As living organisms, we are designed to move in the direction of pleasure and to move away from pain. Our entire nervous system is highly attuned to pain stimulus and pleasure stimulus. We move away from the cactus thorn, we move towards the pretty flower. We want to maintain our positive feelings for as long as possible. Most of us love to feel happy and we will do anything to avoid feeling unhappy, but what about the small percentage of people who can’t feel happy? It is easy to think that happiness is always a good thing. But the truth is, the subconscious mind does not always agree. The truth is for some of us, happiness is like a pot at the end of the rainbow. It hovers in the future like an unreachable goal that we dream of, but don’t think that we can reach. How did we end up this way? We ended up this way because we suffered so much in our lives that happiness began to feel false. We ended up this way because we felt blindsided by painful experiences. When we are blindsided by painful experiences, especially when we are feeling good, we start to feel like happiness turns us into sitting ducks. We start to feel as if happiness is vulnerability that leaves us open for attack at any moment.
This belief system can ride on the back of seemingly insignificant events in childhood, for example, the three year old child is laughing hysterically while running and is not looking where they are going only to fall and hurt themselves. They might make the subconscious decision that happiness is unsafe and find that the emotional fall from elation to utter powerlessness and injury is so unbearable that they would rather just stay on guard and not let themselves feel elation for the sake of their own safety. Another example is a child who gets super excited only to be disappointed. They might make the subconscious conclusion that excitement inevitably leads to disappointment, so they would rather just not get their hopes up in the first place.
Another example is a child growing up with a parent who is a chronic worrier. This child may be playing joyfully when their parent repeatedly and in a panicked tone warns them about bad things that could happen. This instills the child with fear of the world and teaches the child to distrust their positive emotional states as if happiness and fun were a dangerous illusion.
If we take this deeper to what we would consider a significant event, it is even easier to see how this pattern is developed. Let’s say that a young boy is joyously playing with his toys in the house and is making a lot of noise. Let’s pretend that this boy has a violent father who is annoyed by the noise and so, the father angrily approaches the boy and takes him by surprise with a slap to the face. This child then associates joy with the feeling of being blindsided by pain. The positive emotion becomes linked with negative expectation and negative emotional states. And if we take thus even deeper, if we had people in our lives who were upset by our happiness and joy (maybe because they were jealous of it or because it inconvenienced them in some way, or because they felt resentful of us for some reason) then chances are that they deliberately sought to make us unhappy when we were feeling happy. What we learned then is that the only way to get love from them or keep the peace, was to be unhappy. This pattern is especially common in families where a parent is particularly resentful of a child and families where a parent gains their validation through having a child be dependent on them. When a child being happy makes a parent unhappy, the parent will often seek to re establish unhappiness in the child. As a child begins to grow up and become independent, they are most dependent upon the parent when they are unhappy (such as I skinned my knee and need a hug or I’m sick or I can’t reach something). If a parent needs their child to be dependent upon them to feel valid and loved, that parent is likely to subconsciously but deliberately keep the child in a state that is hurt, unhappy, sick or incapable.
