Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
Home | About Dr. Phillips | Forest Garden Office | Reading Room | Advice Line Articles | "Office Staff" | Other Services | Psych-mobile | Choosing a Therapist | Affordable Therapy or Life Coaching | Dedication
Overcoming Blockages to Happiness


In the first two articles about happiness I affirmed the choice to seek happiness as a positive state of mind and being. We all have the power of choice, and we all can choose to capitalize upon our peaceful, joyful, hopeful and content moments; we can choose to increase our positive feelings and thoughts and we can choose to build optimism into our lifestyle. Whenever possible we should lead with our strengths and concentrate upon what we want, not what we don't want. Our values and strengths provide a positive foundation for life. We need to remember that success begets success and failure creates more failure. Our past and present thoughts and behavior influence our future through a series of feedback loops. We've all heard of the "vicious cycle" where one problem leads to another in a seemingly endless cycle of distress and failure. It's important to realize that we also can capitalize upon positive feedback loops to enhance our happiness and optimism.

It seems easy to talk about choosing to enhance happiness, but how do we actually accomplish this? You can begin by reminding yourself that you really do have a choice; you can choose to focus your awareness on either the positive or negative parts of life events. Too often we let our thoughts and feelings be ruled by the happiness of the past without realizing we can exercise our power of choice. Too often we scan our environment for problems and worrisome events without also scanning for positive or uplifting moments.

As you're reading this article, stop for a moment to consider what is happening to you right now. Are you feeling comfortable and relaxed, are you looking around the room pleased to see the beautiful colors in your favorite pictures, and are you looking forward to something that will please you such as a good dinner, a warm bath, a hug with a family member? Or are you tense, worried about how you are going to pay your bills, whether you have time to accomplish your tasks for today, worried about a family member? Most likely your life is filled with a variety of positives and negatives, and you do have a choice every moment as to where to focus your attention. As explained in the earlier papers, your thoughts and beliefs about yourself do influence your moods and behavior. Now experiment with changing your focus to let yourself relax, look at the beauty in the world around you and anticipate a positive experience. No matter how bad your problems, you can still look for the proverbial "silver lining", then you can let yourself enjoy contentment and well-being as it becomes available to you. Sometimes this is all we have to do to energize ourselves, recharge our spirits and go on to our next task with renewed happiness.

Unfortunately we don't and can't live in a positive bubble which can always protect us from the problems of the world. It is true that a positive attitude will shield us from extra worry and distress and will even provide strength and determination to face and conqueror problems. But we cannot and should not ignore life problems. Sometimes we can direct ourselves to accomplish the task and solve the problem immediately. Other times when the problem cannot be solved immediately, worry and stress increase as we think ahead about a difficult life problems. One strategy to deal with this dilemma is to choose to develop a plan to solve the problem immediately. Once you have finished your problem-solving, you can record the plan, ideally writing it down. Then assign a date and time to the plan. Mentally, then, you are putting the problem into another space and time and literally taken it out of present awareness so that you can relax back into a positive and hopeful mood. If worry about the problem creeps back into awareness, as it often will, simply remind yourself about your plan and the fact that you will be acting on the plan at the designated time and place.

Unless you are naturally upbeat and optimistic, you may find the strategies described above difficult to incorporate into your life. Sometimes you will simply fail to remember to try these new approaches and fall back into your habit of anticipating and worrying about problems. The first step in changing these patterns is to develop a method of reminders. A happy face on your mirror, refrigerator or computer will remind you of your new plan. Other times you may want to enlist a friend or spouse to help one another accomplish these changes together. When you get stuck, assistance of a therapist or life coach can help you devise a plan to get back on track.

The rest of this paper will describe life problems which actively block happiness. In these cases, looking for the positives in your life and leading with your strengths is not enough to pull you out of stress and negativism. Problems such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, passivity, excessive guilt and childhood trauma can block positive thoughts, moods and behavior. Individuals with these problems may be aware of their negative feelings but often are not aware of the beliefs which trigger them. Many kinds of unhealthy belief systems can result in negative feelings which interfere or preclude the search for happiness. In these instances a more specialized approach is helpful, often with the assistance of a therapist.

