I’m around 11 years old when a girl in my bus looks at me as I’m laughing and warns me – don’t be too happy, or things will go wrong and you’ll have to cry just as much. I believe that this event dented my relationship with happiness for the longest time. Even today, remembering her words makes me cringe.
As children, we are so susceptible to believing things that are said and done to us. And there’s no knowing what the impact of what we hear or experience will be on us. Sometimes, these things stick with us for decades, until we work with some kind of therapist or coach to come to a resolution.
In particular, this idea that we could end up experiencing a lot of misery if we allowed ourselves to be fully happy, runs in our systems like the plague!
And it’s not just me, but I realize how common and widespread this way of thinking is. For me, it was that girl in the bus that set the foundation for not being too happy, lest things go wrong.
It’s what the author, Glennon Doyle calls as the “Ache” in her book Untamed. She accurately describes it as a feeling that something will go wrong the moment something is going right.
Have you found yourself thinking this way too?
If yes, do you remember when this way of thinking first began for you?
Maybe it was a family member who was always worried you’d jinx happiness. Or maybe it was an idea that you subconsciously picked up from a movie. Whatever be the origin of this idea, if it’s been implanted in your mind, the conditioning may still be playing a role in your life today.
I personally became hyper-aware of this phenomenon the day I was reading through American professor, Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead.
She said in her book and I quote,
“Why do we insist on dress-rehearsing tragedy in moments of deep joy? When we feel joy, it is a place of incredible vulnerability – its beauty and fragility and deep gratitude and impermanence all wrapped up in one experience. When we can’t tolerate that level of vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding, and we immediately move to self-protection.”
Her words sat with me. Later that day, I was surprised to see how many times and in how many subtle ways this subconscious conditioning was at play, dimming my happiness:
- As my husband and I drive down a beautiful highway and watch the sun dip back into the horizon, I have a flash in my mind’s eye of another vehicle hitting ours. This image was my ego-mind’s reminder to not let happiness catch me off guard. But this time, I pause and ask it in return, “what if nothing happens?”
- A few hours later, again, as we were laughing and having a good time, my mind flashes images of danger. Once again, I see this and ask myself, “what if I give myself permission to actually enjoy this moment anyway, regardless of what happened next?”
In both events, when I confronted my mind, challenging its concerns for me, I heard crickets. Silence. The mind didn’t know what to do with this counter-questioning.
It also made me realize another important difference between intuition versus ego. When we do receive an intuitive hit for something that’s about to unfold, it’s in the moment and simply passes.
But when it’s generated from our ego-mind, you can feel the heaviness landing in your body. You can feel yourself getting stuck in a loop. The thing that your mind thought would happen doesn’t, but you begin to nauseate over it.
All of this is the first significant step to inner freedom. We want to work to separate ourselves from mindlessly believing every thought that we think.
It leads me to seek the overarching framework looking over all this, and to a fundamental question.
Why are we even listening to these limiting thoughts at all?
The insights I’ve gathered through reflection and in studying the behavioural sciences is this. The ego-mind wants safety and protection, and listening to these thoughts is the ultimate protection we can offer ourselves. If we’re never vulnerable enough, we are never at true risk because we are always vigilant.
And when we’re always vigilant and our guard isn’t down, we can move into fight or flight much more rapidly. Or that’s what the mind thinks it’s doing for us.
However, there’s one challenge that conflicts with this innocent intention of the ego-mind. When we are so hyper-vigilant, we still step away from the present moment and into our heads, by buying into the ideas presented in these waking nightmares. We’re kind of like dysfunctional ninjas, if I put it in a lighter way.
So even if something were to happen, we wouldn’t be present to respond – we would have to come back from an already hyper-aroused state of mind. Or what Brene Brown termed as the “dress rehearsal of tragedy”.
Then, we should ask ourselves this.
Knowing that protection is a good thing but not always necessary, what role can we give to the ego-mind in our everyday life?
Let’s start by knowing that we have a choice. We don’t have to follow the advice that it offers; we can simply choose to listen and let it pass.
As an analogy, I want you to imagine different parts within you driving the car of life. So if two of the passengers are ego-mind and joy, we can consciously let the ego-mind sit in the co-pilot seat. And let joy buckle itself into the driver seat. In other words, we don’t have to get rid of these limiting ideas, but we don’t have to operate out of them anymore either.
Sure, the whole idea about being unapologetically happy can seem crazy. I’ve had a client challenge me at one point, as to why she should be happy if there’s nothing to be happy about.
But the truth is, it’s easier to be happy than it is to not. And I’d rather pick easy in this moment. Especially when I don’t know if the next moment will be easier or if it will become hard.
A few weeks before writing this article, I was passing the downtown streets in Vancouver and I couldn’t take my eyes off a drug addict that was dancing and grooving in an intoxicated state. The image and his unconditional joy in those moments stays strong with me.
I realized that there was nothing he needed in that moment – he was in a bliss state. Even though the drugs were what led him to that state, and I’m not advocating drug abuse, I do think it’s noteworthy that even someone living on the streets can dance, celebrating the moment without a care for what lies ahead. Then why can’t you and I?
The reason we fundamentally do everything is because we think it will bring us joy. And yet, we have all these guards set up which make us feel like we’re in more control if we can “see” happiness go out the door before it leaves. But maybe we should pause and reflect, because it feels like happiness never truly entered our door.
So, my final question now is – are you ready to give yourself permission to be truly happy without worrying that something will go wrong?
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