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Monday, July 27, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Overcoming Your Fear of Allowing Yourself to Be Happy

As unusual as it might sound, people who have suffered with longstanding unresolved emotional trauma often have a hard time tolerating positive feelings, like happiness.  This can be confusing for both the person who has unresolved trauma as well as his or her loved ones (see my article:  Working Through Emotional Trauma: Separating Then From Now).

Overcoming Fear of Positive Emotions

Although, at first, this might sound illogical, if we take a deeper look at this phenomenon, under certain circumstances, it makes emotional sense.

If you're someone who has a history of emotional trauma (or you're the loved one of someone who has unresolved trauma), I hope this article will clarify this phenomenon and demonstrate how is common under these circumstances.

The following is a fictional vignette below to illustrate these points and how I usually work with these issues:

Jane
Jane came to therapy because she felt like she was "losing it."

She had a long history of emotional trauma, which began in early childhood.  Her early trauma included multiple issues related to abandonment related to her teenage parents and other family members.

Overcoming Fear of Positive Emotions

From the time she was born until her teenage years, Jane was sent back and forth from her mother, who was too young to care for her, to her maternal grandmother.

Unfortunately, after a few months, her grandmother, developed medical problems that prevented her from caring for Jane, so Jane was sent to live with an aunt.  However, her aunt, who had a contentious relationship with Jane's mother, resented taking care of her and sent Jane to live with a great aunt when Jane was two.

Jane's great aunt was nurturing and provided a stable home environment, but Jane was withdrawn and sad.

When Jane started school, her teacher told her great aunt that Jane was having difficulty forming basic relationships with the other children in school.  She tended to be shy and play by herself.  She recommended that Jane's great aunt bring Jane to see a child therapist.

Overcoming Fear of Positive Emotions

Initially, Jane had a hard time connecting with the child therapist, but as time went on, she opened up more.  She was also able to start making friends in school.  However, after several months, Jane's mother, who was now in her early 20s and separated from Jane's father, wanted Jane back.

Although the great aunt wanted to keep Jane, especially now that she was starting to do better in school, she only had an informal arrangement, rather than kinship foster care or adoption, to take care of Jane.  So, she recommended that she and Jane's mother talk to Jane's therapist about it.

The therapist met with the great aunt and Jane's mother and discussed how moving back with the mother would affect Jane, especially since Jane had hardly seen her mother since Jane was given to the grandmother.  She suggested a gradual approach where Jane's mother would begin to spend more time with Jane to see how they would go.

But Jane's mother didn't listen to her.  She uprooted Jane from the only home that Jane knew and brought her to live with her.  She wanted to make up for lost time, but Jane was shy and withdrawn around her and would frequently ask for her grandmother.

Jane's mother didn't understand that Jane needed time to get to know her and adjust to being in her new environment.  She felt that Jane was rejecting her.

After a few months, Jane's mother showed up unannounced at the grandmother's house with Jane's belongings and told the grandmother that things weren't working out, so Jane needed to live with her. Whenever she was brought back to live with her grandmother, Jane was happy.  But after a while, she didn't trust that she wouldn't be uprooted again and again so she wouldn't allow herself to be happy.

This back and forth between Jane's mother and her grandmother continued until Jane was ready to go away to college.

By then, Jane learned to speak up for herself, but she continued to be wary of allowing herself to be happy.  She felt that whenever anything good happened, it was sure to be followed by something bad.

By the time Jane came to therapy, she was in her mid-20s and in a two year relationship with her boyfriend.  Although she loved him and she knew that he loved her too, she was afraid to make a bigger commitment to the relationship.  She feared that something would probably happen in the relationship to disappoint her eventually.

No matter how much her boyfriend tried to convince her that he was committed and wanted to marry her, she wary of getting engaged.

Since she knew that she couldn't continue to live this way, she came to therapy to work on these issues.

As we talked about her childhood history, it became evident that Jane had unresolved childhood trauma that was affecting her now as an adult.

Intellectually, she knew that her boyfriend was trustworthy and committed to her, but on an emotional level, she didn't trust it.

As we talked about how her history was affecting her now, Jane realized that, on an emotional level, she was confusing what happened to her as a child with her situation now (see my article: Overcoming Childhood Trauma That Affects Adult Relationships).

Using EMDR therapy, over time, we processed Jane's trauma so that she was able to work through those earlier issues so that she could be free from her history to have a loving relationship with her boyfriend and she could allow herself to be happy without fear.

Overcoming Your Fear of Allowing Yourself to Be Happy

Conclusion
When children grow up in an unstable environment where they are uprooted and constantly disappointed, these traumatic incidents create a mistrust in them where they never know when they will be hurt again.

As a result, they wary of trusting the good times because they feel that the bad times will inevitably follow, so they don't want to be caught off guard.

Unfortunately, these problems carry over into adulthood and affect adult relationships.

But, with help, these issues can be worked through so that they no longer affect people in their adult lives.

Getting Help in Therapy
If the issues that I've discussed in this article resonate with you, rather than continuing to allow your history to have a negative impact on your current life, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed mental health professional who works with trauma.

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 (212) 726-1006 or email me.











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