NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, January 19, 2015

How to Stop Pretending to Feel Happy When You Don't

Many people feel that they have to pretend to feel happy when they don't.  I think this is due, in part, to feelings in our Western society that people should always feel happy and if they don't, they should "bootstrap" themselves out of their problems.  And, if they can't, the belief is that somehow it's their fault.

How to Stop Pretending to Feel Happy When You Don't

No wonder people who are unhappy often feel guilty and ashamed about their unhappiness.

Family history often plays an important part in why people feel the need to pretend to be happy, as I'll illustrate in the composite vignette later on in this article.

What Happens When You Pretend to Feel Happy When You're Not?
Pretending to feel happy is an emotional strain because it takes a lot of energy to act happy, especially  when you're feeling miserable inside.

The emotional strain can also affect not just your mental health, but also your physical health, for instance:  elevating blood pressure, affecting your immune system, causing headaches and other aches and pains, and so on.

It also makes you even more aware of the incongruity between what you're trying to project on the outside and how you really feel on the inside.

How to Stop Pretending to Feel Happy When You Don't

Pretending to feel happy when you don't can also make you feel inauthentic and other people might sense this lack of authenticity.

I'm not suggesting that people who are unhappy should bare their souls to strangers or reveal very personal details about their lives to coworkers.  That would be the other extreme, which also doesn't work.

Instead, I'm suggesting being true to yourself and striking a balance in your interactions with others--neither pretending to be overly happy nor spilling your feelings inappropriately to people you're not close to--as an alternative to feeling like you have to put on an act.

Even worse is feeling the need to put on an act with people who are close to you.

Anyone who is truly close to you and knows you well will sense that something is wrong, even when you deny it.

You might feel like you're trying to spare your loved one an emotional burden, but it usually works the other way:  You cause them even more stress and worry because they know something is wrong, but you're not saying what it is.

The following composite vignette, with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, is an example of the problems of trying to hide your unhappiness from a loved one and how to overcome this problem:

Ted and Mary were married for 10 years.  They had two sons, ages 8 and 6.

When they first got married, Ted was thrilled to be starting a new life with Mary.  He was also starting a new career.  During that period of their lives, Ted woke up feeling enthusiastic and looking forward to the day.

But during the last year or so, Ted felt like he was in a rut.  He loved Mary and their children, but he felt that their lives had become too routine and he felt bored.  He also felt like he needed a career change, but he wasn't sure what he wanted to do.

Over the last several months, Mary had begun to sense that something was wrong.  Whenever she asked Ted if he was unhappy, he would laugh it off and tell her nothing was wrong.  He didn't want to worry her.

Then, he would become more animated and tease the children, but Mary wasn't convinced that something wasn't bothering Ted (see my article:  Improving Communication in Your Relationship).

By the time Ted came to therapy, at Mary's insistence, he was really feeling miserable.  He could barely pretend to be happy, and he felt even more miserable that he couldn't hide his unhappiness.  He felt like a "failure."

How to Stop Pretending to Feel Happy When You Don't:  "Ted"

During the initial consultation, Ted revealed how ashamed he felt that he wasn't feeling happy.  He felt that, somehow, it was his fault.

After all, from his point of view, there wasn't any reason not to feel happy, and there were people in the world who had a lot less than he did.  He felt "unjustified" in feeling unhappy.

As Ted talked about his family history, he revealed a stable family where there was no physical abuse or substance abuse.  But, as he discussed his father, the roots of his problem started to become evident (see my article:  Looking Back on Your Relationship With Your Dad Now That You're a Father).

Ted spoke glowingly about his father, Jim, who had overcome many obstacles to become a successful businessman.

Jim grew up in a poor family where there was barely enough for the family to eat.  Neither of his parents graduated high school because they each had to go to work at an early age to help support their families.

Both of Jim's parents worked and Jim was also expected to maintain a job while he was in high school. As the oldest, he was also expected to help out with his younger siblings, so he had a lot of responsibility at a young age.

Not only did Jim do everything that his parents expected of him, but he also excelled in school and in sports.  He graduated at the top of his class in college, and he went on to get married and develop a successful career.

