If you’re reading this right now, I want to say first that you’re not alone. You’re not weird or defective. If you fear happiness, you are very likely in pain, and fear is a normal reaction to things that hurt.
A fear of happiness develops in people for a variety of reasons. You might have had a string of pleasant experiences immediately followed by negative ones. You might have a strong memory of a traumatic event that happened right after something joyful. Children growing up with abuse – narcissistic abuse in particular – may feel like expressing happiness is wrong or bad and that somebody will punish them. For a clear explanation of narcissistic abuse and its impact on children, see the blog post written by Maureen Mauro Psy.D. here:
A person might not even realize that they’re afraid of happiness until well into adulthood. Because I was isolated from others throughout my childhood, I didn’t have exposure to anything that would poke my “happy family” illusion. As a result, I thought that it was the outside world that caused panic and self-loathing in me. I remember sitting on the floor with my classmates at six years old as the entire class sang along to a cassette tape. Instead of feeling relaxed and happy, I was terrified. The act of singing felt wrong and dangerous, and my brain futilely looked for ways to escape the activity. It wasn’t just that I was shy, which I most definitely was – I had a conditioned fear response to expressing any emotion at all.
Why do I bring up narcissistic abuse when talking about happiness? Narcissism is, at its core, an inability to empathize. This inability leads narcissistic individuals to try to control the emotions of the people around them. They belittle or intimidate people to feel superior and then do outwardly affectionate things like give gifts or compliments to garner trust. They use the silent treatment, guilt-tripping, and subtle mind games to make their victims take the blame for the abuse. Narcissists do this because they cannot handle the cognitive dissonance of differing views, opinions, or emotions. If they are happy, everyone else must mirror them. If someone they are close with dares to express joy when they are having a miserable day, the narcissist takes it as invalidation and insult. A child growing up in this environment is likely to associate positive emotions with withdrawal, abandonment, or even punishment.
Research now confirms that the impact of trauma and abuse happens at a neurological level. The amygdala, or the part of the limbic system responsible for experiences of fear and stress, becomes enlarged after trauma (Ousdal et al., 2020). And as Anna Runkle says in her video, FEAR: The #1 Obstacle to CPTSD Recovery (YouTube, 2019), fear is the biggest hurdle to overcome on our way to freedom. Someone may have manipulated you as a child out of your right to express and feel your emotions. But this doesn’t mean that happiness is gone forever. It just means that you will need to take a detour on the way.
There are different ways to approach fear of happiness, depending on what works for you. For me, I’m finding gradual exposure to be beneficial. When I see myself in the mirror, I smile. When a friend sends me a text message, I take a moment to cherish their desire to communicate with me. So far, I’ve even worked my way up to enjoying board games with one or two friends in my “allowed people” bubble.
Another way to reduce fear is to journal about recent positive experiences and reflect on what happened afterwards. Did something bad happen as a result? If it did, was it as painful as you imagined it to be? If you find that you need some guidance, a skilled therapist or mental health clinician is an excellent resource to have in your toolkit.
A student of mine wisely pointed out to me that happiness looks different for different people. I have a friend who loves dance parties and another who finds comfort in walking through the forest. You may not know what makes you happy yet, and that’s okay! On the other side of fear is the beautiful unfolding of the person you have always been! Like crocuses popping up through the snow, likes and dislikes will appear for you to experience. And if you decide that you want to change them, you can! That is the beauty of stepping into and owning our experiences.
Take heart, dear friend. There is an end to this tunnel. You are not alone. And you are braver than you think.
Mauro, M. (2010). The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/take-all-prisoners/201003/the-narcissistic-family-diagnosis-and-treatment
Ousdal, O.T., Milde, A.M., Hafstad, G.S. et al. (2020). The association of PTSD symptom severity with amygdala nuclei volumes in traumatized youths. Translational Psychiatry 10, 288. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-020-00974-4
Runkle, A. [Crappy Childhood Fairy]. November 4, 2019. FEAR: The #1 Obstacle to CPTSD Recovery (Resilience Series). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RR7_Ypr_vw0&t=189s
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson, Psy.D
When Will I Ever Be Enough? by Dr. Karyl McBride, Ph.D.