The 1 Thing Therapists Say Harms Your Happiness The Most

The 1 Thing Therapists Say Harms Your Happiness The Most

In a culture of toxic positivity, it can feel particularly bad when you wake up and aren’t feeling totally happy. This is likely exacerbated when you open up your Instagram or Facebook feeds only to see smiling friends on vacation or at their wedding.

It’s easy to feel like you just should be happy, but experts say it is much bigger than that ― and there are probably some behaviors and beliefs that keep you from feeling your best.

Below, mental health professionals share the thought patterns, limiting behaviors and beliefs that affect your happiness and fulfillment most, plus their best advice for combating the negativity.

Shame, Guilt And Worry

“I think shame, guilt and worry are the most common disruptors of happiness, just in what I see in working with people,” said Tamika Lewis, the clinical director and founder of WOC Therapy in California.

When you’re experiencing one of these feelings, you’re holding yourself hostage to past life experiences or worrying about the future, she said. “So we’re not in the present moment, and that really disrupts … that contentment and joy.”

Practicing self-compassion is one way to combat these feelings, Lewis noted. She said it’s also important to have grace for yourself and practice mindfulness so you stay in the present moment.

Additionally, Lewis said she talks a lot about the Hawaiian practice of ho’oponopono with her clients.

“It’s four phrases, simply saying, ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you,’” she explained. Lewis encourages folks to close their eyes and recite this mantra four times.

“They really hit all these areas; the guilt, the shame, all of that. And then the love as a reminder of self-love, and sometimes it could help too to even do this in the mirror as you’re looking at yourself,” Lewis explained.

She said gratitude is another way to help combat feelings of shame, guilt and worry.

“I know it’s kind of cliché, but I think if we can keep our focus on the things we are grateful for … . So, if we tend to be critical about our bodies or our performance, really just giving thanks to the ways that our bodies are holding us or the ways that we’re showing up can be a quick hack,” Lewis said. (For any Peloton fans, this is exactly like instructor Jess Sims’ exercise mantra: “You don’t have to, you get to.”)

Not Taking Action In Your Life

Some of the therapists we spoke to said many of their clients often don’t pursue the activities, decisions or passions that make them happy. This might look like staying in an unfulfilling relationship or avoiding a job switch because you’re comfortable.

“I think for some people, they get stuck in these cycles of rumination. And what that prevents them from doing is actually taking action, right?” said Sadaf Siddiqi, a psychotherapist and mental health consultant in New York City.

Procrastination can be at play here or even fear and anxiety, “but for other people, it’s a way of deflecting behavior in the sense that they’re so overly focused on someone else and not attuned to what they need to be doing,” she said.

Do you find yourself obsessing about your sister’s bad love life decisions? Then you may fall into the category of deflection.

“Not taking action in your life is sometimes also linked to not having a strong connection with yourself, so maybe those are two branches … to happiness,” Siddiqi said.

Taking action to live a more joy-filled life has to be intentional. In a society that overproduces and is always on the go, sometimes action can actually be a step back, she said. Taking action needs to be relevant to what’s going on in your life — like your goals and aspirations.

Doing this can feel scary to many people because of the risk involved. So it’s important to understand that “no matter what trajectory you take, you will make mistakes; it’s a non-negotiable in your path,” she said.

“So if you’re always preventing taking action because you’re so afraid of messing up, it’s going to really be a paralysis — it’s almost going to be a decision paralysis, an action paralysis,” Siddiqi said.

When it comes to taking action, Siddiqi said she tells her clients to take micro-steps, which may not feel as exciting as big steps because there isn’t immediate gratification, but change often comes from the small shifts, she noted.

Comparing Yourself To Others

According to Stephanie Dahlberg, a licensed independent clinical social worker at Thriveworks in Nashua, New Hampshire, comparative thinking is another behavior that takes away from your happiness.

“Comparative thinking is what you think of when you think about scrolling through social media and you see this person who seems to have it all … their lives on the little pictures and posts are just amazing,” Dahlberg said.

Even if you aren’t actually saying or thinking to yourself “I want this” or “I wish I had this,” just seeing a different situation can make you naturally compare yourself to the folks you follow on social media, she noted.

“I think our culture and our society is kind of set up that way, unfortunately,” Dahlberg said. “Sometimes it can be good, keeps things competitive and keeps us learning and growing and always striving to be the best, but I think sometimes our culture and society kind of goes a little too far with it, where you’re kind of constantly comparing yourself to everyone else or comparing what you have to what someone else has or doesn’t have.”

To stop comparing yourself to others so much, Dahlberg said, you can limit your time on social media. Instead of opening up Instagram or Facebook as soon as you wake up, open up your Notes app and write down five things you’re grateful for, she said.

“Starting the day with gratitude … can be a great way to frame your day in a positive way and get those endorphins going and having more of those happy feelings,” Dahlberg said.

Additionally, try to remember that what you’re seeing on social media or the curated stories you hear from loved ones aren’t the full picture.

