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5 Reasons We Don't Let Ourselves Be Happy

... and 5 ways to finally, and fully, pursue our own happiness.

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When it comes to our own happiness, many of us are familiar with the pattern of taking two steps forward, one step back. For example, if we want to lose weight, we may find that after having some success, which makes us happy, we drift up to a higher weight than we started at. If we find a new activity which fills us with joy, like hiking or yoga, we may realize months later that we have not made any time for doing it. We may even start a new friendship with someone we really enjoy, yet we soon find that we are somehow too “busy” to fit them into our schedule.

If we fall in love, we start making excuses to pull away. And if we succeed in one area, we find ourselves sabotaging ourselves in another. When these instances occur, we often tend to blame circumstances or sheer bad luck. In reality, we are all—to varying degrees—intolerant of our own happiness.

In her bestselling book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, author and nurse Bronnie Ware reported that one of the most common regrets people have at the end of their lives is that they wish they’d let themselves be happier. This response indicates that people felt that while attaining their happiness was in their control, they somehow didn’t allow themselves to do the things that would make them happy.

Why might this be?

Many of us are more self-denying than we realize. We tend to think that pursuing the things that light us up is selfish or irresponsible. We all have moments when we listen to an internal critic that encourages us not to set goals or expect too much for ourselves and our lives. This “critical inner voice” is actually triggered when we take steps forward. It reminds us to stay in our place and not to venture out of our comfort zone.

The reasons we harbor these dark, self-sabotaging thoughts are complex, but they lie at the root of much of our maladaptive behavior. By understanding why we listen to this critic and take actions that defeat our well-being, we can gain a stronger foothold in overcoming these obstacles and allowing ourselves to be open to our own happiness.

Here are the five most common reasons we don’t let ourselves have what we most:

1. It disrupts our sense of identity.

No matter how negative our self-perception may be, like a heavy blanket, it can feel familiar, comfortable, and safe. If we start to develop or change ourselves in some way that counters our cruel self-attacks, we can start to feel extremely uncomfortable and anxious. It can feel scary to surpass the way we’ve previously seen ourselves or been seen.

Our critical inner voice is built on old attitudes we were exposed to, usually very early in our lives. The negative ways we were viewed in our family or the ways people around us saw themselves seeped into our consciousness. As adults, we self-parent by maintaining these old attitudes and failing to differentiate from destructive early influences. Yet, methods exist for differentiating ourselves to become our own unique person with a strong sense of self.

2. It challenges our defenses.

Our defenses are like armor we built against whatever hurt us. If we had an absent or rejecting parent or caretaker, we may make a vow to never let anyone too close. If we were often mistreated, punished or misunderstood, we may feel scared to stand out, succeed, or be noticed. We build defenses to adapt to undesirable elements of our early environment, but when we grow up and are in a new situation as adults, these behaviors and patterns are often no longer adaptive.

We may find it hard to maintain intimate relationships or to excel in our careers. We may self-sabotage in countless ways by failing to challenge our defenses. We may even unconsciously seek out situations that were similar to those we experienced growing up, for example, finding a partner who reminds us of someone from our past. We may recreate dynamics from our childhood that, although unpleasant, are familiar and fit with our defenses. If we take the risk and drop our defenses, we make it more likely we will achieve true happiness.

3. It causes us anxiety.

Going after what we want makes us feel more anxious and alive. When we act against our critical inner voice and break with our defenses, we tend to feel pretty stirred up at first. The voice in our head gets louder, and our desire to act against our own interest gets stronger. In these moments, giving up can actually soothe our anxiety by returning us to what’s comfortable and familiar. Yet, it isn’t long before we punish ourselves for messing up. Our inner critic becomes like a sadistic coach, and the self-destructive cycle starts again.

It’s helpful to realize that any effort to change is likely to be met with anxiety. If we hang in there and sweat through this uncomfortable feeling, however, the anxiety will subside. The way to deal with our anxiety is to overcome it by ignoring our inner critic and continuing to take those steps forward.

4. It stirs up guilt.

Choosing to be happy in the present can represent a break from our past, particularly when we are challenging defenses and choosing a different life for ourselves. It’s very common to feel guilty to be our own separate person and especially to surpass people from our past.

Breaking a point of identity can shatter what my father, psychologist Robert Firestone described as a “fantasy bond,” which we experienced with influential figures in our upbringing. Even a parent who was hurtful to us in many ways was someone we once depended on for survival. Therefore, it may have been more favorable to maintain a fantasy that we were connected to them in some way. This can be frightening to break later in life.

Recent studies have shown that there are very strong links between a parent’s happiness and their children’s, even long after the child has grown up, moved away, or entered into a relationship. This correlation illustrates how powerful this sense of connection can be and calls to question the role of guilt in surpassing a parent. If we push past our guilt and achieve more happiness than our parent, it will make us feel alone, but free.

5. It forces us to face pain.

Psychologist Pat Love once said, “When you long for something like love, it becomes associated with pain.” In many ways, getting what we want makes us feel pain and sadness, because it reminds us of something we didn’t get in our past. New, positive experiences can open up old wounds. In an often unexpected way, those times when we are chosen can make us feel the sadness of times we were rejected. As we come alive, we’re forced to feel the pain of the old reasons for which we created our defenses.

A fuller, more rewarding life tends to be more full of feeling in general. We can’t selectively numb pain without also numbing joy. If we allow ourselves to feel more love, gratitude, and pleasure, we can expect to feel more sadness over the poignancy of time, loss, and the inherent vulnerability of the human condition.

How to Pursue Your Own Happiness

It’s a strange twist that the very thing that we most want, or that will be best for us, is often what we are most resistant to. No one else can tell us what will make you happy or what’s most important to you. This is something we all have to determine for ourselves, and once we do, it’s our job to fight for it.

There are five good ways to pursue the happiness you desire:

  • Don’t go it alone. Share your journey, and tell someone else your goals, so that you feel accountable.
  • Recognize a pattern to your critical inner voices and self-destructive behavior. This will help you to recognize when your inner critic is triggered so you can act against its hurtful directives.
  • Find active ways to differentiate from negative influences in your past. Try to choose the qualities you want to emulate and reject those you don’t.
  • Don’t take the mentality of a victim. Nothing, not even your past, can control you if you’re an independent adult making your own choices.
  • Recognize that you’re powerful, capable, and that setbacks won’t unravel you.

Each of these steps represents a large and ongoing challenge, but they are essential to living a life that has unique meaning to you. Contrary to any inner voice that may tell you you’re being selfish, when you create a life of personal value, you become more valuable to the world. Your happiness matters, and it will have a natural, ripple effect.

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