Chapter 1:
Why People Are Not Happy

From Secrets From The Sofa: A Psychologist's Guide To Personal Peace By Dr. Ken Hermanpersonal transformation

Many people travel through life waiting for the world to be exciting. Some are waiting for the ideal mate. Some are looking for a more challenging and rewarding career and some are waiting to inherit a fortune. Often what these people already possess goes unrecognized and unacknowledged. They are saying such things to the world as, “When I get older, I’m going to read all the books that I didn’t have a chance to read before.” Or “When I retire, I will travel to the places that I’ve always wanted to see.” The problem is, most people with these thoughts never realize their “future,” and what’s worse, they cannot enjoy their “present,” often due to how their “past” has conditioned them.

The poet Sara Teasdale was, by most standards, a very talented writer, yet she was an
unhappy person who was unable to internalize her strengths. In her later years, she became aware of heaving passed the prime of her life without realizing that her exercise had some meaning. It was too later to go back and capture all she had let slip by. Feeling that she had nothing to look forward to, she finally committed suicide.

What a tragedy it would be to reach a point in life where we must admit to ourselves, “Strange to have crossed the crest and not to know.” To possess life’s treasures and not to be able to enjoy them is truly a waste. To realize one day that it is too late is indeed a depressing thought. I do not subscribe to the philosophy that it is too late to regroup and resolve a problem. We can’t recapture lost time, but we can seek more meaningful and rewarding goals at any stage in life.

What do you feel is slipping by in your life? What brambles are catching your clothes and preventing you from reaching a higher crest? Are you frustrated that you haven’t met the right companion? Are you confronted with a weight or drinking problem? Are you stuck in a dead-end job, an unhappy marriage or relationship, or faced with some undesirable habits that you have been trying to kick for years? By now, you may have given up hope
of things ever being different.

But they can be different! Once you understand the source of your difficulties and what you can do about them, you can begin to make the necessary changes.

Many of us go through life on automatic pilot. We rarely examine why we behave the way we do. We just plow ahead the only way we know how. For some, this approach works. Finding a suitable mate and building an exciting career comes naturally to some lucky people, but, unfortunately, only relatively few. For many, however, being on
automatic pilot leads to falling short of their potential. Rather than seizing the controls and taking charge of our lives, we settle for mediocrity because it is easy and convenient. While it may work for flying airplanes, automatic pilot rarely works for living your life.

Childhood Counts

Over the last few decades, mental health professionals have discovered some startling facts about human development. In contrast to most other species, human beings are dependant on their parents for a relatively long period of time. During childhood, we have no choice but to trust our parents to attend to our physical, emotional and economic needs.

Since no parent is perfect, it is not always easy for parents to meet all of the needs of their children. Fortunately, most parents do a pretty decent job. But many, too many, specifically miss the mark. There is a direct relationship between the stability of the parent and his or her ability to rear children who are emotionally secure. Less stable parents who are overprotective, for example, rob their children of independent thinking, leaving them helpless and needy. Other insecure parents, who reject and abuse their children, bring about insecurity, low self-esteem, and distrust in their offspring. On the other hand, parents who employ sound judgment tend to be able to raise relatively stable children.

Children need affection, discipline, guidance, limits and loving relationships with their parents in order to grow into self-reliant, self-disciplined and secure adults. To what extent were your emotional needs met in your childhood? Would you raise your children exactly the way you were raised?

As adults, we all are programmed to behave just as we behaved as children. If we are secure, we will gravitate towards people and experiences that promote the same sense of well-being that we enjoyed in childhood. Unfortunately, if we are insecure, we are compelled to seek our time and time again an environment that frustrates us just as our parents once did. Over 75 years ago, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, M.D., identified this self-defeating pattern of behavior as repetition compulsion. Trapped in our painful pasts, we become addicted to the familiar misery that we know intimately.

On some level, we have adopted an attitude of resignation about life. After a while, we prefer not to think even about new possibilities for our future. We accept inevitable situations (e.g., a lousy job or a bad relationship) that don’t really satisfy us.

Even in loving families, interactions between children and parents stray from the ideal.  Despite their good intentions, many parents may unwittingly burden their children with feelings of insecurity. At times, nearly all children receive messages from their parents that make them feel inadequate. For example, parents often err by attacking a child personally for doing something wrong, rather than criticizing the specific behavior.

Shouting at a child, “You're bad for hitting your sister!” produced much more shame than simply telling him or her to stop. In all families, periodic conflicts arise that end up leaving children needlessly wounded— even if just a little. Child-rearing presents an enormous challenge. Many parents, although they do the best they can, simply are unaware of families where they experience parental loss or rejection (due to death, illness, or divorce,) if not outright abuse. We can never change what happened to us in the past. However, we can change how our past affects us today. Whatever has been learned can be unlearned. No matter what childhood tragedy or subtle negative messages we have experienced, we need not give up on our dreams.

Lynn’s story illustrates how patterns established in childhood can interfere with our ability to enjoy life as adults. In therapy, she developed the courage to change. She followed the very exercises presented in this book at her own pace and one step at a time. By the time she terminated therapy, she had begun to move ahead in her life, following
her own personal peace process (detailed in chapter seven.) As she and I would speak every several months thereafter, I would see her reaching closer and closer to her personal peace. In fact, today, Lynn would say that she is as comfortable, content, hopeful, vivacious, and balanced as anyone she knows. Not bad for someone who spent a good portion of her life unhappy, uncomfortable, and insecure.

A successful model at 28, Lynn was referred to me by her physician. I was not surprised when Lynn initially expressed gratitude toward her parents for raising her as they did. “My mother knows best and I appreciate everything she does for me. I may not like everything she does for me, but I would never hurt her. After all, I wouldn’t be successful if she hadn’t done so much for me.”