As a result of our childhood experience, many of us feel as if there is always a give and take in life and so, if we are happy, we are convinced that it means that unhappiness is inevitably around the corner. For example, if we had a parent who would punish us for “selfishly doing something that made us happy”, we come to learn that if we do something to make ourselves happy, we deserve punishment. We posit this expectation that was developed by our primary authority figure parent over the top of the primary authority figure in our adult lives, which is god or the universe. We expect that there is a give and take when it comes to god or the universe as well. We expect that if we are happy or doing something to make ourselves happy, god or the universe will achieve balance and even the score by inevitably dealing us a pain or tragedy. Here are some important questions to ask yourself if you can’t hold on to happiness: Did it feel like the happiness of one or both of my parents, conflicted with my happiness as a child? Did it feel like my happiness competed with their happiness? Did it feel like there was no way that both of us could be happy at the same time? Did it feel like either I was happy and my parent was unhappy or my parent was happy and I was unhappy? When we feel as if our happiness conflicts with the happiness of our primary authority figure as a child, we grow up to feel as if our happiness is at odds with the universe at large. We feel as if we are in a giant chess match where the universe is against our happiness and wants to punish us for our happiness. We feel as if in order for the universe or God to be happy, we must be unhappy, therefore it will make us unhappy at any cost. When we cannot feel happy no matter how hard we try and we feel as if happiness is false and only negative emotions are real, what is really happening is that we have learned to FEAR happiness. We think that Happiness is dangerous; most often because we have been blindsided by emotional, mental or physical pain when we were enjoying ourselves. And perhaps even more than that, we have repeatedly been blindsided by emotional, mental or physical pain when we were enjoying ourselves. Basically, what is happening for many people who cannot be happy is that the very feeling of joy and happiness itself becomes the trigger for a post traumatic stress response. Why is this a problem? It is a problem because you are now fighting with your own survival instinct to be happy. The wires in your own mind have become crossed to such a degree that your own being is trying to keep you feeling good by keeping you from feeling good. The strongest instinct in the physical body is the drive to avoid pain for the sake of survival. The minute your mind associates pleasure with pain, your brain now wires itself to avoid positive feeling states for the sake of feeling positive. When this has happened, we start to feel like our own mind is working against us. We feel like we are being prevented from happiness in every way, as if our being is an enemy living within. But understanding this dynamic should give you a bit of relief in and of itself because it means that your own being loves you so much that ironically it’s motivation for keeping you unhappy is so that you will feel good. For most beings on earth, joy is their baseline and they experience temporary bouts of unhappiness and pain. But for some of us, especially those of us who find our way to self-help and spirituality, the tables are often turned. Suffering is our baseline and we experience temporary bouts of happiness and pleasure. When this is the case, happiness feels like a fleeting, temporary illusion. Happiness begins to feel not real where as unhappiness feels like a more permanent, inevitable truth of life itself. If suffering is your baseline, I want you to ask yourself two very important and personal questions. Try to answer them with as much brutal honesty as possible.
- What is my positive intention for being unhappy or suffering?
- What bad thing would happen if I were always happy and full of joy?
Most of us think that we are trying incessantly to be happy but are not even aware that we have a subconscious motivation to be unhappy. We are in essence engaging in a tug of war between our conscious mind that wants happiness and our subconscious mind that doesn’t want happiness because of what it thinks that happiness entails.
It is essential if you feel like happiness is not something you can hold on to, to sit with your feelings when you feel positive emotions. This means, next time you feel yourself getting excited or happy, sit down and close your eyes and sink deep into that feeling and the sensations of that feeling within your body. Pretend that you are exploring that feeling like a scientist for the very first time. What you will notice is that immediately, when you feel pleasure or joy, the feeling of anxiety or fear or grief or sorrow will begin to creep up within you as well. It is creeping up in response to the fact that you felt positive emotion. Now, as if you were exploring a new cavern within yourself, allow yourself to sink into whatever negative emotion arose as a result of the positive emotion. Repeat the mantra in your mind; “I am completely here with this now”. Breathe in and out in a rhythmic pattern with no unnecessary pauses between them. Once you feel yourself really experiencing the physical sensations of this negative emotion, ask yourself, “when was the first time that I felt this feeling?” Any experience you have as a result of asking that question is valid. Don’t go looking for the answer; instead let it float into your consciousness like a bubble rising from the depths of the ocean. The feeling may intensify. You may get images or memories, or none at all. If you are taken to a memory, spend time observing the memory then imagine that the adult you is entering the memory. Kneel down in front of your childhood self and hold your childhood self. Validate the way that the child feels. Allow the child to feel the way they feel because they are right to feel that way. And when it feels as if your child self is feeling a bit of relief, take action to make positive changes to the memory and re-parent your child. Explain to them that you will keep them safe from negative things so they can play and be carefree and feel happy. Explain that happiness isn’t unsafe. Allow them to do whatever they need to do in order to be able to trust that they won’t be blindsided by pain when they are happy. When I was leading a disciple of mine through this process, she was taken to a memory of herself at four years old. Her childhood self was in the backyard, feeling sad. Earlier she had been playing and laughing in the back yard with her dolls. Her mother, who was a highly stressed out woman who owned a busy cleaning service had seen her playing in the yard and instantly felt put upon by her own child. Her mother felt like an indentured servant to her daughter because here she was slaving away cleaning the house while her daughter played. Long story short, her mother came out of the house exasperated and yelling for her to get her butt inside and help out. She felt punished for playing and for being happy. She made the decision that in order to keep her mother’s love, she had to stop playing and stop being happy. She knew that her happiness instigated emotional attacks from her mother. Her adult self sat with her childhood self and held her. She told her childhood self that what her mother was doing to her was unfair. She explained to the child why her mother was doing it and told her that even though it wasn’t about her, the way she was treated was not ok. She explained that there is no consequence for being happy. After her inner child seemed to feel some relief, she asked her if she wanted to stay with her mother or come with her. Her childhood self said “come with you” and so, she created a perfect little home for the two of them, where her inner self could play and laugh and feel happy with absolutely no consequence. In my opinion, nothing is more important than this particular process when it comes to true healing, because it addresses the causation of the unhappiness, not just the symptom of the unhappiness. Being unable to hold on to happiness is a symptom.
People, who fear happiness, expect the worst. For this reason, I want you to watch my video on YouTube called How to Stop Expecting The Worst. People who expect the worst tend to catastrophize. And no one catastrophizes like people who expect things to go badly when they feel happy. Catastrophizing is the ultimate lethal “what if “ game. Catastrophizing involves a chain of “what ifs”, where each what if leads to another what if, until we are led to the most painful conclusion we can think of. It’s an if A then B, if B then C scenario. For example, if we don’t get a call from someone when we expected them to call us, then they do not love us and if they don’t love us, then they will break up with us and if they break up with us then we’ll have to move out of the house and if we have to move out of the house, then I’ll have no way of supporting myself and I’ll be all alone. We basically assume that every link in this chain of expectation will inevitably occur. The way to break this cycle is to break the catastrophe chain. With each link in the chain, we need to consider the opposite and try to prove to ourselves how it may not necessarily be true. For example, using the previous scenario if the “what if” is ‘they don’t love me’, we could list the things that they have done to show is that they do love us or the reasons that it isn’t true that they don’t love us. Or if the “what if” is ‘they will break up with me’, list the reasons that this wont happen. Do this with every link in the chain leading to the worst-case scenario.
For people who have a posttraumatic stress response to happiness, it feels like the universe is against you, especially when unwanted things happen to you. It is extremely hard to see the roses through the thorns and so perhaps the most beneficial exercise is to keep a positive aspects journal. Every time a negative thing happens, or you encounter something that feels bad, you write down the event or thing and open your mind to noticing all the positive aspects about that negative thing. For example, say I wrote down “I am sick”, some examples of positive aspects could be: I’m taking “me time” I’m spending more time in the present moment The cat is cuddled up with me I’m realizing how much stress I’m in on a daily basis, which has encouraged me to make some changes to my life It’s an excuse to watch movies I have more immunity now that I did before My immune system is working; otherwise I wouldn’t have these symptoms I got to have some really comforting soup This blanket feels good against my skin etc.
