When it comes to relationships—romantic, familial—I don’t claim to be an expert.
In fact, I don’t even pretend to have the first clue about what makes them tick.
However, I do know what it is like to be sad, unfulfilled and frustrated, having spent a large part of my late teens and early to mid 20s experiencing those feelings.
While some of those were the result of external factors I had little to no control over, the majority were a direct result of my actions, especially when it came to how I viewed myself and the world around me. Like many, I had no idea that I was unintentionally making myself miserable, much less engaged in self-destructive behavior and thinking. I craved intimacy, friendship, and happiness, but they seemed as far away from me as the moon.
As I got older and shared my experiences, I discovered that I was far from alone.
While there are many other examples of self-defeating behavior out there, the ones below are the ones that I have heard repeated the most and are arguably the most damaging to the psyche.
Therefore, here are four ways to virtually guarantee you’ll be miserable no matter how together you appear to be the outside world, how much success you have, etc. Avoiding them may not guarantee happiness, but it’s a safe bet you aren’t going to even have a shot at happiness if you do the following:
1. Believe that that there is only one person who is your soul-mate and that s/he got away.
I confess that I used to doubt soul mates even existed. However, after meeting some people who do indeed appear to be each others soul mates, I have amended my belief: I believe that each of us has the potential to be soul mates with many people.
Sometimes, it may be the case that we meet someone and that person remains our soul mate for life. For others, though, it may mean that multiple soul mates come and go at various points in our lives. What suits us at 20 may not suit us when we are 30 and likewise, what works at 30 may not work when we are 40. It make sense when you consider how people and their situations are constantly changing.
Pining for a lost soul mate or “the one who got away” is not only a waste of time, but it may prevent us from seeing reality. It’s far too easy to turn that missing person into someone who we believe is so perfect that no one else can possibly live up to them.
This futile search for perfection brings me to number two.
2. Believe that you will be happy if you have the perfect body, perfect job, partner, etc.
I call this the “Don Draper Syndrome” in reference to the protagonist of TV’s Mad Men. One of the reasons the show resonates with so many is that Don Draper appears to have it all—looks, money, success, and beautiful women—yet he is clearly unhappy. A lot of us pay lip service to the expression, “Money cannot buy happiness,” but we secretly or outright believe that if we have the “perfect” body, job or partner we will be happy.
It simply isn’t true, if only because nothing is ever perfect. Once you get any of the above, you may find that they come with strings attached to them that you never anticipated. Even if that isn’t the case, life’s problems do not magically disappear once you reach the top. Plus, the “top” never really seems to be enough, which ties in with number three.
3. Compare yourself to others.
I did this. I still do this even though I would like to say that I do not. In some ways, it seems only natural to do this. However, doing this only a regular basis is not a good idea and only leads to frustration.
For example, when I was in my 20s, I used to hate receiving my alumni magazine from my alma mater, because it seemed everyone my age and even those younger than we were getting married and/or engaged in interesting, engrossing careers.
Despite, my envy, as soon as I received it, I would turn to that section to obsess over it and make myself miserable.
It wasn’t until I actually reconnected with some of my high-achieving former classmates that I realized that most of them weren’t any happier than I was. In fact, more than a few have exaggerated or outright lied about various parts of their lives. While I didn’t take delight that their lives weren’t as perfect as they appeared, I was none of the less comforted that I was not alone in my struggles.
This leads me to number four which is perhaps the thing that brought me the most misery.
4. Believe that your self-worth is tied up in what people think of you.
We often think we are above this, but what others think of us does have an impact on how we view ourselves. I know this as a recovering people-pleaser. As a kid, I thought that by staying out of trouble, I could win the love of my parents.
As an adult, I was the girlfriend who never complained if a boyfriend cancelled a date at the last minute, avoided arguments at all costs, and usually did things like cook and clean for him without being asked. In both situations, I wanted praise. I thought that I could win the love of those I wanted to love me. Needless to say that did not happen, largely because these were people who were emotionally unavailable.
It took a lot of time, therapy, and work to discover that I needed to be the one to tell myself that I was good person. If I wanted for them, then I would probably be waiting until the end of my life.
Even those without family issues are not immune to this sort of thinking.
Think of when you were fired from a job, told by someone they didn’t like you, ignored, or had someone criticize something you did. It’s normal to feel upset and sad at the time, but some carry those feelings around for years and actually believe what they are told.
If that sounds like you, it may be your self-worth is too heavily tied-up in what others think of you.
Rather, each person must find that out for themselves.
However, avoiding misery or self-defeating behavior is another thing entirely. Even if you never achieve total satisfaction—and face it, no one probably ever will—just avoiding these things can result in making life a bit more easier.
It’s not a coincidence that easy and happy often go hand-in-hand.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman