A synchronistic theme appeared across my work a few months ago: The fear of feeling too good. As several clients shared:
I’m terrified that if I embrace what’s good in my life – if I consciously acknowledge my blessings – something will come in and yank them all away.
And as a Trust Yourself forum member from the last round wrote (re-printed with member’s permission):
I have entire days without experiencing anxiety, and everything feels so real – it’s as if I had been wearing gloves all my life and could suddenly touch the texture, shape and temperature of my emotions, and of life in general. Every moment feels very real when they are not covered by the thick layer of anxiety and constant worries.
When I am in this space, though, I sometimes feel very scared and actually do get very anxious. I am afraid something bad will happen, I feel I don’t deserve to be happy, to be content with my partner and my job, despite all the imperfections. I am uncovering this deep belief that it is dangerous to be happy. Any guidance on how to deal with this fear?
Still others often describe it in this way:
I commit to something good for me – a yoga practice, journaling daily, eating well, being more creative – and I’m gung-ho about for a week or two, and then inevitably I lose steam and even sabotage it. So I’ll have a week of making green smoothies every day and exercising, and then the next week I’m suddenly drinking wine and staying out late every night. What’s wrong with me?
If any of this describes you, you’re not alone and there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re suffering from what Gay Hendricks, in his book The Big Leap, names “The Upper Limit Problem”. Here he shares his own process of discovering this phenomena:
“I had just returned to my office from lunch with a friend, and we’d spent a congenial hour talking about the projects we were wiring on. My work was going well, and I was happy in my relationships. I leaned back in my chair and gave myself a good stretch, letting out a sign of relaxed satisfaction. I felt great. A few seconds later, though, I found myself worrying abut my daughter, Amanda, who was away from home at a summer program she has very much wanted to attend. A slide show of painful images flickered through my mind: Amanda sitting alone in a dorm room, Amanda feeling lonely and miserable away from home, Amanda being taunted by other kids. The joy disappeared from my body as my mind continued to produce this stream of images.”
He then calls the program director and learns, of course, that his daughter is fine.
“I thanked her and hung up. I felt a bit foolish, but I also knew that something important had just happened. I sat there wondering, “How did I go from feeling good in one moment to manufacturing a stream of painful images in the next?” Suddenly a light of awareness dawned on me: I manufactured the stream of painful images because I ws feeling good! Some part of me was afraid of enjoying positive energy for any extended period of time. When I reached my Upper Limit of how much positive feeling I could handle, I created a series of unpleasant thoughts to deflate me.” (pp. 5-6)
The first place to start when dealing with anxiety or any difficult feeling is to normalize it. When I talked about this theme on one of last round’s Trust Yourself call, I received many emails responses and forum threads from participants saying, “Wow. I had no idea so many people struggled with this! Now I feel like I can address it.” Once you know you’re not alone, a layer of the pervasive “What’s wrong with me?” shame that tends to permeate areas of life that few people talk about is released. Now you’re free to address what’s needing attention without the block of shame in the way.
Let’s deconstruct the belief, which, again, often sounds like this: It’s not safe to be too happy. If I’m too happy, something bad will happen. I have to keep my happiness under wraps, which even includes acknowledging it in a gratitude list. There’s a limit to my happiness and to good things in my life. If I exceed the limit, something bad will happen.
I always like to zoom out to start at the biggest layer of a belief, which in this case resides in the collective unconscious. Jung coined the term collective unconscious to explain the part of the mind that is shared by all humans, and is even connected to the memory of our ancestors. In other words, we often believe that we’re the only ones to experience or feel something, but when we zoom out and connect to the invisible web we see that our experience is the collective experience. Gay Hendricks described how the fear of feeling too good is interwoven into the collective layer:
“The problem looked much bigger than my own small version of it. Our species in general had grown accustomed to pain and adversity through millennia of struggle. We knew how to feel bad. We had millions of nerve connections devoted to registering pain, and we had a huge expanse of territory in the center of our bodies dedicated to feeling fear. Certainty we had pleasure points in various places, too, but where were the mechanisms for ongoing, natural good feeling? I realized that we were only recently evolving at the ability to let ourselves feel good and have things go well for any significant period of time.” (p. 7)
I’ll interject here to say that, of course, not everyone on the planet is blessed enough to worry about life being too good. There are millions of people who suffer on the most basic level of survival. So this fear, while collective for many, isn’t universal, and would be categorized in Mazslow’s hierarchy of needs in the very top tier: Self-actualization. This doesn’t invalidate how painful and self-limiting it can be when you’re suffering from the fear of feeling too good, but I do believe it’s important to approach it with a healthy dose of perspective.
