As published in Tiny Buddha November 28th 2014.
“So, like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us.” ~Gaston Bachelard.
I woke up to the sun peeking through the bedroom curtains and I cautiously opened one eye to check if my little brother was still asleep on the other side of our room.
I was excited about the day. The sun was shining and we were meeting up with some family friends for a picnic in the park later that day. All I cared about was we would be having lots of treats at that picnic and the park we were going to had a giant swing set. This was going to be a good day.
An hour later, my brother and I were in our parents’ bedroom, with my mom gently explaining that Daddy had left and he wouldn’t be coming back home.
I was only six. I had thought everything was okay, but it wasn’t. I wasn’t expecting this.
I felt sucker-punched. I promised myself, “I won’t let my guard down like this again.”
Fast-forward twenty-five years…
I stretched out beneath the shade of a huge umbrella, wiggling my toes in the white sand and watching my husband snorkel in the bathtub warmth of the ocean. There was nothing to do but sit and soak in the paradise of a tiny island in Malaysia.
This was my dream vacation—one that I had waited years for.
This should have been one of the happiest moments in my life. But I wasn’t happy.
I remember at one point that day telling my husband that I should have brought my laptop with me so I could do some work while I was at the beach.
I was genuinely struggling to relax and embrace an experience that could have offered me pure joy. I couldn’t just let go.
Perhaps something similar has happened to you.
Let me save you a few hundred dollars in therapy.
This vacation made me realize that this was only one of many times in my life that I had gleefully anticipated an activity, but when I was actually in the moment I wasn’t able to feel very happy.
I wish I could tell you that after I recognized this pattern, I immediately began a journey toward emotional wholeness. It wasn’t until years after that vacation, when I was finally brave enough to start digging into things that were holding me back.
I started to see a therapist regularly, but I have a hunch that you might relate to what I discovered.
So what did I figure out?
I should have been paying more attention to what I was telling myself—mantras from my childhood were heavily influencing my adult life.
I realized the childhood mantras or “tapes” I was playing inside my head had a significant impact on my ability to feel happiness—ones that were formed in my early years and may sound familiar to you.
Do you recognize any of these mantras that you’ve told yourself for years, therefore diminishing your own potential happiness?
Mantra #1: I won’t ever do that again.
Earth-shattering events happen when you are younger. There may have been major traumas or minor events that felt traumatic to your younger self.
As kids we often react to such events by making a vow or promise to ourselves. We do this to protect ourselves, but as we grow older we don’t stop to re-examine if this vow is helping us or holding us back.
I wanted to avoid the unexpected pain I felt when I was abandoned as a child, so I had promised myself that I wouldn’t let my guard down again.
Could a vow to stay guarded at all times affect the ability to feel true happiness? Most definitely.
Mantra #2: This can’t last.
Brené Brown identifies a major limitation to our happiness in her chapter about joy and scarcity in The Gifts of Imperfection (a book recommended by my therapist).
She explains, “We think to ourselves: I’m not going to allow myself to feel this joy because I know it won’t last…I’d rather not be joyful than have to wait for the other shoe to drop.”
Does this resonate with you?
Unforeseen trauma when we were younger can create a sense of dread—we start to expect something bad is going to happen, especially in the times we are feeling most happy, or vulnerable.
Did events from your childhood create a fear that good things happening were an invitation for something bad to happen?
Mantra #3: It’s not okay to do that.
Oh, the complexities of the rules within each family!
Whether spoken outright or implied through reactions to certain behaviors, each family has a code of conduct with a profound influence on us, well into our adult lives.
Maybe emotional expression was frowned upon in your family? Or perhaps there was an unspoken rule about how you should conduct yourself in stressful situations.
I can remember the implied rules about money in my family. In the wake of my father leaving, money was tight and I quickly learned to stop asking for any treats. I had determined that it’s not okay to spend money on non-essentials.
There can be so many facets to the family culture of your early childhood—some good and some not so good. Are there rules from your younger years that restrict your ability to feel happy?
Mantra #4: This actually means that.
Assumptions we make as a kid, about the way the world works, can deeply influence our thoughts as adults. We become aware that the world does not consist of just ourselves and we start forming a framework of decisions about how life works.
Is it possible that, back in your childhood, you decided that relaxing meant you were being lazy? Alternately, you may have assumed achievements meant love from your parents, so if you stopped achieving you would lose that affection?
Can these childhood assumptions inhibit our ability to enjoy the moment? Absolutely.
Mantra #5: I’m no good at that.
Neglected dreams or passions that you had as a young child can be an amazing compass toward rediscovering your happiness.
Is there an activity that you used to love doing as a child that you no longer do? Perhaps due to someone’s criticism, you decided you weren’t good enough to keep doing it?
I had an embarrassing incident in gymnastics class when I was younger. (Let’s just say that the balance beam won). I refused to go back to class, resulting in an abandoned passion that I didn’t reconnect with until just this year.
Was there a dream you had that you forced yourself to let go of, in an effort to be more practical or realistic as you grew up?
These buried passions offer us an opportunity to remember what used to truly bring us joy. It is an invitation to welcome happiness back into your life.
The Next Brave Step in Banishing Your Childhood Mantras
I’m guessing that at least one of these mantras jumped out at you. We all have a default “tape” that is worth examining, to understand if it is suppressing our happiness.
Be brave. Recognize this impulse and decide to make a change.
It’s actually pretty simple—not easy, but simple.
You need to start playing a new “tape” inside your head instead of the ones that are diminishing your ability to be joyful.
I chose to start telling myself that it is okay to let my guard down. This involved literally chanting inside my head that the world would not fall apart if I allowed myself to enjoy the moment.
I had to constantly reassure myself that even if something bad did happen, bracing myself for it would not make it hurt any less and was actually robbing me of joy.
It actually didn’t take too long before I started to believe this. Surprisingly, this removed a huge obstacle to giving myself permission to feel happy.
How to Amplify Your Happiness
The good news?
You’ve already taken the first step: pausing to ask what you are actually telling yourself.
How about some more good news?
You can choose one thing that you are going to start saying differently to yourself and you will be amazed at how quickly you can change the narration.
It is tempting to cling to the voices of our past, but wouldn’t it feel amazing to be able to truly embrace your happiness?
Try out your new script today and congratulate yourself on moving toward a happier life!
Pssst…want more tips for taking better care of yourself? Grab your free Secondhand Therapy eBook, Start Investing in Your Emotional Wellbeing: 25 Practical Tips for Moving Past Survival Mode. Just enter your info below…