The Fear of Happiness

“Bigley, I think you secretly like being miserable,” a co-worker told me as I sat at a bar drinking whiskey with him after work one day. We went out to celebrate his recent graduation from the University of Pennsylvania with a Master’s Degree in Teaching. He had been analyzing all of our conversations we have had at work as of recently, about life, love, relationships, and my childhood. It seemed that a common theme to my conversations is that I had become quite comfortable with being miserable and he was calling me out on it.

The act of self-sabotage. I am certainly no stranger to it. I have been participating in the act of self sabotage for years, making issues where there weren’t ones before. At work, in relationships, with family, in my hobbies and on my sports teams, it didn’t matter what aspect of my life it was, none were immune from my self-defeating behaviors. But for some reason I took note of his comment and decided to reflect on why I was so comfortable with misery. Why is it that I engage in these behaviors that seem to dismantle and unravel anything seemingly good in my life, and revel in the misery of it all?

Recently I read an article that described the term Masochistic Equilibrium, finding comfort in discomfort. The author detailed how a person’s comfort zone is established early on in childhood, based on experiences with family and parents. If, for example, a child experienced trauma, especially reoccurring trauma, the child becomes comfortable with a certain level of pain, or unhappiness. When that child experiences happier moments, the child becomes uncomfortable and will subconsciously do things to diminish the level of happiness until that pre-established comfort zone, can be attained.

This article resonated with me, and my experiences as a child. From the time I was 10 years old, I became very accustomed to dealing with trauma, death, loss, grief, abandonment, and a parent-child role reversal. Anytime my mom and I had to pick up the pieces of my father’s ill-fated decisions, it was a subtle reiteration of a lifestyle that I deserved and was destined to live. It was a reactive lifestyle, one filled with panic, lacking forethought and planning, invoking a survivalist instinct. My mom and I would joke, “it’s the Bigley way,” as we eventually bought into the inevitability of that lifestyle. If we weren’t scrambling to “survive”, we were mentally preparing ourselves for when another situation would present itself again. In and out of homeless shelters, hospitals, nursing homes, lost jobs, bankruptcy, major depression, an infestation of bed bugs, major illnesses, a leg amputation, my mom and I helped my father through it all.

These experiences trained my brain to believe I was deserving of trauma. If I wasn’t experiencing trauma, I wasn’t comfortable, therefor I would create a traumatic situation of my own. Without knowing it I’d willingly invite misery into my life, created by my own decisions. I was playing the victim in my own life, as it was the only role I had memorized by heart.

My co-worker’s comments didn’t prompt my reflection on my own self-sabotage, but certainly reiterated my need to revisit this topic in therapy. My therapist agreed that my childhood experiences were a cause of my self-defeating behavior and it was a positive first step in recognizing the pattern. The second step was realizing that I was deserving of true happiness, and to acknowledge that this was going to take time to retrain my brain through cognitive behavior therapy, catching negative thoughts and sabotaging behavior and replacing them with the opposite. Establishing positive relationships with people and releasing the repressed, negative emotions was another way to help curb the self sabotage.

In ending the conversation, we talked about relationships and happiness.

“You’re living your life out of fear. Don’t be afraid to go get what you want.” he bluntly stated. He had no idea about my #yearofnofear, and I didn’t feel like telling him how that exact statement,  you’re living your life out of fear, had been the driving force for my major life shift two years ago, the start of a transformational period of my life.

But he was right. Despite all of my #yearofnofear adventures, I was still scared to be happy. Therefore, happiness is the next fear I am hoping to conquer.  Masochistic Equilibrium be damned. I now know and feel that I am deserving of happiness, true, pure happiness. What does happiness look like? Sound like? Feel like? That’s a good question. But  in the next couple of months, it will be up to me to define it and own it.


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