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5 Childhood Mantras That Are Poisoning Your Happiness

Unhappy Little Girl

“So, like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us.” ~Gaston Bachelard

I woke up to the sun peeking through the bedroom curtains and I cautiously opened one eye to check if my little brother was still asleep on the other side of our room.

I was excited about the day. The sun was shining and we were meeting up with some family friends for a picnic in the park later that day. All I cared about was we would be having lots of treats at that picnic and the park we were going to had a giant swing set. This was going to be a good day.

An hour later, my brother and I were in our parents’ bedroom, with my mom gently explaining that Daddy had left and he wouldn’t be coming back home.

I was only six. I had thought everything was okay, but it wasn’t. I wasn’t expecting this.

I felt sucker-punched. I promised myself, “I won’t let my guard down like this again.”

Fast-forward twenty-five years…

I stretched out beneath the shade of a huge umbrella, wiggling my toes in the white sand and watching my husband snorkel in the bathtub warmth of the ocean. There was nothing to do but sit and soak in the paradise of a tiny island in Malaysia.

This was my dream vacation—one that I had waited years for.

This should have been one of the happiest moments in my life. But I wasn’t happy.

I remember at one point that day telling my husband that I should have brought my laptop with me so I could do some work while I was at the beach.

I was genuinely struggling to relax and embrace an experience that could have offered me pure joy. I couldn’t just let go.

Perhaps something similar has happened to you.

Let me save you a few hundred dollars in therapy.

This vacation made me realize that this was only one of many times in my life that I had gleefully anticipated an activity, but when I was actually in the moment I wasn’t able to feel very happy.

I wish I could tell you that after I recognized this pattern, I immediately began a journey toward emotional wholeness. It wasn’t until years after that vacation, when I was finally brave enough to start digging into things that were holding me back.

I started to see a therapist regularly, but I have a hunch that you might relate to what I discovered.

So what did I figure out?

I should have been paying more attention to what I was telling myself—mantras from my childhood were heavily influencing my adult life.

I realized the childhood mantras or “tapes” I was playing inside my head had a significant impact on my ability to feel happiness—ones that were formed in my early years and may sound familiar to you.

Do you recognize any of these mantras that you’ve told yourself for years, therefore diminishing your own potential happiness?

Mantra #1: I won’t ever do that again.

Earth-shattering events happen when you are younger. There may have been major traumas or minor events that felt traumatic to your younger self.

As kids we often react to such events by making a vow or promise to ourselves. We do this to protect ourselves, but as we grow older we don’t stop to re-examine if this vow is helping us or holding us back.

I wanted to avoid the unexpected pain I felt when I was abandoned as a child, so I had promised myself that I wouldn’t let my guard down again.

Could a vow to stay guarded at all times affect the ability to feel true happiness? Most definitely.

Mantra #2: This can’t last.

Brené Brown identifies a major limitation to our happiness in her chapter about joy and scarcity in The Gifts of Imperfection (a book recommended by my therapist).

She explains, “We think to ourselves: I’m not going to allow myself to feel this joy because I know it won’t last…I’d rather not be joyful than have to wait for the other shoe to drop.”

Does this resonate with you?

Unforeseen trauma when we were younger can create a sense of dread—we start to expect something bad is going to happen, especially in the times we are feeling most happy, or vulnerable.

Did events from your childhood create a fear that good things happening were an invitation for something bad to happen?

Mantra #3: It’s not okay to do that.

Oh, the complexities of the rules within each family!

Whether spoken outright or implied through reactions to certain behaviors, each family has a code of conduct with a profound influence on us, well into our adult lives.

Maybe emotional expression was frowned upon in your family? Or perhaps there was an unspoken rule about how you should conduct yourself in stressful situations.

I can remember the implied rules about money in my family. In the wake of my father leaving, money was tight and I quickly learned to stop asking for any treats. I had determined that it’s not okay to spend money on non-essentials.

There can be so many facets to the family culture of your early childhood—some good and some not so good. Are there rules from your younger years that restrict your ability to feel happy?

Mantra #4: This actually means that.

Assumptions we make as kids, about the way the world works, can deeply influence our thoughts as adults. We become aware that the world does not consist of just ourselves and we start forming a framework of decisions about how life works.

Is it possible that, back in your childhood, you decided that relaxing meant you were being lazy? Alternately, you may have assumed achievements meant love from your parents, so if you stopped achieving you would lose that affection.

Can these childhood assumptions inhibit our ability to enjoy the moment? Absolutely.

Mantra #5: I’m no good at that.

Neglected dreams or passions that you had as a young child can be an amazing compass toward rediscovering your happiness.

Is there an activity that you used to love doing as a child that you no longer do? Perhaps due to someone’s criticism, you decided you weren’t good enough to keep doing it?

I had an embarrassing incident in gymnastics class when I was younger. (Let’s just say that the balance beam won). I refused to go back to class, resulting in an abandoned passion that I didn’t reconnect with until just this year.

Was there a dream you had that you forced yourself to let go of, in an effort to be more practical or realistic as you grew up?

These buried passions offer us an opportunity to remember what used to truly bring us joy. It is an invitation to welcome happiness back into your life.

