When is it okay to be happy?
When is it allowed to put aside every regret, every unpaid bill, and every worry about a loved one and enjoy a moment?
When is it all right to have a good day even when my partner, child, mother, or another close to me is miserable?
Call it codependency, call it oversensitivity, call it enmeshment or any other psychological term–by any name, it’s operating for me and I need to be aware of it. I’m acting on a core belief that it is not okay for me to be feeling good in the presence of a loved one who is not.
The level of depression I’m dealing with lately makes it quite vital that I find moments of pleasure and joy where I can. I’ve often written about the importance of this for all of us, and the importance of being willing to think and act outside of the box to do so. But as soon as I become aware that a family member has a headache, or is dealing with hyperanxiety, or had a rotten commute, I stop practicing what I preach.
I feel guilty if I want to play music while I do the dishes. I feel guilty when I take time to sit down and write. I feel guilty when I savor the relatively new sensation of climbing stairs with ease, and then remember that someone I love can’t do that so well.
Intellectually, I know that taking good care of myself will let me be more effective in helping others. Intellectually, I know that joining someone in the emotional pit won’t help them get out. I know it’s better to visit on the edge, offering them support and company if they want it, but still experiencing the air and sun. But my deeper complexes are responding to very old programming, and when these situations happen I feel the energy just drain out of me. It happens so fast I don’t have a chance to question it; the energy has gone and I am stuck with trying to get it back.
On some level, I seem to believe that the best way to show that I care about someone is to refrain from displaying any state that is in contrast–to refrain from being energetic if someone is tired, or from being happy if someone feels down. Do I think they would feel insulted, or feel that I don’t care? Do I think I need permission from a committee to feel good?
My spouse and I have some worries right now; the kind that aren’t quickly resolvable and are a constant presence. I realize that I’ve been operating on this idea that if, at any time, I act happy or joyful, it means I am not taking our situation seriously. That I’m being childish and irresponsible. It pushes many of my emotional buttons about having a disability and about being unable to contribute to our finances for several years.
These kind of thought paths are more dangerous for me than I might assume at first. When I get this feeling of guilt/energy drain, it triggers a kind of cascade: every worry I have kind of falls on my head. What about this? What about that? You haven’t thought about this problem in several days. How could you be so self-centered? Oh, God, remember this problem? You are so screwed.
There’s a set of techniques called cognitive-behavioral therapy that specialize in naming and questioning the inaccurate beliefs we operate on. They’re not a cure-all, but they are useful for some things. My main issue with them has usually been that they take discipline and consistent work to have their best effect. (One basic source to learn more is the book Feeling Good by David Burns.)
What I have done today in writing this is name some core beliefs. There are several techniques I might use to start questioning these, and I need to have the humility to try some of them. One of my favorites is called the downward-arrow technique, or the “What Would That Mean”? It works with if-then statements, like this:
If I act happy around my family when they’re not, they’ll think I don’t care enough.
What would that mean?
They will think I’m a bad mother/wife/whatever.
What would that mean?
That would mean I’m a bad mother/wife/whatever. (aha! I’ve identified a part of me that assumes that a judgment like this made by them must be true.)
Anyway, suppose I am a “bad” mother/wife/whatever. What would that mean? That I’m a bad person.
What would that mean?
Umm…well, that I’m bad. That I shouldn’t be the way I am. That I deserve bad things, not good things.
And it could go on and on. It always ends up at a very fundamental place of feeling unworthy, or catastrophic thinking. “If I don’t get an A on the test” ends up at “Life is not worth living.” Then we can look at that deep belief and ask where it came from and how it’s influencing us.
This kind of thought questioning doesn’t fix us. If it did, I’d be good to go by now. But, as I said, it can be useful for me to do when I see myself responding this way. I need to question the voice that tell me to censor, drain or stifle myself. Especially when I’m already depressed. A black hole gets bigger when it consumes nearby material–why throw anything its way when I don’t have to?
The questions about whether I, or any of us, deserve joy while coexisting with others in this world who suffer are bigger than today’s topic. The questions strike at our deepest feelings of despair and shame, and I know I am not the only one who wrestles with them. But right now, I think it’s best to table the question of worthiness and continue my campaign for survival.