Anxiety is usually thought of as worried moods and tense physical states, including attacks of panic. Not as often is it recognized that anxiety is basically composed of repetitive worrisome thinking and negative feedback loops. The essence of anxiety consists of beliefs that your life is not under your control and beliefs predicting negative outcomes. Anxiety is often composed of catastrophizing beliefs about your future. Since people are both mind and body, you can intervene in one or both states to control and decrease anxiety which was then enable you to work directly on positivism and optimism. Any physical techniques which emphasize parasympathetic over sympathetic activation in your body will decrease the physical components of anxiety. Relaxation, meditation, yoga, gentle exercise, gardening, supplements, can all be helpful choices, with prescription medications sometimes an option. In this paper I am emphasizing a cognitive and behavioral approach to controlling anxiety. Most people don't understand how to alter their states of mind to decrease anxiety directly. When you bring into awareness the negative thoughts and beliefs systems underlying your anxiety, you are then able to intervene to change these patterns. The strategies described in the paper on optimism are extremely helpful in countering anxious thinking. Positive action plans which allow you to take a more control of your life will directly inhibit the feelings of powerlessness and lack of control which are characteristic of anxiety. Please note that the word "feelings" in the last sentence should actually be "thoughts" or "beliefs", since these "feelings" are basically thoughts predicting the future. Too often and our culture we use the word "feelings" to mean something other than emotions, in this case meaning thoughts or belief systems.

Anxiety is often a characteristic of a person with a strong "internal critic" as described in the first paper. Anxious thinking consists of an internal negative commentary about the self emphasizing negative thinking and dire predictions. Because this is a long-term habitual pattern of thinking, it feels real and seems to be an accurate reflection of reality. The first step in breaking this habit of critical self talk is to bring the negative internal commentary into your awareness along with a determination to change this pattern. Often it helps to personify the critic and externalize the critical commentary as "not me," as something coming from outside of you rather than your own normal thoughts. When you become aware that this critical self talk may not be accurate, you can then use rational thinking to combat or refute the critic. You can use a rational process of thinking to look for evidence for and against the predictions of the critic. If the critic is dominant, however, the self-criticism and dire predictions will also control your thinking and you may need assistance in learning to use this strategy effectively.

Many people are not aware of the close correspondence and interrelationship between anxiety and depression. Rather than experiencing pure anxiety or depression, many people have combinations of these problems. Repetitive negative thinking will induce self-doubt and "down" moods as well as worry and anxiety. Taken to an extreme, self-doubt originating from a harsh, unforgiving internal critic will cause feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness characteristic of depression. Note that the "feeling" of depression actually describes negative thought patterns. The "down" emotions experienced in depression are a consequence of a pessimistic beliefs system. Depressed thinking, when examined critically, consists of attributions about the self and life events. These attributions can be examined rationally and refuted in order to introduce and strengthen positive and optimistic thought patterns. When an individual is unable to do this alone, assistance of a therapist is invaluable to help break the pattern of depressive thinking and behavior.

Low self-esteem is another important factor in blocking happiness. Many anxious and depressed people also have low self-esteem, and similar techniques can be used to deal with all three negative states. The internal critic which fosters and reinforces the negative commentary about the self must be identified, externalized and refuted. At the same time a system of more rational and accurate self beliefs must be created or strengthened. Often the self-critic blocks positive feedback from others and over focuses on any positive negative input from the environment. The person with low self-esteem must learn to accept positive feedback from the environment and incorporate it into the self-concept. Often a new or accurate self concept can be created or strengthened to improve self-esteem. Nonjudgmental and compassionate thinking about self and others will create more positive and accepting thoughts and moods.

In the individual with low self-esteem, negative feedback from others is usually welcomed by the internal critic and used to reinforce the negative self-concept. Techniques to improve self-esteem will include strategies to reframe and analyze possible negative feedback until it can be incorporated into a more balanced and positive self-concept. Most people who are anxious, depressed or suffer from low self-esteem are hypersensitive and habitually scan the environment for negative feedback which will then be incorporated immediately into the negative self-concept. A strategy to alter this pattern will begin with an analysis of negative feedback incidents. People with low self-esteem are also very self absorbed, automatically assuming negative information is related to their self-worth or behavior. Rather than immediately assume that information is a negative commentary about yourself, it is more helpful to analyze the information for accuracy. Let's try an example. Assume you are giving a presentation. Some people in the audience appear bored and a few others are laughing. An individual with low self-esteem will automatically assume that people are bored or laughing at them because of their poor speech or inadequate presentation. It's important to realize that such situations are complex and often affected by factors unrelated to the self. It is important for individuals to make self judgments based upon rational analysis and not negative internal commentary. In this speech example, the speaker will need to learn to evaluate the presentation based upon positive self-analysis along with an analysis of overall audience feedback, not becoming overly sensitive to individuals in the audience who often may be responding to internal stimuli unrelated to the presentation. In other words, realize that many individuals in an audience will be responding based upon their own personality characteristics or be responding to situational factors such as the temperature in the room or their feelings of hunger or tiredness, all unrelated to your speech.