When Ted was growing up, he saw his father as "a dynamo," and Ted wanted to be just like his father.

Jim believed in "the power of positive thinking," and he told Ted and his siblings that "complaining was for sissies."  He expected them to meet whatever challenges that they had by meeting them head on without complaining, and Ted's mother went along with this.

As a Child, Ted Looked Up to His Father 

Both parents felt that they had each individually overcome personal obstacles in their early lives and there was no reason why their children shouldn't do the same.

As a result, even as a child, whenever Ted felt unhappy or anxious, he felt like it was his fault, and he was being "weak."  So he kept his feelings to himself.   He didn't want to disappoint or burden his father (see my article:  How Our Expectations and Beliefs Affect Us).

It seems that, at times, he even tried to hide his unhappiness and anxiety from himself because he felt so guilty and ashamed.

When Ted and Mary first got married, he felt genuinely happy.  But as time went on, he felt burdened by all the responsibilities that he had at home and at work, and he felt like he needed a change in his life.

It was clear that keeping this all to himself was also a huge emotional strain on him.  He also felt like the more he tried to pretend that he was happy, the less happy and the more "fake" he felt.

How to Stop Pretending to Feel Happy When You Don't

Admitting these feelings in therapy was also hard for Ted because he felt so deeply ashamed.

Even though his father had died several years ago, these feelings were so deeply ingrained in him that Ted felt like he was letting his father down and he was being "a sissy."

The only reason that Ted came to therapy was because Mary was worried about him and she insisted that, if he wasn't going to tell her what was wrong, at least, he could speak with a licensed mental health professional.  So, he came to therapy reluctantly.

Over time, we worked together in therapy to help Ted develop a sense of compassionate self acceptance, starting with his younger self (see my article:  Psychotherapy and Compassionate Self Acceptance).

Initially, he had problems feeling compassion for himself.  But when he thought about his own young sons and what he wanted for them, he was able to see how young he was as a child and how much was expected of him that wasn't reasonable.

He realized that, as a child, he carried a heavy emotional burden in order to please his father.

Ted knew he didn't want this for his own children, and when he saw his problem through that lens, he began to develop more compassion for himself.

Using a mind-body oriented approach, Ted used his imagination to develop a sense of what he needed as a child and, as an extension, what he needed now.

He wished that he could have had a more compassionate father who would have listened to him when he felt sad or anxious.

When he imagined what a compassionate father might be like, he came up with a detailed description of an ideal father and how that father would have been more nurturing towards him.

More importantly, he allowed himself to sense this on an emotional and physical level until it felt real.

Ted was surprised that his imagined ideal father could feel so real to him and that he could feel so taken care of by this ideal father.

So, I explained to him that when you imagine an ideal parent with such detail using a mind-body approach in therapy (like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing or clinical hypnosis), your emotional brain doesn't know the difference and feels like it is real.

Of course, the logical part of the brain knows that this imagined ideal parent wasn't the actual parent.  But most people still feel soothed by what they experience in the emotional part of their brain.  They can also use this experience as an internal emotional resource because there are ways using mind-body oriented therapy to "anchor" the experience in the body so it remains available.

By that time, Ted and I had developed a good therapeutic relationship and, together with the internal resources that he developed in therapy, he was beginning to feel better about himself.

Ted Learned to Communicate With His Wife  

Ted also learned how to communicate his feelings to his wife, Mary, so they could begin making plans for changes in their lives (see my article:  Learning to Communicate in a Healthy Way).

All of this helped Ted to feel more authentic and gave him a his sense of well being.

Getting Help in Therapy
The dynamic that I described in the composite scenario about "Ted" is a common problem for many people, so if you're experiencing this, you're not alone.

Pretending to feel happy when you don't, especially when you're pretending to your loved ones or to yourself, usually only makes you feel more unhappy and has a negative impact on your loved ones.

You might not be aware of the powerful underlying emotional issues, but a licensed mental health professional who has expertise in this area can help you to overcome these problems so you can feel more authentic (see my article:  How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than hiding your feelings, you can start to take action to feel better.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.