God was very kind to Arlene. She’s tall, slim, attractive, and most of all, extremely bright with an engaging personality. But as generous as he was with her appearance and personality, the childhood he endowed her with was quite the opposite. Her father left home when she was nine years old. She recalls her parents’ relationship as one of constant conflict. Whatever her father did, it was never enough. As a result, he sought out other women, spent little time at home, and eventually filed for divorce. Arlene’s mother, saw it as just one more hurt added to the numerous others she had experienced in her life. In her eyes, the world was a disappointing hurtful place, which accounted for her repeated dismissal from jobs, rejection by men, and estrangement from friends. She felt everyone was out to get her, but the truth be known, she was her own worst enemy. Finally, she ended up living in a trailer behind her parents’ home, with her daughter.
Arlene’s reaction was to emotionally insulate herself and to behave 180 degrees the opposite of her mother, i.e. to take total control of everyone and everything around her. In ways it contributed to the success she experienced professionally, but it also caused her to demand that employers, friends, family, and potential suitors, constantly prove their allegiance and love for her. Similar to her mother, she was quick to find fault, had a sharp tongue, and nothing anyone did was sufficient to fill the hole she felt in her stomach.
During one therapy session, Arlene started off by listing and complaining about her husband’s faults, the demands her children made upon her and her dissatisfaction with her life. She acknowledged that on the surface her life was enviable. She lived in a magnificent home, drove an expensive automobile, wore designer clothes, and had a husband most women would adore. She said, “I should be totally happy, but it seems like the better things are, the more depressed I became.” Over time and after considerable introspection, she came to the realization, that, “I’m afraid to feel good.” That statement doesn’t initially seem logical. In fact, the question you might ask is “why in the world would anyone be afraid of the good in their lives? It’s the bad that hurts.”
A statement my wife recently made helped me to answer that question so; I’d like to share it with you. For the past 4 months, my wife experienced, what she calls, “excruciating mortal pain”. In the 59 years I’ve lived with this lady, I have never heard her complain of any discomfort to that extent. To put it into prospective, she is a lady who has climbed on vines on the side of a mountain in Uganda to see gorillas, hobbled for 6 ½ days, through the mountains of Zimbabwe, with a broken ankle, and slept in the New Guinea jungle on bamboo struts covered by mosquito netting, all without complaining, well maybe a little bit. But, after numerous doctor visits, physical therapy, and various shots in her knees, she has finally accepted the general consensus that both her knees will eventually require replacement surgery. I am telling you this to illustrate how stoic this woman can be and how, courageous and strong she is. My purpose is to accentuate the remark she made the other morning. During her last visit to the doctor, she was given a new injection, which she was told might relieve her pain anywhere from 2 days to 6 months. Three days later, I asked, “how are you doing?” There was a brief moment of silence. Then she said, “Ed, I’ve been chewing on pain medication every day for four months, but nothing helped. Now, I’m afraid to say this, I haven’t taken a pain pill in the last two and a half days and I’m afraid to get my hopes up.” That statement says it all. After you’ve experienced long term pain or hurt of a physical or emotional nature, you can reach a point where you’re too fearful to be optimistic and admit that you feel good. Why? Because you’re too afraid to get your hopes up and fail again.
To truly understand the helplessness and fear a person can feel; try to imagine that your life growing up was overwhelmingly hurtful, emotionally, intellectually, and/or physically. Then later in life you realize that you’ve essentially created a marriage very similar to the one you grew up in. But you don’t leave. You resign yourself to your plight. You don’t go to therapy and learn to cope more positively or consider how much better your life might be if you left. Instead, you decide to stay and be miserable the rest of your life. Why? Because, what if you get your hopes up and decide to divorce, only to later find yourself alone, unhappy, with all your hopes dashed. The likely hood is you’d feel worse than you did originally. You’d probably be even more frightened to ever have hopes and dreams again. It also explains why so many people stay in hurtful jobs, relationships, and marriages. In all those instances, the axiom that prevails is “It’s better to deal with the devil you know that the one you don’t.”
The intent of this article is to say to each of you, “I can relate. I understand how you feel. I know how my early upbringing and hurts still continue to affect me negatively in the present and often paralyze me because of childhood fears. At the same time, I fully believe that if you take ownership and accept you, as you are, rather than waste your emotional energy trying to change or hide you, you will discover a new source of strength within you. This energy will contribute to your overall emotional health, will increase your feelings of self-confidence and result in you’re being far less frightened to feel good.