Another problem which often blocks happiness is passivity and a lack of assertiveness. Basic to a feeling of happiness is the ability to control your own life and destiny along with a sense that you will be able to obtain the life satisfactions you need and want. People who are passive are either too timid to be assertive, or they feel that they are not worthy enough to deserve to have their needs met, and/or they are trapped in a co-dependent pattern of behavior feeling that they must meet other people's needs before their own. Once the thought pattern underlying the passivity is identified, a plan can be developed to change the behavior. The first step in developing assertive behavior is to identify what you need and recognize that you have enough self-esteem to deserve a positive outcome. If you feel that your need is important and that you are justified in meeting this need, then your task will be to develop a an effective pattern of behavior. Passive individuals are often stuck in a pattern of meeting others' needs, then hoping unrealistically that the others will turn around and meet their unspoken needs. Unfortunately, unspoken needs are often not recognized by others. You will need to learn to ask for what you want in order to even have a chance of satisfaction. Once underlying passive thought patterns are identified, books on assertive behavior will be helpful in teaching new behavior skills.

Excessive guilt also blocks happiness. People who are trapped in feelings that they are "bad," unworthy, immoral or deserving of punishment are obviously unhappy. Note that the guilty "feeling" is really a thought pattern or belief, again a negative internal commentary. Most people think that guilt is helpful because they think guilt leads to self responsibility and "good" behavior. However, people can be responsible without feeling guilt. After making a mistake, a responsible person will correct the mistake and then possibly even feel positive that the problem has been rectified. Guilt is unnecessary. Guilt conveys excessive feelings of unworthiness which damage the individual' s self-judgment and self-esteem. Feelings of self punishment lead to depression rather than to moral behavior or appropriate restitution. Guilt is usually based on a learned system of inflexible rules for life which appear to be moral values but are actually moral imperatives. These rigid, inflexible and punishing moral imperatives are usually easily identified by the word "should." Caught in a world where "shoulds" prevail, life becomes restricted and ruled by unbending systems of right and wrong, judgment and punishment. Happiness is rare because the individual cannot live up to these impossible standards. Cognitive therapeutic techniques can be used to examine moral imperatives and determine whether they are based on realistic and flexible values or whether they are rigid codes left over from a punishing childhood or a history of self recrimination. A goal will be to help individuals develop appropriate and realistic values free from the negative internal commentary fostered by guilt. Appropriate moral codes are in fact life enhancing, promoting an individual's self-esteem, pride and feelings of happiness instead of the self punishment induced by guilt.

Other blockages to happiness are produced by reminders of early trauma or pathological childhood family situations which persist long after the events as thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Residues of early trauma reflect childhood pain, hurt and fear and often result in the problems described earlier in this paper. The internal critic is often harsh and inflexible, mirroring dysfunctional parenting. While children may derive some positive benefits in these families, praise or acceptance from parents is often conditional, inconsistent and unpredictable. So-called "backhanded praise" is particularly difficult to incorporate in a positive self-concept. Backhanded praise is conditional, always followed by an exception or even a retraction of the positive message: "that's good, but…" Children growing up in these families will have problematic and usually negative self-concepts and behavior problems which present obstacles to developing a happy and positive lifestyle. Again, therapeutic techniques are available to help break dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns which prevent use of life affirming happiness strategies.

The messages in these papers is one of positive optimism. Happiness, contentment and well-being are possible for everyone. Even if you were not born with a happy disposition, even if you struggle with life problems, even if you seem to be trapped by anxiety, depression or reminders of a difficult childhood, you can choose to take control of your life and change negative and outcomes to positive. If you feel that you are powerless against your moods or feel helpless about diagnosed mental problems, you will feel burdened by this negative baggage. However, when you realize that these problems are mediated by your thought patterns, then you will find that you can change for the better. When people realize that most of us have this negative internal thought pattern, the "internal critic," these thought patterns can be brought into awareness. You can realize that they are merely bad habits and are not representative of reality. You can actively choose to maximize the positives in your life, treating yourself to more positive self-care, learning optimism and changing the harmful habits of negative self talk. These papers will help you get started.

Note to Reader

During the construction of this Reading Room page, I found myself faced with a choice of following my own philosophy or becoming stuck in negativism. Due to various technical difficulties, this paper could not be imported for this page. I found myself frustrated with the fact that the paper was unavailable when it should have been easy to import. Even worse, after an extensive search, I could findall only one paper copy of the article which I was unable to scan, copy and paste. Therefore, I had to use two hours of my precious time to dictate the paper again for the web site. As I dictated I realized I had a choice: to keep sub-vocalizing my frustration at the technical difficulties and losing the paper or whether to adopt a positive stance of happiness that I in fact have a copy of the paper to dictate without having to rewrite the entire article. I chose the latter, and also thought about my good feeling when the paper and the web site would be finished and available to my clients, then about the nice dinner I would have with my husband after I dictated the paper. Then I realized this is the perfect opportunity to share with my readers the fact that we all have these choices, and it's far better to practice what I preach!