Get Real: 10 Signs That You're Trying Too Hard to Be "Happy"

Everyone experiences frustrating phases when they feel dissatisfied, trapped in an unfulfilling cycle. But Dr. Gail Saltz says that some people go to great lengths -- unknowingly -- to hold themselves back from a rich, satisfying life. In this excerpt from her book Becoming Real, she explains 10 ways to identify if you're one of those people:

Sydney is a long-legged, striking woman in her early thirties. She has beautiful brown hair, cut so it swings when she talks with great animation -- which is most of the time. She is upbeat and charming and has an infectious laugh. She's curious and sweet and clearly wants to set everyone at ease. These skills have served her well in what has become a very successful marketing career. On top of all that, Sydney has tons of girlfriends and is engaged to a man who is clearly crazy about her.

So, why is she on the brink of blowing everything up? As her wedding day draws near, she's become distant, cold and angry at her fiance, Brian. He keeps asking her if something's wrong, but Sydney denies there's a problem, insisting everything is okay. But he feels like the woman he fell in love with has been replaced by this volatile, erratic stranger who is pushing him away as hard as she can. Now, he's beginning to have real doubts about their future.

Sydney knows something's really wrong and she comes to my office to find out what to do. Clearly upset, she tells me she's tried being her normal self. But her usually accommodating manner is increasingly overrun by an engulfing rage that seems to erupt for no apparent reason. When I ask her if this behavior has occurred before, at first she says no but then remembers that the same inexplicable anger ended her first serious relationship with her college sweetheart. "I was out of control then, and now I feel the same thing happening," she says, anxiously twisting her hands. "Why can't I just get a grip? I'm a basket case. What's the matter with me?"

Rage, Hate and Frustration Aren't Wrong; They Make Us Real

Not only does Sydney feel completely miserable, but she also blames herself for not being able to control her actions. Sydney is convinced her emotional turmoil means there is something wrong with her. Like most people who walk through my door, she views being happy as a sort of report card: If she feels good, then she's doing life "right"; if she's in pain, then she's failing.

Sydney's pain is anything but failure, however. In fact, I tell her that it's the very thing that's going to free her from some very old, untrue messages she's been giving herself for years. These messages are part of an old story -- one that has silently and invisibly instructed her for most of her life. Sydney looks at me doubtfully when I tell her that the turmoil she's in is an important signal, and if she can just try to welcome it instead of pushing it away, it will be very useful to her.

This doesn't make sense to her. Like most of us, she's been taught to avoid unpleasant feelings. Our culture is extremely pain averse, and we don't look at pain as a necessary part of life. There is no such thing as a deep emotional attachment in which we don't feel pain or anxiety at one point or another. It's part of living. It's part of loving. Remove these emotions and you remove the intimacy. Yet we aren't raised to believe that living life fully means experiencing emotional messiness and anxiety and fear. We only see these feelings as something to be gotten rid of. Since we are never told about the value of pain, we, being human, simply look for ways to avoid or eliminate it.

Yet as we will see, difficult emotions enrich our lives in ways that we can't imagine. The path to getting what we want out of life runs right through all these messy, painful feelings. Trying to avoid them actually leads us astray. Feeling anger or rage or hate or frustration doesn't make us abnormal or sick or wrong or broken, it makes us real.

The Stories of Our Lives

We come into adulthood, like Sydney, believing certain things about ourselves. We recognize our characters, our behaviors and ourselves. These are our personalities and identities. But what if I were to tell you that large parts of these personalities were based on fictions? You would dismiss me out of hand, probably. What a ridiculous notion! But take a look at the following list and ask yourself if you've ever experienced any of these things:

  • You can't stop repeating behavior you absolutely don't want or intend.

  • Your body breaks down or you often feel exhausted even when rested.

  • Your anger becomes uncontrollable and larger than the situation warrants.

  • You repeatedly date or marry the wrong person.

  • You aren't happy with anything in your life and you feel unfulfilled.

  • Your relationships have become embattled.

  • You keep thinking that if you could just change something about yourself -- make more money, lose weight, stop drinking -- it would solve your problems.

  • You believe that if you find that right someone, everything in your life will be complete.

  • You believe that if you make a mistake, you will pay a steep price.
  • You are always struggling against feeling down or empty even though on paper your life looks great.


All these -- and more -- are symptoms that you are living according to stories created so early in your life that you have no knowledge of them. You don't know they're calling the shots in your life and making you ill, dissatisfied or prone to magical thinking. These fictions came out of a deep need that everyone has to stay attached to people they love even when those people hurt us, or disappointed us, put us down or abandoned us.

These stories are the most human and natural things in the world. As children, we made them up to explain why the people we loved acted in ways that seemed painful to us. The stories made us feel safe even when the grown-ups in our lives didn't. They provided order; they kept us sane. They stopped us from being utterly overwhelmed by emotions and events in our lives. And the stories stay with us if they aren't exposed and updated. They don't change; they don't update. Sometimes they keep us feeling safe and loved, but more often, they start to break down in adulthood and cause us to act in the ways listed above. That's the one big problem with stories -- they aren't real.

From Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back by Gail Saltz, M.D. Copyright © 2004 by Gail Saltz Klein. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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