Why We Won’t Let Ourselves Be Happy

why we won't let ourselves be happyWhen 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 that fills us with joy, like hiking or yoga, we may realize months later that we have not made any time for this activity. 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. If we succeed in one area, we find ourselves sabotaging another. When these instances occur, we often tend to blame circumstances or sheer bad luck. Yet, 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. So, the question that we are left to ask is “why?”

For starters many of us are more self-denying than we realize. We tend to think of pursuing the things that light us up as 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 or 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 own 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 won’t let ourselves have what we most want in life:

It disrupts our sense of identity – No matter how negative our self-perception may be, like a heavy blanket, it can feel comfortable and safe in its familiarity. 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 long seen ourselves or a way we’ve long been seen.

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

It challenges our defenses – Our defenses are like armor we’ve built against whatever has hurt us in our lives. 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. Yet if we take the risk and drop our defenses we make it more likely we will achieve true happiness.

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. However, it is also helpful to remember that if we hang in there and sweat through this uncomfortable feeling, the anxiety will subside. Therefore, the way to deal with our anxiety is to overcome it by ignoring our inner critic and continuing to take those steps forward.

It stirs up guilt – In many ways, 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’s 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 that’s 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.

It forces us to face pain – Psychologist Pat Love once said that “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, 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 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.

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 us happy or what’s most important to us. This is something we all have to  find for ourselves, and once we do, it’s our job to fight for it. There are several good ways to go about this:

  • 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 and so you can act against its hurtful directives.
  • Find active ways to differentiate from negative influences from 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 will have a natural, ripple effect.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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You just shed light on things that are so obvious but we refuse to admit. But How can we let ourselves be happy then ?

Sarah Goodwich

I hate this “victim-blaming” notion that the only thing stopping a person’s happiness is the person themseleves– rather than honoring the fact that the person may have REAL PROBLEMS.
And it only PUNISHES the victim to build up a convoluted argument that “it’s all in their head.”
Religion isn’t the opiate of the masses– PSYCHOLOGY is.


Sarah, you may be interested to read David Smail – http://davidsmail.info/introfra.htm – he writes about how an individual’s capacity to “change” is limited by the social powers granted them by the particular external environment that they are in.

I feel similarly to you, that seemingly positive notions of “empowerment” and “agency” have a flip side….”so if you can do it, why aren’t you doing it? right now?”

Nonviolent Communication may be of interest to you to learn as well. Basically, the idea is that no matter what people do, they are always trying to meet their needs (even if they do not know how to do so in a way that doesn’t hurt themselves or others) and by becoming more aware of feelings and needs, our own and others’, we can learn to take actions that enrich life.

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