It sounds like something you’d hear on an episode of Oprah or find slapped across the cover of a self-help book in the bargain bin: Are you afraid to be happy?
Yeah, like I’m afraid to win the lottery and see Tom Hardy naked.
I used to scoff at notions like these until I realized that being afraid to be happy – even treating my own happiness as a warning sign that something bad was surely about to happen – was something I’d actually been doing for most of my adult life. Oops. (Title of my future memoir: The Accidental Hypocrite.)
But I honestly never noticed. That’s how normal it felt to me. It was just how I always was. Whenever I found myself receiving something that made me happy, I’d beat myself up for whatever reason and focus on how there were surely people more deserving of whatever I had that made me smile. A good job. A valuable opportunity. A boyfriend I really liked.
If you’re anything like me, you try to do things to prove to the universe that you deserve it. If it’s a significant other, you try to be the best partner anyone has ever had so that it makes sense someone would love you. Look at how smart I am! How beautiful, how understanding, how funny! I have so many great qualities! This makes sense! All this you think while desperately trying not to focus on all the reasons someone wouldn’t want you, all the reasons you sometimes don’t even want yourself.
If it’s a job, you go above and beyond. If someone is there until 5, you’re there until 5:30. You try to be and do everything, as if to say, See, you made the right choice! All this you think while desperately trying not to focus on how how there are people smarter than you, more charismatic, who would have never been late that one day or dropped the ball that one time. People who aren’t the colossal screw-up you’ve spent your life pretending not to be. Why aren’t they where you are instead of you? How long until someone else comes to claim what they surely deserve more than you?
I’ve heard of impostor syndrome when it comes to career stuff, but what is it called when it’s applied to every area of your life? When you feel like you don’t deserve a single good thing? (Answer: chronic low self-esteem and undiagnosed depression, probs.)
I was genuinely afraid to be happy. My thinking used to be this: there are smarter people, more talented, more beautiful, more worthy women in this world, so surely the universe would correct itself soon enough and it would all be taken away from me. But maybe not if I was really quiet about it. Maybe not if I didn’t let myself focus on feeling too happy and instead like, flew under the radar and went into sneak mode in my life (yes, I’ve been playing Skyrim today). Then maybe I’d get away with feeling good and life wouldn’t be reminded to punch me in the face.
It makes even less sense when you consider my faith. God wants me to enjoy life on Earth while I’m here (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25) – I believe that, and yet I don’t feel like I deserve to, sometimes. I feel guilty for getting what I want sometimes even though I neglect my relationship with God too often for other, less-deserving things. I’m a woman who battles daily with unforgiveness, who doesn’t pray long enough or often enough, who too often chooses worry instead of faith, whose past makes her sick to her stomach. On my worst days, I feel unworthy of calling myself a follower of the Lord, and as such, I don’t deserve these blessings in my life.
But here’s what I’ve learned: guilt and fear don’t come from God, and as such, they don’t deserve to take up valuable real estate in one’s mind or one’s heart. If there are things in your life that make you happy, then let yourself enjoy them. Do your best to honor whatever blessings you’ve been given. When I start to feel like I’m being trying to hide from the good things in my life, I replace that guilt and fear with things I know to be true: Jeremiah 29:11. 2 Timothy 1:7. Deuteronomy 31:6.
And the truth is, life is made up of good times and bad, and when bad times come on the heels of the good, it’s not because you were right all along and you never deserved any good thing, it’s because that’s just life. It’s just life. We all go through seasons.
These days, I’ve reached a more healthy place. I’m able to think and even say ‘I’m happy,’ because to hesitate to claim that seems disrespectful of all the blessings I do have in my life. Health and safety and comfort. A healed heart. A renewed sense of purpose. Dreams that feel within reach, moreso than ever before. I’m trying to cultivate a spirit of gratefulness, and training myself to stop feeling guilty and scared and be happy instead is a big part of that.
And because I’m a work in progress, I do still struggle occasionally with a lot of things I’ll keep between me and my therapist. I don’t 100% of the time always feel like I deserve to be happy, but honestly, what am I gonna do? Give it back? Is there a lost and found? Anyone lose a good life because I think the one I have is stolen?
If you’re anything like I was, here’s what I’ll leave you with: Unclench, boo. You can’t spend your life bracing yourself. I know it’s hard but you’ve got to. Training yourself to expect good times to end quickly and painfully won’t protect you from anything – it just robs you of the joy you could feel today.
Take baby steps – check your negative thinking and replace it with positive affirmations like ‘I deserve this,’ and ‘It’s ok to be happy.’ Smile as often as possible. Keep a gratitude journal. Enjoy whatever is there to enjoy, because tomorrow there might be a zombie apocalypse and then all you’ve have to start worrying about things like not getting your face bitten off by your undead next door neighbors. Just saying.