Afraid to be Happy: Life is Beyond Your Control

Kate wanted to know why she is afraid to be happy. She had recently been to a party with people she liked, but she couldn’t enjoy herself. She isolated herself and found something to fret about the whole evening. It didn’t make sense to her and she wanted to know where her feelings were coming from.

I didn’t tell her, my theories of why she felt the way she did. I didn’t say, “It’s just a case of nerves” or “You were just being self-conscious” or “It was something you ate”. It had to come from her.

To identify Kate’s current feelings in the present, I asked her “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your childhood?” Kate thought for a moment and said, “I don’t remember anything. I guess what comes to mind is being on the playground, playing alone.”

(Therapist) “How do you feel thinking about being alone on the playground, playing by yourself?”

(Client) “Ok, I guess.”

(T) “Could you have felt all alone and lonely, maybe abandoned?”

(C) “No I enjoyed playing by myself, doing what I wanted to do, no one to get into my way.”

(T) “Would you say you felt happy?”

(C) “Yes, I was happy.”

(T) “What else come to mind when you think of playing on the playground?”

(C) “Getting beat up. I was in second grade and playing alone until two boys came pushed me down to the ground and the some other kids started to hit me.”

(T) “How did that make you feel?”

(C) “I felt awful.”

(T) “It probably ruined the happiness you had, wouldn’t you say?”

(C) “Yes, I guess there is a pattern here, whenever I’m happy something bad happens.”

(T) “How do you think this relates to what happened at the party?”

(C) “At the party I must have had the fear that something would happen to spoil my happiness.”

 It’s like pushing a button on a computer. Talking about the problem stimulates the buried recollection to pop to the surface and she can print it out and look at it. Kate was able to make the connection between these two situations for herself. She could see that there was a clear distinction in her experience between playing happily all alone on one hand and the experience she had with others. They caused her pain and hurt. They made happiness very difficult for her.

However, once these connections are made, Kate can break them. She can put her early recollection of happiness being followed by disaster in a more mature perspective. She can see the mistake in her conviction that the happiness in her memory was somehow responsible for the disaster that followed. There was a relationship in her memory of the two events, but not based in reality. The earlier happiness in being alone did not cause the disaster, as she has come to believe.

I said to Kate, “At the party, you were sabotaging your happiness by living in the future and trying to predict what was going to happen, so you could prevent it from happening. You wanted to control the future, but you couldn’t figure out how. You had an anxiety attack. You didn’t know what was going to happen or when. Not knowing what was going to happen was scary and you felt helpless and out of control. Your old beliefs were used to predict a possible scenario and this expectation predisposed you to feel, think, and act the way you did in the past. You brought something into the present from the past without knowing it was happening or how to deal with it. This reaction was automatic, it just kicked in and spoiled your happiness.”

 To this day she is happier alone doing her own thing, such as gardening, then she is in the presence of fellow human beings, who are unpredictable, potentially dangerous and totally outside her control. It is hard for her to be happy under this fog from the past.

Almost every time we have an unsolvable, emotional problem in the present, we can predict that the answer lies in beliefs buried in early experiences. We can predict that after examining the problem that is occurring today, the client’s internal consistencies can be counted on to bring forth a relevant memory or sequence of recollections that put the problem in a useful perspective. This is how our human consistency works. How we make sense out of events from the past is consistent with how we make sense out of events in the present.

There is nothing unusual about the process of transferring a whole constellation of feelings and beliefs from the past to a similar circumstance in the present. Our emotional system is consistent. We tend to remember painful emotional events and unresolved problems. They nag at us and cause painful discomfort. We strive for resolution to release the tension. When these problems remain unsolved, emotions linger.

Our memories of unresolved anger, private guilt, secret shame or paralyzing fear do not go away just because they are not expressed. They lay dormant and are triggered when a situation while a similar feeling occurs in the present. However, we can use this consistency to our advantage in our efforts to solve the mystery of where our problems in the present came from and how they can be resolved by using our adult judgment, which we did not have back then.

We can also predict that once we make these unconscious beliefs conscious, they lose their grip on the individual. Once they can understand where they are coming from, they can choose to replace self-doubt with new beliefs in the context of mature self-respect. “I’m not a vulnerable child anymore, I’m not a victim. I’m a grownup. I’m a worthwhile human being now and deserve to be happy.”

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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