.

But her mother felt distressed by Thea’s unhappiness. And so, she needed Thea to be happy, so she could feel good. So, instead of changing any of her own behavior that was causing Thea to suffer and instead of changing the conditions that were making Thea suffer, she simply expected Thea to be happy. She decided that her daughter had a good life, despite the reflection that Thea was giving to her. And she reminded Thea of how many kids around the world have so much more to be unhappy about and kept stuffing the idea that she was an ungrateful child down her throat. When Thea would complain, she would call her negative. When Thea was upset, she would shame her for not focusing on the beautiful sunset or on some other thing her mother appreciated. When things took a turn for the worst, Thea’s mother started dragging her to therapists to fix whatever was wrong with her child, because it could not possibly be that her behavior with Thea or the life she had created for Thea was in fact wrong for Thea. 

Subconsciously, Thea developed a negative association with happiness. It was clear that her mother wanted to be able to do or fail to do anything, and for Thea to be happy anyway. Well, Thea could not be happy anyway.  And Thea would not indicate to her mother that she could be. She decided that to be happy was to betray herself. Instead of betraying herself, because every boundary and limit was dishonored by her mother, she stood by herself by pledging that she would not ever indicate to her mother or to other people, that she was happy. And this caused her to never truly be able to go in the direction of her happiness.   

Fast forward several years into Thea’s adulthood. She has been married and divorced multiple times. In each one of her primary relationships, things start out good. But then, the man starts crossing her boundaries and pushing her limits. All Thea does, is get upset. And then get angry. And then get really, really angry. She does not enforce her boundaries. Because of this, the man ends up continuing to do what is not in her best interests, until Thea is so far past a limit, that her mental and emotional health starts to dissolve and the relationship becomes fully abusive. The man is being abusive because no matter how much something hurts Thea, he will not change it, and expects her to be happy anyway. And Thea is being abusive because during arguments, she screams and belittles and name calls and makes threats and throws things at her partner. Eventually, the abuse becomes so intolerable that the relationship ends. 

Looking at her last partner, he came into her life promising to really be there for her as someone she could rely on. But he started breaking his word. The first time he broke his word, Thea should have set a very firm boundary about it by telling him that this was not something she would tolerate. She actually did this. The second time he did this, Thea should have enforced her boundary with something like making him responsible for repairing the consequences that breaking his word created. Or creating a consequence that relates directly to what he specifically broke his word about, such as, if he broke his word about taking her on a date, and she needed quality time, she might go to spend time with a friend instead of spending time with him, and let him know that she was doing so, because he failed to keep his word about the quality time that he promised her. And after this trust breach, he would need to demonstrate that he was intent on re-building that trust somehow, such as putting extra effort into creating quality time, making it up to her somehow and proving he can show the opposite behavior. If he broke his word again, Thea should have escalated the consequences. She should have pushed the pause button on moving forward in the relationship. She should have escalated to something like relationship therapy. Or started looking for other resources for the things he broke his word about. And/or getting trusted people who support their relationship to intervene etc. 

Thea did not do this. Instead, she got madder and madder each time and argued about how not ok it is. And eventually found herself in an abusive relationship. She was in a relationship where she could not trust her partner because he constantly broke his word. And where she verbally abuses him when he does it. Thea’s last partner got something out of breaking his word. What it was, was the feeling of no pressure. He was a parentified child and even though he came into the relationship saying he would be reliable, because this is the only way he knew how to have relationships, was to be for his partner what he was for his mother. But it is not what he actually wanted. What he wanted was to be in a relationship which would allow him all the freedom of the childhood he missed. And that lack of pressure, meant more to him than Thea’s happiness did. It served him when he would break his word and feel the freedom of doing whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. It would especially serve him when he would drop responsibilities he has signed up for, and she would take over that responsibility. It was healing for him, even if it was destroying Thea. Thea fell right back into this pattern from her childhood, where the person in her life expects her to be happy, no matter what they do or fail to do. And she resorted to her old substitute boundary. She was not happy. No one could be in that situation. But she also decided she would not go in the direction of her happiness, because to do so, would be to betray herself and give him exactly what he wanted. She didn’t even see enforcing her boundaries and limits in a tangible way as an option.                              

If you recognize this pattern in yourself, it is tempting to think that you just have to accept that to be happy, you have to care more about your happiness than you do about the people who hurt you getting off Scott free. But this is just you falling back into the same pattern. It’s not about that. 

Overcoming this pattern is about seeing that you will never have a happy life, your life will always be suffering and you will always hate life if you fail to acknowledge your own boundaries and limits and fail to assert them. You need to assert them when things are very small… Far, far before you ever hit your limit for something. When you feel yourself heading in that unwanted direction in any small way. People need to feel and know that they don’t just get to do anything or fail to do anything with you. There will be consequences for doing so or for failing to do so. 

Overcoming this pattern is about realizing that happiness is not ever in spite of something, it is always because of something. The more we gravitate towards what feels good and right to us, while setting very firm boundaries regarding what doesn’t, the happier our life will become. And you can enforce your boundaries and limits as well as create consequences for people who refuse to honor those, without sacrificing your happiness. This is not to say that you can be happy no matter what is happening to you. This is ridiculous. It is to say that you can go in the direction of your happiness and resource positive things and positive moments, in whatever small way, without that being a self-betrayal. It is not worth being in pain, to prevent the people who harmed you the satisfaction of being able to do whatever they wanted to you without getting at the very least, a negative reflection. And it is not even particularly effective, when what you could do instead, is to make it so that there are actually consequences for what people do or fail to do with you. After all, you don’t deserve to suffer forever, on top of all the suffering that was already done to you. The time has come to stop betraying yourself in one way simply to prevent betraying yourself in another way. Disconnect the concept of happiness from the feeling betraying yourself. So that you can enforce the boundaries that will allow you to have a life you don’t hate. A life that you will actually enjoy.  



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