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When Trauma Makes You Afraid of Being Happy

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Recently I heard one of my favorite authors, therapist Lori Gottlieb of “Maybe You Should Talk To Someone” fame, refer to the word “cherophobia” in an interview. She described it as a fear of being happy and commented on how common it is with trauma survivors. When I heard this word and description I literally stopped in my tracks because it hit me like a lead pipe over the head. Could this be why I so often feel an almost terror arise in me when I make plans for something fun? 

• What is PTSD?

I pondered it for quite a while until I remembered that very early on in therapy I had mentioned to my therapist that I always thought I’d die young. I’m always hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I just assume that if I am happy about something it’s going to backfire and something awful is going to happen instead. She told me this was a hallmark symptom of  post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and promptly diagnosed me as such.

I felt a sense of relief knowing I wasn’t alone and that there was a reason why I feel this low grade sense of dread all the time, but I was also frustrated. It got in the way of my truly experiencing joy in moments where I am actually happy. It’s like experiencing happiness from within a balloon. You can see it, maybe even smell it, but you can’t actually touch it because there’s this thin layer of “protection” between you and it ready to soften the blow when the thing disappears or something bad happens to it.

But my cherophobia goes one step farther, it’s not just that I’m afraid of the other shoe falling at any moment, shattering through the glass ceiling above me, I am afraid that if I’m wishing for something happy or good to happen and it doesn’t, I’m somehow responsible for it and so I’ve let everyone else who was also hoping for it down just because I wished so hard for it. I know this sounds completely irrational but it’s very real and a very difficult type of guilt to live with.

I’ll give two examples of this beyond things like any time I travel anywhere by plane I’m pretty sure the plane will crash or if I am supposed to go on a date I’ll probably get an irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) flare that day and won’t feel well enough to go. In 2014, I was supposed to go see Céline Dion perform with my aunt and I was beyond ecstatic to not just see her, but to share something so meaningful with my aunt who was super special to me. I’ve had Céline cancel two shows previously that I was scheduled to attend, so I was watching the date like a hawk, encroaching on me like a collapsing black hole. I felt this existential dread. Sure enough, a week prior to the show, she cancelled her shows because her husband was so ill she decided she needed to be with him. Not only did I feel devastated by the fact that I wasn’t going to see Céline perform, but I felt like because I wished so hard for this to happen I was responsible for everyone else’s disappointment and poor Rene being so sick.

In 2020, I was finally going to get back to my beloved Paris, with my husband, to see Céline Dion in Paris. And then COVID-19 hit and the world shut down and I couldn’t help but feel like I was somehow at fault. Not in an actual physical way, but some existential “I must be bad and make the universe unhappy so I don’t deserve to be happy” kind of way. This fundamental sense of “I am bad” is so common amongst survivors of trauma that it’s often one of the things we struggle the hardest to overcome.

Trauma makes us self centered, and not in the “I’m better than everyone else” kind of way. It’s more of a reverse narcissism– a sense that everything that has ever happened in our lives is because we are fundamentally flawed. It’s this tar pit of shame that we try to swim in but feel stuck and like we are constantly being pulled under into it. This is where my cherophobia exists, in the swampland of my shame.

Mindfulness in the moment can allow me to actually enjoy things, but the thing that I always miss is the anticipatory joy that so many often feel is even more exciting than the actual trip or event. I never get to experience the full range of happiness because there’s always a nagging negative nelly holding me back, on a tape loop in my head telling me not to get my hopes up. In the end it’s better to be prepared for the worst and enjoy the best than to hope for the best and have to face the devastation of disappointment. 

For the longest time I repressed my feelings because I didn’t want to feel unsafe, helpless, hopeless, sad, angry, disgusted or any of the other feelings that I perceived to be “negative.” By numbing those feelings I also numbed my ability to fully feel “good” feelings too, like happiness and joy. As I’m rediscovering the ability and language to be able to express the full myriad of feelings within the human capacity, I need to begin to build tolerance for the inevitability that things will go wrong, I cannot control everything and even if something bad happens, I can and will survive. Maybe by finally relinquishing control over myself and everything around me I can finally truly embrace the possibility of being happy and allow myself to relish in the anxious anticipation of happy events with an open heart and a clear mind.

  Celine Dion inspirational poster with fan in front

Lead image via getty images

Originally published: May 24, 2021
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