When You Fear Happiness

Have you ever had a fear of happiness that you could express? It is so brave to put language to these fears, essentially saying, “I see you fear” and “I am staring you down,” even if I have to look away some times. I imagine it’s good to scream at these fears sometimes or welcome them in like a house guest, pulling up a chair and offering it a cup of tea (this is what Rumi does in his “The Guest House” poem):

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.


Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I too relate to lingering fears (perhaps unmet primal needs surfacing from my unconscious) that I “don’t deserve good things” or can’t “allow myself to trust” that goodness is the norm. Sometimes I would tell myself:

  • “Why do I deserve to have such happiness now?”
    • (based on survivor guilt that other siblings in my family were still not growing or in a healthy way with themselves).
  • Or “Do I deserve unconditional love from myself or others?”
    • (i.e., I didn’t get it as a girl; why should now be any different?)
  • Or “Can healing and love really grow and expand? That’s fairy talk!”
    • (e.g., Love I experienced with my family of origin diminished me, so how can I trust it to expand me now with my chosen family?)

These questions remind me of the wisdom of Buddhist psychology, especially of Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life. He uses a lot of Winnicott’s paradigm of the “good enough” mother to explain how those who have experienced developmental trauma as a child can use that relational dynamic with themselves (a lot like the ideal parenting techniques). I was struck by this quote from the book. His ideas have helped me feel more flexible with this ever-changing and holy healing journey:

While some people have it in a much more pronounced way than others, the unpredictable and unstable nature of things makes life inherently traumatic. What the Buddha revealed through his dreams was that, true as this may be, the mind, by its very nature, is capable of holding trauma much the way a mother naturally relates to a baby. One does not have to be helpless and fearful, nor does one have to be hostile and self-referential. The mind knows intuitively how to find a middle path. Its implicit relational capacity is hardwired.

As I’ve continued to heal and grow, I know that I will still experience “little ‘t'” traumas (of everyday life) and will still have my childhood developmental trauma triggered by little things (like going to the very crowded farmer’s market or hearing my son’s screaming). And with all of the re-wiring that my brain can do, I now have the tools to regulate. And my triggers become fewer and fewer. My goal isn’t to attach to the happy zone (although anchoring in it is a more normal experience now); It doesn’t last forever, and I’m okay with that. The sad or anxious states wake me up again to what my body needs, and it can feel good to relate to what wants to be seen (even if my past default was to ignore, suppress).

Now, we can invite it in, and say “I see you.” I may not answer the door at the first few knocks, and I may even keep it “out in the cold” on my doorstep for a day or two. But eventually, I now say, “Come in. Let’s talk. Let’s cry. Let’s see each other.” Maybe this is the middle way?