Woe Is Me! “Whenever Something Happy Happens, I Look at It With Suspicion.”
Woe Is Me! is a series in which The Swaddle team indulges your pity party with advice you’ll probably ignore.
“I am convinced that I’m not capable of lasting happiness despite significant achievements in my life. I feel like if it all I am ever successful it will be purely by due to an external power — it would be momentary and I would be robbed of the success in no time because I have been taught that there’s always a fall if there’s a rise. To avoid that trench I would rather not rise too high in the first place. I realize it’s a fear, a way of thinking that’s ingrained in me by certain incidents with my parents when I was young — the financial crisis my parents faced and the drastic way in which our lives changed after that. This happened right after we had a very happy celebration in our family. So, now whenever something happy happens, I look at it with suspicion and feel it’s a forewarning for something bad, and fail to enjoy the happiness. What do I do?”
–What’s The Point?
LG: Dear What’s The Point: I’m interested in what your definition of success is. Unfortunately, we can’t chat for you to fully explain, but from what you’ve written I sense that success to you is mainly financial/professional achievement. Perhaps broadening what you see as success may take some of the fearful paralysis. Cultivating mutually supportive and loving friendships/relationships is a mark of success. Developing a hobby or mastering a new skill you don’t need but have always wanted to learn can be a mark of success. Volunteering for a cause you care about is a mark of success.
There’s no denying that a career setback or financial insecurity is very difficult to weather (this is true no matter how high someone has ‘risen,’ by the way; if someone loses everything, for instance, it doesn’t matter if they started out with a fortune or a meager income — they have nothing). But these kinds of social investments can be bulwarks during a financially or professionally difficult time, as they have staying power regardless of how high one rises or far one falls. Plus, there’s always therapy, which can help you build the resilience to face the prospect of highs and lows with more equanimity and confidence. Good luck in weathering the storms, both real and imagined!
SM: Dear What’s The Point, I feel you and I have felt this way on so many occasions. Clearly, the experience that you’ve had in your childhood has resulted in an additional, and very heavy piece of baggage that makes this a source of constant worry and tension for you. I think first and foremost, as Liesl said, you need to expand your definition of happiness and success (telling this to you and me, both), so you don’t end up feeling this way whenever something good happens in terms of what society sees as a conventional achievement, like doing well in an exam, or getting a promotion. I think to work towards this will in itself solve a lot of problems, not only in dealing with the pressures you feel to continuously perform well (which I think is the case, on the basis of your woe) but also in dealing with this anxious buildup to an incoming fall.
The second thing that you need to do is, slowly but steadily get to the source of this tension, which goes back to your childhood and the financial crisis that changed your life. As my therapist often says, a lot of our problems go back to our formative years, which affect behavioral patterns in childhood and adulthood alike. Once you start working towards unpacking that experience and your feelings around it, you should be able to deal with this problem effectively, so that you can take in happiness and sadness as it comes, without any feeling of dread overwhelming you.
AM: Hey What’s The Point, I hear you. It must be difficult, but I think going forward, what you could try is being in the moment and enjoying it fully rather than thinking of what could follow. It’s not going to be easy but it can be a slow, gradual process. You could start with the little things and then incorporate them into bigger things. To me, that seems like one way that could make a little bit of a difference.
ADT: Okay. You know what. You’re right. Maybe you’re untalented. Maybe you’ll fail. Maybe you’ll stew in your own mediocrity. Maybe your future boyfriend’s going to cheat on you with a 10. Maybe your parents will adopt a bulldog and leave your inheritance to her. You know your life is going to suck donkey butt, and that’s going to be the case for the rest of your life. Now that you’re 100% certain your life will suck forever and that everyone will let you down, you’ll notice how pretty sunlight looks when it hits the pavement, and how nice awkwardly growing shrubbery looks, and then you’ll want to run on the beach and feel alive again because what does it matter if life sucks? There will always be sand on the beach, sunlight on the pavement, and ice cream after dinner. There’s a lifetime to figure big happy things — maybe stock up on the little joys first? They won’t let you down, ever.
AJ: Hello, you. I understand your apprehension towards being happy, but I would suggest that maybe if you could actually sit down and rationally look through all your achievements, you may realize that not all of them have been followed by an unforeseen situation. Some events leave scars, which is where this fear stems from.
But please don’t not stop striving for what you actually want because that’s the only thing in your control, and at the end of the day you will go to bed knowing that you have done your best and no one can take that away from you. The “external power” might just be the universe rewarding you for your honest hardwork. 🙂