Let’s Talk About Self-Sabotage.

Confession: When I’m happy, I freak out.

A blog-reader-turned-bestie (yes, sometimes I befriend y’all in real life because you are lovely human beings) and I were recently talking about this over milkshakes. Being happy is terrifying when you aren’t quite used to it.

You know, that dreaded sense that the other shoe will fall? Yeah. That. It’s the worst.

The pressure of trying to sustain something that we’re not used to can create a lot of stress for us. And we might feel the impulse to self-sabotage, especially when we don’t have the support we need to cope.

Sometimes I even have suicidal thoughts when I’m happy. Do you?

The idea that I’ve peaked, and that I might as well die now while things are still good. It seems like the perfect time. Then I fall down the rabbit hole of, “Am I actually happy if I’m having thoughts like these?” (Save yourself the time: Yes. Suicidal thoughts aren’t exclusively the domain of depression.)

And of course, I don’t know how to explain this to the folks I love – that joy is triggering, because I am so used to that joy being taken away from me.

Mental illness has taught me that happiness is inherently unstable and temporary, that I shouldn’t trust it. That mistrust is the product of repeated trauma. It can make me impulsive, hypersensitive, and fearful. It makes it difficult to be grounded.

And worst of all? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I start to act out because of that fear, which reinforces the fear itself.

I thought it was just me, until I started talking about it. I actually found that lots of people with mental illness or experiences of trauma have this same mistrust of joy. It can lead us to making some lousy choices – in an attempt to regain control and cope with the fear, we make some misguided decisions and push away the very happiness we’ve so desperately wanted for ourselves.

Sound familiar?

Being happy makes me a little crazy. And if you’ve ever thought you were the only one, I assure you – it’s actually a really common thing.

When you’ve spent years associating happiness with the calm before the storm, it’s no surprise that you might associate joy with a lack of safety. In fact, maybe you find depression or anxiety to be a little safer – because it’s more predictable, something more known to you.

I’m here to tell you, friend, that this is totally understandable. Brains are very malleable things – and trauma can lead us to develop some pretty maladaptive impulses, including the impulse to self-sabotage.

I am the Prince of Self-Sabotage. Happiness absolutely terrifies me. It terrifies me because  it feels like it’s only ever betrayed me. Just when I think that I’ve gotten into a good rhythm, life throws me a curveball and I’m not only depressed again, but also grieving the loss of the stability I thought I’d finally had.

Has happiness betrayed you? If so, it’s no surprise that your first instinct is to push it away.

Recently, I’ve gotten to a good place again. Courtesy of Wellbutrin (quickly becoming a favorite of mine), the most sarcastic/excellent psychiatrist on the planet, the love and support of community, new job prospects that leave me totally ecstatic about what’s to come, and personal growth that surprises and delights me every day.

And of course, cue the terrible thoughts like, “Okay, what gives? When does the other shoe drop?” and even, “I kind of feel like taking a chainsaw and splitting myself in half” (to which my psychiatrist asks me, “Um, do you have access to a chainsaw?” Fear not, Doc. No, I do not).

What’s a kid to do? Well, in my opinion, it starts with just acknowledging that happiness is scary, and that’s 100% okay.

Sounds deceptively simple. But you and I both know this is easier said than done. I have to remind myself of this fifty times a day – that there isn’t a disaster waiting for me around every corner. I have to remind myself that I’ve been conditioned overtime to believe that happiness isn’t safe, but that doesn’t make it true.

It’s also good to check in with myself about how I’m dealing with that stress. Am I reaching out for support from a therapist and/or friend? Am I talking about my fears or ignoring them? Am I staying busy? Am I taking care of myself?

I’m a big fan lately of guided meditation when I’m not feeling so grounded. More specifically, there’s this app that I can’t shut up about called Stop, Breathe & Think, which recommends a few meditations (and even yoga videos!) based on your emotions (imagine, like, a self-care mood ring).

You tell it how you’re feeling, and it makes custom recommendations for you. When I find myself freaking out – like my skin is crawling or I’m claustrophobic in my own body – it’s the perfect thing. (Nope, they didn’t ask for the plug – I just love and appreciate them that much.)

A lot of people believe that self-care is only crucial when you’re in a bad place. But I’ve found that self-care is absolutely critical when I’m happy – because the moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m actually most vulnerable.

Let me repeat that, because it’s super important: The moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m most vulnerable.

Got it?

I know it might seem counterintuitive to reach out for help when you’re happy, of all things, but it can be very necessary if your happiness is a stressor.

And this is a process, of course, one that I know will be ongoing throughout my life. But it helps to know that I’m not alone. And I hope that this reminder can be helpful to you, too.

When we start seeing happiness as a completely understandable trigger and learn to be gentle with ourselves, instead of letting trauma dictate how we should respond, we can start to do the really important work of recovery and healing – which is absolutely something each and every one of us deserves. Yourself included.

22 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Self-Sabotage.

  1. M. Oniker says:

    That last point, about the importance of self-care when you’re feeling good, is so important. With chronic mental health issues, things just aren’t over when we’ve had a run of “not horrible.” Various situations landed me without a support system when things were going ok, which left me totally unprepared (and still without a support system) when things got hard. It *is* a process, one that needs to be practiced, the foundation from the better times needs to be firm for when they get shaken later.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. eagoodlife says:

    Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    Good advice for all here on not “letting trauma dictate” – “When we start seeing happiness as a completely understandable trigger and learn to be gentle with ourselves, instead of letting trauma dictate how we should respond, we can start to do the really important work of recovery and healing – which is absolutely something each and every one of us deserves. Yourself included.” And a useful App. Thanks Sam.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bobcabkings says:

    I remember my Dad saying once when I was very young, in a conversation with my Mom, not to me, “Only stupid people believe in happiness.” As best I could ever tell, he wasn’t clinically depressed (at least, not until he was well toward the end stage of Dementia), and he did have times he seemed happy, or at least pleasantly content. I think that from him it was more a comment on the general state of the world, and, perhaps, something to do with his last job in the war (WW2) which was training B-29 navigators, including those for Enola Gay (Hiroshima) and Boxcar (Nagasaki). There are many kinds of trauma. Still, it has stuck with me, and my reaction to it of, “I don’t thing that’s stupid.”, which I did not say. Never the less, I’ve always been just a bit suspicious of getting too happy, trusting it too much, not as intensely as you describe, but, as the saying goes, “I’m not there, but I can see it from here.”

    Use the good times to build your strength and resilience, even if, as I hope, you turn out to need them less, and the other shoe, if it comes is gently set down, not dropped.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. polarflares says:

    your post got me thinking. My shrink told me I’m not bipolar but when I am not depressed I get all hyper and anxious thinking I have to get stuff done and laugh/have fun on my good days. Sometimes I even exhaust myself to the point where I get depressed because I’m down for the count the next day.
    I have been reading an excellent and funny book about a British woman who moves to America where we are obsessed with happiness. I know that I have depression which means I can’t afford to be obsessed with happiness and she made me feel happier about that! She reminded me that happiness has the same root as happenstance and perhaps. It’s a matter of luck. Book is America the Anxious by Ruth Whippman.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. germainedelarch says:

    Reblogged this on life writ large and commented:
    Hugs you (gently) for being part of the writer/artist, queer neurodivergent tribe… So spoon-giving when you GET someone and they GET you and the words you say mirror each others’ and everything is YES!!! THIS!!! 🙌🏼 and nothing needs to be explained… When community IS home, is safety, holds you, is self-care and self-love. 🦄💜 #grateful
    When I posted this update on social media yesterday, Samwise (aka Sam Dylan Finch, aka SDF) was one of the peeps being addressed. Because when you have no spoons to think, speak, reply to social media comments, tribe members like Sam speak for you (you now or you past or you future), and it just feels like they’re sitting next to you, in the silence that you need, holding you, and that is EVERYTHING.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kina Gray Sweaney says:

    YES! I have the same problem. I have sabotaged so many good things, great jobs, an entire career,new vehicles (during my old drinking days, been sober 13 years now!), and I’ve done this 3-4 times, until I just stopped trying to fix the damage I did and stopped trying all together. Of coarse, that was another mistake. So, I’m slowly and with great care trying to take baby steps back to happines, cautiousely. It’s going slowly, but that’s best for me. I am now aware that self destruction and sabotage is my way of punishing myself for some things that I now know were NOT my fault, and trying to believe I deserve happiness. I’m bi-polar and have anxiety disorder. I’m a second generation adoptee, and suffered abuse from my adoptive mother, plus come from a divorced home. Wadda mess! Well, despite this I have many wonderful things in my life, my 3 almost grown children, my husband, and so much more. I have much to be greatful for. Slow baby steps. All we can really hope for are moments of joy in life, and hopefully, a content feeling here and there.I love “The Life of Von”. Bless and take care all!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Talasi Guerra says:

    “A lot of people believe that self-care is only crucial when you’re in a bad place. But I’ve found that self-care is absolutely critical when I’m happy – because the moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m actually most vulnerable.”

    THIS! Such an important message, and one that so many people take for granted. Thank you so much for sharing. What an important perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. frostflickan says:

    TW: Mentioning of bullying, self-destructive behaviour, rape

    Hi! Another great post. I soo recognize this, I describe myself as emotionally self-destructive: that is I tend to sabotage relationships for myself in the act of regaining control. If I can’t find a ready problem/sign that my partner is hating/leaving/hurting me I create problems and drama so I can push that person away and be free of the prospect of them leaving me. After that I hurt and miss and cry but _that_is a thing I can _control_. And it’s self-fulfilling in that it shows me that of course the person would leave me, see what just happened? No one can love me, so it’s better this way right? remember all the years of bullying, violence, rape and lonelieness that this tactic took you through? (Inner Gollum-voice).

    The thing is – this doesn’t work. Att all and it never worked. I am much more aware of this now and try to prevent it but it’s there and happiness scare me! I have a great job now finally but my anxiety won’t leave me alone, it s so hard sometimes.

    Thank you for all you write! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ReVitellect says:

    I’ve been doing well in some areas I’ve wanted to and that has kinda made me consider self-sabotage of sorts. Like I should stop as soon as I can because I may not be able to maintain it in the long run.

    But I’ve been fighting these feelings and carrying, believing in continued success (of course, with a bit of failure here and there, but only as stepping stones). 🙂 Nice article & advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. moonlovesmountain says:

    Funny post! Definitely feel the kite of fear tied to my happiness. You should (and anyone else reading this) check out writings from Vernon Howard (if you don’t know him already) his simplistic view on reality really makes you see things differently, he mainly address insecurities too! just a thought….

    Liked by 1 person

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