And at the end of each day, write a positive aspects list for the day about positive things that happened or things you liked about the day. Doing this enables you to see that unwanted things are not necessarily punishment and that the universe is not deliberately trying to make you suffer. Another thing that is very good for those who have a post traumatic reaction to positive emotions is exposure therapy. Do things that feel good. Prioritize happiness every day at least once, so that you are doing something just because it feels good. This is going to trigger you. It won’t feel good at first. It will feel like an invitation for tragedy and disappointment. But remind yourself like a mantra “It is ok to feel this way”. “It is ok to feel good”. And pay attention to see if anything really bad happens as a result of feeling good. The more times that you consciously notice yourself feeling good and consciously see (and take note of the fact) that nothing bad happens as a result of feeling good, the more this trigger will diminish and the more comfortable you will be allowing yourself to feel good without fear of feeling good.
If you have had negative experiences piggyback off of positive experiences in your life, optimism and positive focus will only seem like naivety to you. For those of us who feel this way, we have to stop caring about whether positivity is true or false and start caring about how we feel. We need to acknowledge and admit to the amount of pain we are actually in; that pain is the truth of where we are. And then we need to begin to pay attention to things that make us feel good and seek out things that make us feel good for the sole reason that they make us feel good. Why do we need to do this? Because we are tired of living our lives this way. We need to begin to treat ourselves like we deserve to be happy.
Ask yourself these questions: Why am I unworthy of happiness? Does me being happy really take away from other people’s happiness? Does me being happy really take away from the universe’s happiness? If I were God and I had unlimited, eternal resources and could do anything, and if someone was happy, would I want to take away their happiness or hurt them in some way? If so, why? If not, why? If I were God and I had all the energy in this universe at my disposal and someone asked me for something that would make them happy, would I give it to them? So then why would the universe or God not want me to be happy and give me the things that would make me happy? We need to challenge the way that we are thinking about this universe and happiness when happiness is a trigger. The way we were seen and treated as children is not a good indication about how the universe at large sees us or will treat us.
If you have suffered most of your life, it seems like the purpose of life is to suffer and so when people say “the purpose of your life is joy”, or “choose to be happy” you feel incapable, unlucky and imprisoned by your pain. Be compassionate with yourself. You are not a negative person, you were hurt. You are not a Debbie downer, you were hurt. You did not deserve to suffer, you were hurt. You are not so mentally ill that your brain chemistry makes you incapable of feeling joy, you were hurt. You are not consciously choosing to be unhappy, you were hurt. What do you do if you were hurt? You slowly get back up again and take little steps to nurture yourself into a place of health. You take baby steps into happiness and you learn by experience that bad things don’t necessarily happen as a result of feeling good. If you can’t seem to be happy no matter what you do, it is not your fault. Stop expecting yourself to suddenly feel good. This is as cruel and unreasonable as expecting a person who has been in a high-speed car crash to suddenly walk. If you can’t touch happiness, reach instead for relief. Think and say and do anything that helps you to feel a little bit of relief and like a person following a yellow brick road, without knowing where it is going to lead, take baby steps towards allowing yourself to go in the direction of what feels just a little bit better and a little bit better. The universe wants only good things for you and in reality, all things we experience, even the unwanted experiences come imbued with invaluable gifts. You don’t have to recognize those gifts right away; in fact it is most likely that you will not recognize them right away. But know this… You didn’t get blindsided as a child by pain because you were feeling happy. You were blindsided because you were not in a safe environment growing up. Maybe you were unsafe emotionally or maybe you were unsafe mentally or maybe you were unsafe physically or maybe you were unsafe in all of the ways listed above. You were blindsided because you did not have the awareness you do now about the fact that you were in fact in an environment that didn't feel safe to you while you were growing up. It had nothing to do with happiness at all. Awareness plus happiness makes happiness a safe place to be. And even if you cannot believe it yet, you deserve that happiness. You deserve to feel safe when you feel happy. It is my hope that you will come to know that one-day. Until then, know that you are not alone. Many of us distrust positive emotion. Many of us cannot touch joy and do not have the slightest idea what happiness is, or what it feels like. And for us, we have one choice and that is to go in the direction of what feels better, nothing more and nothing less.