The next layer to address is the level of ego. The ego – that small-minded, fear-based part of us that every human being is born with – is devotedly committed to one thing above all else: control. In pursuit of this futile quest for ultimate control, it convinces us that if we believe its lies, we will successfully control the future. In this case, the ego says: “If you acknowledge the good things in your life you’ll make them go away.” Can you hear the magical thinking in that statement?
And finally we address the personal story, times when you were torn down by peers, teachers, siblings or parents for shining your light brightly. I can still remember the cliquey girls in fifth grade saying to me about another girl, “She’s so conceited” or “She thinks she’s so great,” with great disdain. For a young child for whom peer acceptance is everything, it’s a small leap to hear those statements spoken about someone else and to then introject them into one’s own code. In that one moment, we learn to be small.
It’s also quite common for daughters of narcissistic mothers to receive a covert message that if they shine too big and brightly they will lose their mother’s “love”. A parent often unconsciously communicates to their children that they don’t want to be outshined or surpassed in any way. Thus, when an adult child senses that they’re growing past their parents in any way – emotionally, spiritually, financially – the unconscious, self-limiting voice steps in. One of the most loving statements my mother has said to me as an adult was when I was about to film the videos for MindBodyGreen last year and for some reason I was worried that she would feel threatened. I asked her about it and she said: “It is my complete joy to support you! I’m so excited for you and I’m completely delighted that you are doing so well. In my view, loving parents want their kids to surpass then, and I hope you do!” I’m deeply grateful that my mother has never tried to keep me small, and I firmly believe that it’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to grow without limitation into who I am.
Now that we understand the roots of this issue, how do we transcend the part of us that believes it’s not safe to feel too good?
1. Notice it. Bring awareness, just as Hendricks did above, to times when your good feelings suddenly shift into worry and rumination. The more consciousness you bring to this habit, the more easily you’ll be able to change it.
2. List your ego’s beliefs and call them onto the mat. The ego is most powerful when it works in darkness, hidden behind the great Oz curtain. When you pull back the curtain, you discover that the ego, just like the wizard of Oz, isn’t a big, scary person with a loud voice but is actually just a small, little, scared part of us. When you write down all of your ego-beliefs, you shine the light of consciousness on them and they begin to dissolve.
3. Write or explore times in your life when you’ve been torn down by others and experiences that led to the belief that it’s not safe to be fully, extraordinarily, beautifully, magnificently, brilliantly you. As I discussed, most people learn somewhere along the way that it’s not okay to think they’re wonderful and that it’s safer to stay small. When you explore these experiences you release them from your individual unconscious and can bring truth to the beliefs that were formed during those times. Grief may also surface as you come into direct contact with memories in which you were made to feel small, especially when those memories are connected to your parents.
4. Connect to gratitude. As I wrote about here, gratitude carries tremendous power to sweep out the negative shards and open the channels for goodness to enter. Gratitude orients our inner compass toward awe and wonder, which carry much more powerful energy vibrations than worry and negativity. You can even bring the sense of awe and wonder to your negativity, which will help it dissolve and transform into a feeling of goodness. Remember that the conscious path isn’t about feeling “good” all the time in the traditional way that we think of the word good. Rather, it’s about approaching yourself with a mindset of curiosity and compassion, which then connects us to the river of well-being that permeates our inner and outer worlds. Our only block to this steady inflow of well-being is our resistances to it, which include any time we push away pain. Gratitude unblocks the resistance, as does love in any form.
The universe wants you to connect to well-being. The universe thrives when you embrace all that is good and beautiful and light in your life. In fact, the world needs you to embrace your goodness, because the more you embrace what’s good the more light you bring to the world. And, goodness knows, we are in desperate need of more light in this world.