August 22, 2018

Choosing Unhappiness

Here’s something you may not know about me, probably because until now, I haven’t really wanted you to know; I hadn’t found it particularly flattering.

Despite all the wonderful things that have happened in my life and all the wonderful people, I continually find myself back on the “feeling bad couch.” My friend Scott gave it that name after finding me curled up countless times with tears streaming down my face, overcome with self-judgment and terror.

From the feeling bad couch, I send my intimate friends countless panicked text messages. Sometimes I answer the phone or don’t. Sometimes I cry for hours begging friends or coaches for help. I stay up late watching TV to make myself feel better, I eat peanut butter out of the jar. I’ve been on and off medications to help with the feeling-bad problem. I’ve been to many retreats, read countless books, tried so many practices to address the issue.

Despite all the inner work, and despite the fact that I can be masterful at supporting others, I can still be taken out at the knees, pretty much literally, laid out in desperation for days, weeks, or months. I’ve justified this for years saying these experiences have made me an expert at what I do.

A few days ago, sitting across from Sue at Starbucks, she with her spinach feta wrap and me with my cappuccino, she casually pointed out that I am simply committed to unhappiness.

“Um...Excuse me?”

My eyebrows furrow. Um. No I’m not.  Why would anyone commit to being unhappy? Isn’t happiness what I spend my whole life desperately pursuing? Wouldn’t I change it in a heartbeat if i could?

But in the work we teach at Leadership Camp, a “commitment” is evidenced by what we are doing or creating, not what we are saying. So even though I say I’m committed to being happy, the results paint a different picture. I must be committed to unhappiness, otherwise I wouldn’t keep ending up back on the feeling bad couch.

As it happened, Sue dropped this insight bomb on me right in the middle of of one of our three-day Leadership Camps. This had a few advantages. The first is that I couldn’t argue, because we had just taught our participants our definition of commitments.  Second, it meant I got to spend the weekend alongside our participants exploring my commitment to unhappiness.

So. Why on earth would a person choose to be unhappy? Here’s one possible reason:

Because we believe the benefits of unhappiness outweigh the costs of the being happy.

At first glance, this seems crazy. How could unhappy be better than happy? So I decided to dig. I took out a piece of paper, drew the four quadrants below, and got to work filling them in.

This may look rigged, but it isn’t. I filled out this chart as fast as I could, basically without thinking. Even if you didn’t read a single word inside the chart, the math gives me away. My brain has been calculating that the benefits minus the costs of unhappiness outweigh the benefits minus the costs of happiness.

Living with all of these unconscious, unquestioned beliefs, my brain has actually being trying to be helpful by keeping me on the feeling bad couch. That’s where I get all those unconscious goodies of unhappiness and avoid all the unconscious costs of happiness!

I showed this list to a friend who said, “This list doesn’t make any sense, these things you’re afraid of; if you’re happy, most of them aren’t even logical.” And that’s the whole point. When beliefs go unexamined, they can run the show even if they don’t make any sense. Once our unconscious beliefs see the light of awareness, we can actually question them, undo them where necessary, and get our math right.  

Someone once said that the first step to getting out of a prison is knowing you’re in one.

Until last week, I didn’t realize that I was in the prison of choosing to believe that “I am unhappy.” I thought unhappiness was something happening to me, something from which I had to escape by becoming happy. I didn’t realize, until Sue said it, that the belief has been the prison, not unhappiness itself.  I have had a “poor me” identity for so long, and I became so attached to everything I thought it did for me. I had completely overlooked that I have options.

During our Camp, I became willing to let go of my (previously) unconscious commitment to believing I am unhappy.  Like becoming sober, or a triathlete, or a sushi chef, this doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process which takes commitment, focus, tradeoffs, and courage. But I’m signed up for the challenge. Actually, I’m more than signed up. I’m already off the starting line... If you’re interested in where this process goes, stay tuned!


Exploring The Why Behind Unconscious Commitments
  • This week, find a moment when you’re below the line (e.g., committed to being right, defensive, in a victim/to-me consciousness), and consider the benefits you believe you are getting from being below the line around that issue.
  • Create the same quadrants above and fill them in, including your fears about what would happen if you shifted.
  • For each commitment and its opposite jot down the imagined benefits and costs.
  • For now, just increase your awareness of how your system is operating around this issue.
  • Here’s a template to help get you started:
Leah Pearlman

Stay Up To Date
Sign up to receive the latest posts from Sue directly in your inbox
Thank you for Joining!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form

Recent Articles