The Next Brave Step in Banishing Your Childhood Mantras

I’m guessing that at least one of these mantras jumped out at you. We all have a default “tape” that is worth examining, to understand if it is suppressing our happiness.

Be brave. Recognize this impulse and decide to make a change.

Now what?

It’s actually pretty simple—not easy, but simple.

You need to start playing a new “tape” inside your head instead of the ones that are diminishing your ability to be joyful.

I chose to start telling myself that it is okay to let my guard down. This involved literally chanting inside my head that the world would not fall apart if I allowed myself to enjoy the moment.

I had to constantly reassure myself that even if something bad did happen, bracing myself for it would not make it hurt any less and was actually robbing me of joy.

It actually didn’t take too long before I started to believe this. Surprisingly, this removed a huge obstacle to giving myself permission to feel happy.

How to Amplify Your Happiness

The good news?

You’ve already taken the first step: pausing to ask what you are actually telling yourself.

How about some more good news?

You can choose one thing that you are going to start saying differently to yourself and you will be amazed at how quickly you can change the narration.

It is tempting to cling to the voices of our past, but wouldn’t it feel amazing to be able to truly embrace your happiness?

Try out your new script today and congratulate yourself on moving toward a happier life!

Unhappy little girl image via Shutterstock

About Jill Dahl

Jill Dahl is the founder of Secondhand Therapy, an online resource for people who desire emotional wellbeing, but cannot commit to working with a licensed therapist. Secondhand Therapy provides down-to-earth methods to achieve a happier and more authentic life. Click here to download the free eBook: “Start Investing in Your Emotional Wellbeing: 25 Practical Tips to Move Beyond Survival Mode”

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  • Samsam

    What an amazing post! I find this incredibly true and definitely have some mantras from my childhood that have leaked into my adult years…I really need to work to get rid of them and enjoy my life as it is now and not as a reflection of what once was. Thanks for posting!!!
    ~ Samantha
    samsamcherie.blogspot,com

  • This
    is a fantastic article. Many years ago, I realized I was miserable all
    the time, but in memory, I was happy yesterday. Just being awaare of it
    helped me live in the now more. But I still slip into old thinking.

  • What a beautiful post! I especially love this line: “I had to constantly reassure myself that even if something bad did happen, bracing myself for it would not make it hurt any less and was actually robbing me of joy.” This is something that’s sort of skirted around my logical thoughts, but I’ve never fully accepted. Hearing it this time though…wow!

    Reading your post made me realize that although I keep telling myself I will change how I think, I’ve been reactionary and often get caught up in a negative spiral before I even think to change my tune. Now, I’m going to try and actively THINK positive mantras, so hopefully they’re at the forefront and don’t allow negative thoughts to retain too much power. Thank you for this wonderful article!

  • Jill Dahl

    Thanks Samantha! So glad to hear that you are on the verge of stepping into more freedom!

  • Jill Dahl

    Wonderful to hear Calae! It made such a difference for me when I started proactively creating and repeating positive mantras. Good luck and big hugs!

  • Jill Dahl

    Thank you Mark! Yes we all sometimes slip into negative thinking…the important thing is to catch ourselves and make a conscious choice not to stay with those thoughts.

  • Jill Dahl

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Rose! I’m so happy to hear that you decided to make it your mission to help others break through these emotional barriers! Good luck with “Positive Attitudes for Life.” : )

  • Mary

    Wow thanks so much for this article. It is like you lived inside my head 🙂 I had earth shattering news when I was seven and I can tell you I felt the exact way you did until just a year or two ago. I actually found my way out with Tiny Buddha book and blogs. I’m so grateful to everyone who share their journeys here. We can help each other more than we realize 🙂

  • Sharon

    Beautifully written and so true I am still fearful of what might happen due to events in my childhood and get myself in such a state of dread for no rational reason. Thank you Time to sort this out! Xx

  • carolinatruth

    excellent article one of the best I have ever read here

  • MichiganKim

    Jill, thank you for this wonderful post. I can relate to much of it, especially the part about being afraid to feel joy because of always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’ve been seeing a therapist lately to help me deal with some of the fears related to my divorce, and we talked about traumas from my life that are affecting me many years later. I’ve been very surprised to realize certain things had such far-reaching impacts on me. I’m having to feel some of that pain all over again, but that’s important to do because apparently I didn’t fully process all that emotion in the first place. I have a long way to go, but I think I’m going to come out the other side of this a healthier and happier person.

    And thank you for the free ebook. I look forward to reading it.

  • Jill Dahl

    Kim, thank you for being brave enough to share your emotional journey. It’s not fun feeling the pain again, but I agree that you end up feeling happier and healthier on the other side. Big hugs for being brave : )

  • Jill Dahl

    Thank you for your kind words Carolina : )

  • Jill Dahl

    Hi Sharon, yes it’s crazy how irrational our childhood fears can seem. Sending you lots of encouragement as you start to sort this out…it’s worth tackling!!

  • Jill Dahl

    Yes Mary!! I love having those “me too!” moments…it can sometimes feel so isolating until we realize that there are many others who have struggled in similar ways. Glad to hear that Tiny Buddha helped you along this journey, too!

