And what if all we needed to do was get out of our own way?
Here are ten common ways most of us suppress joy and limit our potential in the here and now:
1. We seek passion.
How much of the self-improvement movement communicates that passion is the key to success? When we hold this belief, if we don’t experience passion, we feel like something is missing. Passion and excitement aren’t sustainable. They lead us out of balance, down roads that often go against our true nature.
Instead of seeking passion, live in moderation and embrace steadiness. Although it’s not as “sexy” or “stimulating” as passion, it’s a key to long-term growth and fulfillment. Living in moderation, we can find joy in the moment without draining our energy from excitement.
We seek happiness.
The “pursuit of happiness” is ingrained in the consciousness of our culture. And yet, despite our culture’s wealth, according to the World Health Organization, the United States is one of the top ten most depressed nations in the world.
Why? Could our persistent pursuit of happiness (and never finding it) be the cause? In Spontaneous Happiness, Dr. Andrew Weil points out that happiness isn’t sustainable. Instead of seeking happiness, be content. Can you be okay with how things are right now? What if we made okayness the ideal instead of happiness? Psychologist Martin Seligman also adds that authentic happiness is found in developing our strengths, not in pursuing pleasure or happiness as such.
We try to be good.
Seeking goodness is a 2,000-year-old problem. We all have a light and dark side within us. The more we suppress the darker side, the stronger it becomes and the more divided we are. In trying to be a “good person,” we cut ourselves off from the qualities that don’t fit that identity. In psychology, this is called dissociation, and when it occurs, we create our shadows.
Instead of seeking goodness, seek wholeness. Get to know your darker brother or sister within you instead of denying him or her. Integrating our darkness breeds self-acceptance and okayness within ourselves.
We try to belong.
Abraham Maslow identified belonging as a basic human need. Do you remember what it felt like trying to fit in during high school? For most people, the drive to belong persists into adulthood. This unmet need causes us to seek groups we can identify with, whether they are religious, commercial, athletic, or political. Even if we have lots of family and friends around us, this unmet need to belong makes us feel anxious and unhappy.
The feelings behind the drive to belong are loneliness and fear. Get to know these emotions; acknowledge them. The adolescent part of us will always seek love and belonging. The adult in us does not. Maslow noticed that self-actualizing individuals maintain only a few friendships; they spend more time alone. Individuals with positive mental health focus inwardly on their own growth (for its own sake). Get to know yourself and the need to build your identity around outside groups falls away. With it, we release the joy we suppress in trying to be something we are not.
We are self-critical.
We believe the only way to improve ourselves is through self-criticism. We watched this behavior in our parents and teachers when we were children. Studies show, however, that self-criticism doesn’t lead to taking responsibility or positive behavioral change. Self-compassion does.
Replace self-criticism with self-compassion. Instead of criticizing yourself and giving energy to your inner critic, make friends with yourself.
We try to be serious.
Seriousness, for many of us, is a sign of professionalism and adulthood. According to humanistic psychology, however, it’s a sign of poor mental health. Maslow found that self-actualizing individuals tend to be light-hearted with a childlike innocence. Psychologist Daniel Goleman says that self-deprecating humor is a hallmark quality of emotional intelligence.
Seriousness is a sign of physical tension. We restrict our muscles when we’re serious. Shake your body. Move vigorously. Smile even when you don’t feel like; it can change your emotional state. Instead of being serious, stay light-hearted and playful.
We hold onto stuff.
Everyone has an ego. Egos love to cling. They cling to grievances from the past and hold grudges. Egos identify with rigid self-concepts (“I am this or that”). They even grip negative thoughts and emotions, which results in rumination — circling the same stories over and over again.
It takes a lot of energy to hold onto all this psychic stuff. What’s the antidote? Cultivate self-awareness of the ego’s tendencies. Next, comes self-compassion, and then we can let it go. This “letting go” can be a long, arduous, painful process. Or you can just let it go. Your ego will choose the former. You can select the latter.
We value material things over spiritual values.
There’s nothing wrong with material things. But when we value money, image, and stuff over kindness, compassion, and well-being, we become unhappy. We know this, but, subconsciously, our cultural conditioning is to value appearance over our humanity.
When we acknowledge the tension between the material and the spiritual, we can put them in proper context. We all need a safe home, food, and clothing. These are basic human needs. Beyond that, the more we live by spiritual values like honesty, truth, beauty, justice, and kindness — what Maslow called being values — the more human we become.
We suppress negative emotions.
The unwillingness to experience negative emotions drives much of our behaviors. How much of our media consumption and compulsive behaviors are attempts to escape our feelings? What we resist persists. When we suppress negative emotions, we also suppress positive emotions like joy.
Instead of suppressing, denying, or ignoring our negative emotions, welcome them, acknowledge them, and allow them to be. They don’t mean anything from a larger perspective, but they are a part of the human experience.
We compare ourselves to others.
Studies show that Facebook is increasing people’s level of depression. Although there are numerous factors, a chief reason is that users are comparing themselves to their peers. We compare ourselves to others when we feel we’re not enough. Comparing leads to envy, which fosters animosity and depression. Envy stalls our joy.
As long as we compare ourselves with others, we’ll always feel like we’re lacking. Someone always has a “better” this or that (body, looks, clothes, bank account, car, house, etc.). Instead of looking outside ourselves, we can turn inward. Place your attention on what you can be grateful for right now. Create a personal development plan and focus on cultivating your natural strengths to increase your contentment in the present moment.