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When You Feel You Don't Deserve to Be Happy

Consciously or unconsciously, our past can undermine our present happiness.

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Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — we all know these words from the Declaration of Independence, but many folks gave up the pursuit a long time ago. Some can mark the day and time when their view of life and themselves changed: Think of that poor Secret Service agent who, 40 years later, said when interviewed that he could never forgive himself because he believed that if he had only acted more quickly, he could have prevented the assassination of John Kennedy, or first-responders who feel that if they only acted more quickly they could have saved someone's life.

But for many others, the moments are less defined. Instead, the belief that they are not worthy of happiness goes underground, and actively yet subtly sabotages any attempt to be happy. So, they struggle with low-level but chronic depression, or never go beyond a first date, or talk about their passions, but never fully pursue them. Or they live in a constant state of anxiety, even though they can’t pinpoint the source. Whether their beliefs about themselves are conscious or not, the end product is the same — an erosion of their lives.

Here are some of the common sources of this self-sabotage:

Past sin(s)

Here folks look back on their lives and only see what they've done wrong, the people they've hurt. Their lives are a chronicle of destruction and sadness; guilt and regret are their primary emotions. Their unhappiness is a penance they forever pay.

Survivor’s guilt

Elvis Presley's twin brother died shortly after his birth, and it is said that Elvis was always haunted by a guilt that he had survived and his twin brother had not. This survivor's guilt is also what likely plagues that Secret Service agent, those who survived a plane crash when others didn’t, or first responders who feel they didn't do enough to save a victim. This is guilt often laden with a heavy dose of post-traumatic stress.


I’ve met women who were sexually abused as children, who came away from that trauma thinking that they were “dirty.” And because they believed they were, they felt that they were not worthy to have children of their own.

Childhood trauma not only leaves emotional scars, it leaves the child with a distorted view of themselves; they live with self-blame, with a fear of replicating these wounds, with a view of a world forever unsafe, clouding any feelings of happiness.

Parental worry

“A parent is only as happy as her unhappiest child.” Many parents feel this because parenting doesn’t get switched off at age 18. Their worries, at times their guilt, and their feelings of helplessness can become a drag on everyday life.

Critical self-image

Those who are constantly critical of themselves — those who are perfectionistic, hard-driven, who come from critical or abusive childhoods — are essentially stuck at the bottom of a well with few or no ways to get out. If happiness is based on who you are, and who you are is based on what you do, and if everything has to be perfect, then your successes are rare. While you may try for a time to hit the mark, over time you may begin to realize you can’t. All you are left with is this angry voice in your head reminding you how you always screw up, how you’re a loser, how you will never be good enough, a recipe for chronic unhappiness.

Feeling guilty if you're happy

“I feel guilty if I laugh at something or unexpectedly feel like I’m in a good mood. I’ve been down and depressed for so long that I’m afraid that if I don’t seem that way that I’ve been lying to myself and those close to me.”

When your unhappiness has become your new normal, your view of yourself and what you present to others, it can feel unsettling and confusing when you don't feel this way even for brief periods of time. You can't allow yourself to savor or build on these moments of happiness because instead you automatically feel guilty and anxious.

Deserving happiness

What keeps this way of looking at your life alive are the underlying wounds from the past or present that continue to fester. Here are some suggestions to begin to heal the past and present, and accept happiness into your life:

Make amends

If there is some regret, guilt, or wound that is haunting you and undermining your happiness, you want to find a way to put it to rest, to get some closure. Here you send a letter to someone you feel you hurt; you apologize for some wrong. And if the other person cannot be reached, write the letter anyway; create some closing ceremony, some act of contrition that acknowledges what happened but also allows you to acknowledge that it is now over.

Realize you did the best you could do at the time

Yes, this can be a hard pill to swallow. It is because you believe you didn’t do the best you could — in the past, with your children — that you now feel anguished. While you can’t directly change how you feel, you can change what you think, and the key here is thinking that you did the best you could do at that time. Your self-criticism is coming from your emotional mind looking back at the past through the lens of the present. But like all of us, you did at the time do the best you could, based on your age, perhaps, and more limited experience and coping skills.

Yes, this will take some work. You want to practice thinking and saying this to yourself. No, you will not immediately feel better, but over time, you can begin to change the story that you’ve been telling yourself for so long.

Resolve your trauma

It’s time to heal the wound and put these past events to rest. Often trauma comes in layers and here it's helpful to see a therapist, who can help you walk through this healing process without feeling overwhelmed.

Directly work on your self-criticism

Your head is always telling you that what you did or didn't do is the problem, and the only way to solve the problem is to try harder. But the real problem is not your repeated "failures" but the process of self-abuse that is running and ruining your life. Here, as with trauma, help from a therapist can teach you how to rewire these thought patterns.

Directly treat your anxiety and/or depression

Invariably there is a chicken-and-egg issue circling around these topics. Do you have an underlying depression or anxiety problem that, when it flares up on a bad day, automatically causes your brain to play those old tapes? Or are you depressed and anxious because you can’t put these thoughts about the past to rest?

This can be difficult to sort out. If your thoughts about events come and go, you may want to explore what triggers those thoughts or memories on that day — stress, worry. Here you use your thoughts about the past as red flags, letting you know that there is something wrong here and that you need to pay attention to. If, on the other hand, these thoughts and feelings seem to ride along with a more constant depressed or anxious mood, it might be a symptom of an underlying disorder. Here you may want to talk to your physician about trying medication and seeing if your thoughts change as your mood improves.

Carry your life lessons forward

What these sources all have in common is getting stuck — in the past, in the present — stuck in emotions and ways of thinking that just keep recycling. Deliberately thinking differently, getting closure, and resolving trauma all can help you rewire those long-standing brain circuits. But behavioral action can also help.

Here, for example, is where abuse victims volunteer or have jobs that help other abuse victims. Here is where people commit to changing their values and priorities so their relationships with themselves and others are more compassionate. You, too, can change your actions. You, too, can change your belief, be it conscious or unconscious, that you don't deserve to be happy.

Happiness is a byproduct of a life fully lived, a life based on self-care and forgiveness that can come with new intentions, deliberate action, support.

If not now, when?

Facebook image: Fergus Coyle/Shutterstock

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