  • Jill Dahl

    Thanks Peg! I love to hear that you managed to reprogram those tapes and have experienced joy and freedom as a result. You took a courageous step and I’m so happy to hear that you are living life whole-heartedly as a result!

  • Pixie5

    A very good list that I can identify with but I would add one more: “I don’t deserve…”

    This is one that has stuck with me the most because of emotional abuse from my mother. One I am still trying to overcome. When I make mistakes it feels like the end of the world because of the shame I carry. Certainly it is appropriate to feel some guilt if I have genuinely done something wrong (which is difficult for me to determine at times as I blame myself for everything). But shame and guilt are two different things. Guilt says “I did something wrong but I can fix it”. Shame says “I am intrinsically bad and nothing will ever change that.”

    I am looking forward to reading your blog because I suspect you probably have info that could help me with that.

  • Jill Dahl

    Great insight, “I don’t deserve…” Wow! So true! I am sorry to hear you carry shame from early interactions with your mother. That is a lot of pain to carry around. If you are looking for some material to help you on the path towards healing, my therapist recommended to me Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, which addresses a lot of what you are talking about. My caution to you with this book is to read it SLOWLY…it’s a tiny book but it is so profound it’s not a good one to rush through. It talks a lot about self-compassion which helped me not to blame myself as much.

  • Ruchi

    Can’t believe almost all of it is true for me. I haven’t felt really happy since a long long time, not knowing why. Even the birth of my first child didn’t really excite me. May be my mind needs a little servicing.

  • Jill Dahl

    I am so sorry to hear that it has been so long since you have felt happy. There are so many things that can cause us to feel unhappy, but there can also be physical causes. Ruchi, I would encourage you to seek some help and talk to your doctor or healthcare professional…especially if you recently had a child.

  • Listening to the self talk is key. It’s only by listening and responding as if a friend told you such a thing. What would you say to a friend who made such a statement to you about herself? That’s how we need to answer such self talk.

    I literally turn my head sometimes as I ask, “Who said that?” The voice always stops abruptly, but I’ve learned that if I stop there the voice just comes back. But if I actually make a contradictory statement then the voice shuts up for a lot longer, but they come back to ruin another day and sometimes I just go along with the inner voice. That’s when my world falls apart and as I look back there is always that magic moment when someone said something that started the inner dialog. It’s usually when I’m physically tired that I’m most vulnerable to negative self talk. I have actually named a couple of the voices, not that I’m officially psychotic. There is a theory that all mental illness is normalcy gone awry.

  • Jill Dahl

    I completely agree that listening to self talk is the key! Naming the voices sounds like a really healthy way to identify the negative “voices” that can sneak up on us! I’m really proud that you have put so much effort into sorting through where the negative self talk is coming from!

  • jcnspots

    No clue how to change those tapes, but EVERY SINGLE ONE of them applies to me. :-/

  • Jill Dahl

    Sending virtual hugs…I hope the journey to change these tapes doesn’t feel too overwhelming!! If you want to start with some reading material to start working through this, I would recommend Brene Brown’s book the Gifts of Imperfection (warning: read it slowly!) as she addresses a lot of the issues behind these “tapes” that we develop earlier in our lives. My therapist also had me read “The Whole Brained Child” which was also really helpful–it’s a parenting book but at the end of each chapter it teaches adults how to re-parent themselves if needed. You may decide after some reading that you want to start working with a therapist or coach, but reading either of those books may feel like a safer place to start. Hope that helps you feel a little less lost….

  • Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth mentions the pain body on just a page or 2. I grabbed onto that concept and have been playing with it. For me, it makes the most sense.

    Really great post, by the way.

  • Jill Dahl

    Thanks again and great insight : )

  • Jill Dahl

    Steve…I just read your post and left a comment on it : ) Thank you so much for sharing and for making it your mission to continue the conversation. Important work, my friend…well done!!!

  • Thanks a great deal.

  • lv2terp

    Wonderful post!!! Well written, clear, and easily relatable to apply to oneself! Thank you for sharing your wisdom! 🙂

  • Jill Dahl

    Thank you so much! I’m so glad you found it helpful and easy to read : )

  • Unless you consciously
    reflect on your past traumas (no matter how insignificant they seem), they will
    always be logged in the sub-conscious as trauma. Conscious reflection on your
    past is essential if you ever want to free yourself from your demons & live
    your life! Thanks for writing such a great article!

  • Jill Dahl

    Thank you! Yes, conscious reflection is crucial to being free from your past. It IS often the seemingly insignificant events from when we are younger that can plague us the most. Well said.

  • Raphaela Browne

    Jill, this was so well written and I definitely can relate. This self-talk or mantras causes people to not live authentically and live life fearfully. Once people come up counter thoughts (resilience talk) as you stated a new tape will be created. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jill Dahl

    You are most welcome Raphaela…thanks so much for your feedback! Love that phrase “resilience talk” : )

  • cindy kettering

    all my childhood I was told she is so shy well guess what I have social anxiety now my parents with good intentions would constantly say this when I would not perform little songs and such in front of people so shy shy shy is what I became