Adults who have endured conflict relationships with their parents often use denial as a defense mechanism. This stance allows us to avoid acknowledging the depth of frustration and anger that we have stored up. Denial often involves both minimizing the stress of critical relationships and our feelings in general.

When I asked Lynn if she ever got angry, she replied, “Not often. Oh, if I am looking for something in a store, and they don’t have my size, I might get a little frustrated.”

In the weeks that followed, Lynn began to identify and express her feelings. She discovered some important truths about herself. “You may not believe this. But until I came here, nobody ever asked me my opinion about anything. My mom decided who my agent should be, and what my schedule should be. My life is strange. I’m nervous, angry, childish, fearful, and I don’t stand up for myself. It is gradually becoming clear to me. I am mixed up, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Lynn was discovering her problem. She was telling herself that she had issues to overcome, and she was uncovering the source of those issues. At the same time, she was dedicating herself to improving her life. She could no longer deny that something was wrong. This first step requires considerable courage because it involves entering unchartered territory.

Lynn was an only child. Her parents, Robert and Mary, had been married for
 12 years when she was born. Her mother intended to exercise control in family decisions. Robert, who earned his living as a plumber, described his wife as “a tough cookie,” who tended to be stubborn. Disliking conflict, he reluctantly agreed to let her take full responsibility for raising Lynn. He regretted not being more involved in her life during her childhood and their
lack of closeness.

As Lynn remembered more about her childhood, she identified how much her mother tried to control her behavior over the years: “My mother always overprotected me. She fed me long after I was able to eat by myself.

Sometimes, she would insist on remaking my bed after I had made it. To this day, she still asks me if I have to go to the bathroom whenever we leave the house!”

Even in her late 20’s, Lynn was still being treated like a helpless child by her mother. She felt as if she needed to remain a child in order to please her mother. In fact, she confessed to me her enormous anxiety whenever she even thought about taking more responsibility for her life. By insisting that Lynn depend on her, her mother had ended up intensifying Lynn’s feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, and anger.

Lynn now realized that she had a choice. If she continued to play the role of a child, she
could avoid feeling anxious in the short term. However, this role doomed her to remaining unhealthy forever, both physically as well as mentally. She realized that she wanted more from life than just a successful career.

“Many people say that I am attractive, but on the inside I feel like a nothing person. My mother will keep emphasizing all that I have accomplished. Despite my success as a model, I don’t have any self-confidence. I feel like I never grew up. I want to start acting like a grown-up.”

Lynn began to set some goals for herself. She saw the need to establish healthier boundaries between herself and her mother. Eventually, she was able to verbalize her realizations:

”I have been allowing the way my mother treats to affect my life. I can’t be responsible for someone else’s behavior. If I don’t agree with my mother and she chooses not to speak to me for a while, that’s her problem.”

Lynn also decided that she wanted to date more. Unfortunately, her conflicted relationship with her mother also interfered with her social life.

“Every time I show interest in a guy, my mother says I can’t burn the candle at both ends.”

Personal growth and change

Lynn now began to take action. Armed with the insights into how and why she remained
unhappy in her life, she desired to establish her own identity. She restructured her relationship with her mother. She distanced herself from her— both physically and emotionally. She moved from the suburbs to the city. With regard to her career, she
slowly took charge. First, by conducting her own correspondence, and later, by negotiating some of her own business contracts. She also sought out new experiences: she took some graduate courses and joined a theater group. Over time, the nature of her interactions with her mother changed. She no longer revealed as much about herself to her mother, and they started to relate to each other as adults. Those committed to change are usually able to find improved methods of coping as shown in Lynn’s case.

Self-Reflection Question

Can you think of any parental interactions (from your childhood or adulthood) that may be keeping you unhappy and/or unhealthy?

Childhood Can Be Traumatic

I have seen few parents who intentionally want to harm their children. Yes, unwittingly,
many parents fail to meet the emotional needs to their offspring. Some parents fail because they have unresolved personal difficulties that prevent them from giving to their children in the way that is needed. Others may have impaired judgment because of a drinking problem or other substance abuse.

Bad parenting is sometimes taken to the extreme. We know that thousands of cases of child abuse are reported to government agencies, and even more cases go unreported for many reasons. We know too that child protective agencies are continuously busy with large case loads. We are also aware of the fact that many parents do not provide proper supervision and care of their children, leading to young people being unnecessarily injured, engaging in improper behavior, using drugs and committing crimes.

By citing these grim facts, I do not mean to suggest that all or even most Americans undergo severe trauma or neglect during childhood. However, childhood is much tougher than we think. Because childhood forms the base on which we build our lives, most adults with traumatic histories tend to be unhappy or unhealthy in one way or another. Even under the most ideal household situations with two well-meaning, well-adjusted parents, raising children is a complex task. No parent is perfect. Problems in childhood into adulthood often stem from one’s interaction with his or her parents. And often the key to self-understanding lies in examining this parent-child relationship. I say that not to find fault with everyone’s parents, but rather to call attention to the origin of a lot of
personal problems. Low self-esteem, for example, is practically always learned somewhere in a person’s upbringing.

Self Reflection Question

Were there any issues, personal distractions, or even abuses or traumatic events that you
endured in childhood/ adolescence that you feel may have a hand in contributing to your current frame of mind?

Note: Thank you for taking the time to read the Introduction and Chapter One from Secrets from the Sofa: A Psychologist’s Guide to Achieving Personal Peace by Dr. Kenneth Herman. If you liked what you’ve read, click on one of the links below to purchase the book.

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