Do you sometimes see people running around enjoying life and wonder what you’re missing? Sometimes I used to think I must be a horrible person. I had so many things going for me, and I still couldn’t be happy. I would ask myself, is there something wrong with me? Am I a narcissist?
Then sometimes I would decide I was just going to be happy. I would fake it until I made it and just accept that’s who I was. But it wouldn’t take long for me to feel overwhelmingly depressed.
I had a little dark hole that would constantly pull at me, and I didn’t have the energy to keep ignoring it. My attempts to do so just made it scream louder, and then I really was in a mess. This, of course, made me feel worse because it would remind me that I must be crazy.
As I worked through my healing journey, I discovered there are three key reasons why we can’t just muscle up and be happy. We need to work through these three obstacles to move from just surviving and having moments of happiness, to thriving and living a life full of joy and inspiration. To living a life where we love who we are and what we are doing and have hope for the future.
Life is never perfect, but it sure is a lot more enjoyable and fun when we love, enjoy, and fully experience the present moments we are in.
So what are these obstacles? And what strategies can you use to work through them?
1. Validate Past Experiences
When you don’t fully validate and process painful past experiences, the energy of those experiences gets trapped and contained within your body.
It takes consistent and continual emotional energy to keep the walls around those experiences high, and the energy within contained. The energy and emotion inside are deep and strong, and to keep these feelings away from our consciousness we can’t allow ourselves to experience any deep or strong feelings, even the good ones.
Allowing yourself to pull down these walls and grieve all the deep and strong feelings inside will free your emotional energy to feel deep and strong happy feelings too.
For me, this meant feeling and processing the sexual abuse I endured as a child.
For years I convinced myself that I was fine and that it happens to almost everyone. I tried to minimize my experience and leave it in the past. The walls I had built to keep all the grief and pain of those experiences out of my conscious daily awareness drained me and prevented me from feeling life in real time. I was guarded, with a very shallow access to my feelings.
No one wants to go back and work through the pain of the past, but I discovered that doing grief work with my therapist allowed me to truly let go of the pain and thrive in the present.
2. Let Go of the Need for Control
When you’ve been hurt in the past, it is normal to want to curate a life where you can’t get hurt again. We create a sense of safety by ensuring our life is as predictable as possible. Any time someone in our circle acts in a way that is outside our control, we ensure they “get back in line” so we feel safe.
For example, if your partner doesn’t immediately return your text, you might get upset and lash out about how disrespectful he is being. If your kids don’t seem to be as concerned about their grades as you think they should be, you might panic and shame them, saying they will be stuck working in fast food restaurants for the rest of their lives. We want everyone to act as we think they “should,” so our world feels nice and safe and predictable.
Zoom out and look at this scenario… Could it be any more boring? No wonder it is impossible to feel true joy and happiness. Joy and happiness come from the ability to be spontaneous, light, free, and unpredictable.
I think a lot of people mistake feeling safe for feeling happy. Being in a constant search for safety keeps us in survival mode. Knowing you are safe with yourself no matter what allows you to move out of survival and into a higher consciousness that brings joy, pleasure… and happiness.
It is true that many of us have very real pain from the past, and it is perfectly normal to want to protect ourselves from feeling that pain again by attempting to curate a life we can fully control. This is an unconscious decision we make out of self-protection.
Choose to make the conscious decision to let go of control. Trust that you now have all the resources within yourself to feel safe, no matter what happens. Releasing the need to control will bring you the ability to feel joy, pleasure, and fun again.
This one was difficult for me and took a long time to integrate. Because of my abusive childhood experiences, I overcompensated for my feelings of worthlessness and lack of safety with a drive for success and perfectionism to try to control how others perceived me.
If my co-worker wasn’t pulling her weight, I would stay late and work weekends to ensure the work was done, and done well. If my husband wouldn’t spend time with me or plan dates, I would plan dates and put all the reservations in his name so it looked like he was investing in me and our relationship. If my kids were not interested in wearing outfits that I thought would make our family look perfect, I would bribe them with candy so we could look good and put together as a family.
I thought that making myself and my family look like we had it together meant that we did, and we would therefore be happy. Man, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and it actually drove not just myself but everyone in the family system in the opposite direction.
No one likes to be manipulated, and even if we can’t exactly identify that’s what is happening, we feel it. Honestly, I had a bit of an identity crisis as I let go of how I wanted life to look and embraced living in and feeling life in real time. What I can say is that since I’ve let go of control, life has been full of more peace and joy than I knew possible.
3. Look for Happiness
What we look for we will find. There is a reason we constantly hear people talk about gratitude. When we look for things we are grateful for, things we enjoy or love, we create more of those things in our lives. We begin to see how much joy and happiness we already have.
We so often completely overlook the goodness that’s all around us, because we are preconditioned to see and experience all the things that are going wrong.
This third step is caused by not working through the first two. When we haven’t validated our past painful experiences, we look for validation in all our current painful experiences.
It’s like those experiences keep haunting us until we take the time to turn around and look at them. They cloud our ability to see the happiness we already have all around us. We can’t experience the innocence and joy in our children. Nor can we accept the love and connection our friends want to offer us, or appreciate all the amazing things we are doing well at work.
When we are stuck in the need for control, we look for all future outcomes that will help us to stay safe instead of looking for all the joy and pleasure that is already in our life. We don’t have enough bandwidth to do both, at least not all at once; so, for example, if we spend all our time subconsciously looking for ways someone else might hurt or abandon us, then we don’t have the energy left to look for joy and pleasure in our relationships.
One day I had to make a choice. I decided I had had enough of being tired, frustrated, and miserable. I knew it would take a while for my circumstances to change, but that didn’t mean I had to stay stuck and feel isolated, frustrated, and lonely.
I made the hard choice to look for happiness. At first, I would journal things I found happiness in, and over time it became more subconscious than conscious. It also helped to talk about it with a good friend, as we both challenged each other in looking for happiness.
Sometimes I still struggle. If I haven’t been taking care of myself, this one is the first to slip. I start to slide back into an old pattern of looking for how life is screwing me over. I know that I’m better able to keep my mindset in happiness when I engage self-care as often as possible.
If enough is enough and you are ready to move on from feeling like you are just surviving life, implement the following three strategies to overcome the obstacles to joy.
First, start journaling or processing your feelings about past experiences. It could be a good idea to do this step with a professional, depending on what you have been through.
Next, start identifying how much control you have over your life and the people around you and see where you can loosen up the reins a little.
I can almost hear you saying back to me, “But everything will fall apart if I let go!” Let it fall apart. You don’t want a partner and kids who live only to make you satisfied and “happy.” Let life get a little messy. They (and you) will be so much happier if they just get to be themselves, make mistakes, and develop connections out of genuine love and respect… not out of fear of failure or mistakes.
This last one is pretty simple: start looking for joy. Get curious when you find it hard or upsetting to look for joy. Often, turning things around is simply a choice. Change your subconscious conditioning from looking for what is going wrong to looking for what is going right.
These three steps will help you attract the people and experiences that will bring you everything you are looking for.
Before you know it, your past pain will be a distant memory that doesn’t impact your day-to-day life. Instead, you will feel a sense of freedom and joy because you’ll be able to live life in the moment rather than in your head trying to predict outcomes, and because you’ll have reset your pre-conditioning to look for the good in life everywhere you go.
This is what it takes to be one of “those people” who just seem happy and full of life. Which strategy will you try first?