“It can be really hard to be satisfied with your life when you’re comparing yourself to other people who are really showing the best of their life,” said Shavonne Moore-Lobban, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., and author of “The Black Woman’s Guide to Overcoming Domestic Violence.” “We don’t often have a lot of access to people’s most challenging moments, the natural ebb and flow of the ups and downs.”

Moore-Lobban noted that kind of vulnerability is often not affirmed by society. Just think about times when you’ve thought someone was “oversharing” or “attention-seeking” when they share information that isn’t positive.

“I think in this unintentional way, we’ve really encouraged people to present the best sides of themselves and to show the good moments and to be optimistic,” Moore-Lobban said.

So remember that the next time your favorite celebrity shares photos from a glitzy party or your neighbor posts an update about their home renovation.

Instead of scrolling social media and comparing yourself to the lives on your phone screen, take a few moments to jot down what you're grateful for.

Morsa Images via Getty Images

Instead of scrolling social media and comparing yourself to the lives on your phone screen, take a few moments to jot down what you’re grateful for.

‘Should’ Statements

“Another thing that kind of goes along with comparative thinking is expectations, like what your life should be or should look like,” Dahlberg said.

These are called “should” statements. They could be as minor as “I should have done the laundry today” or, more often, nebulous, like “I should be further along in my career by now” or “I should be more fulfilled.”

When thinking about “should” statements, Dahlberg noted you’re leaving the present moment.

“If you can, try and focus on really being present where you are, taking a look at what’s around you, what’s right in front of you in the moment and trying to find what you can appreciate from it, even … in a really difficult circumstance,” she said. This can help you feel lighter and happier.

Not Having A Strong Connection With Yourself

According to Siddiqi, when it comes to adults, lacking a strong connection with yourself damages your happiness. “That can look like outsourcing your worth, not knowing your own values, your own limitations, your own strengths,” she said.

If you’re someone who outsources your own worth, your feelings about yourself come from the opinions of other people and society as a whole. Additionally, if you don’t know your own values, limitations and strengths, you’ll have trouble determining the things that make you feel fulfilled — or, on the contrary, empty.

It’s important to understand yourself, which includes accepting your flaws, she said.

“It doesn’t mean you turn a blind eye to what your limitations are, but it’s really about how you approach them,” Siddiqi said.

And when you have a stronger connection with yourself, you can learn what you need to fill your cup, such as setting healthy boundaries.

“It really starts with those small things. Positive small talk, affirmation, doing things independently … so you feel more confident taking action,” Siddiqi said.

Ignoring Deeper Problems

It can feel hard to be honest and vulnerable in a society that encourages a glass-half-full mentality. But when you push down deep-seated issues, you’re actually harming your happiness — and this especially goes for trauma, Moore-Lobban said.

“We know that trauma is very prevalent in our society in lots of different ways, right? Whether it’s trauma that people have experienced in relationships or with family and their childhood, in their adulthood, racial trauma … homophobia against folks, xenophobia: All the things of life that are hard and really overwhelm our ability to cope for a particular time stick with us,” Moore-Lobban said.

As difficult as it is, she said it’s important to unpack your trauma to achieve the joy you deserve in life.“[We have to] look at what has happened underneath if we’re really going to find a place of healing from it,” Moore-Lobban said.

“I think that being able to explore and understand the experiences that people have had in life, even when they are challenging and negative, I think that’s a part of getting to happiness,” she added.

If you don’t find a way to address and be honest about the challenges in your life, then you’re being inauthentic to yourself, “which isn’t fair to yourself and is not going to help your happiness or your healing,” Moore-Lobban said.

Additionally, Siddiqi said she thinks “it is hard for people to feel happy because of underlying mental health issues that biologically prevent them from feeling joy — things like depression, mood disorders.”

In these cases, additional interventions may be necessary, such as lifestyle changes, medication management or support from a therapist. If you think you fall into this category, you can look to databases like Psychology Today to find a mental health provider to help you feel better.


Isolation is a major source of unhappiness and even depression, according to Lewis. “We’re connected on social media, but I think it’s important for us to think about who are we connecting with in our day.”

Lewis said it’s becoming all too common to go days without connecting with loved ones or your community, and that can lead to feelings of loneliness and can make you feel isolated.

“We’re all interconnected. We’re all in this together,” Lewis stressed.

To keep yourself from feeling isolated, call your family members, invite a friend or neighbor over for a drink or make plans with a co-worker to get dinner after work.

How Else To Capture More Joy In Your Everyday Life

The first step is creating an intention. “When we wake up, most people think about their extensive to-do list … I like to think about how do I want to feel today — you know that sets the day off in a different way,” Lewis said.

For example, if she says that she wants to feel at ease today, she will think about the things she can add to her day to evoke that feeling.

“Then I think about, too ― it could be a little dark ― but I do consider, what if this were my last day? How do I want to do this life?” Lewis said. “And I try to remember that and make choices from that place.”

So if Lewis doesn’t want to be in a funk or doesn’t want to hold a grudge, she makes sure her actions mirror this throughout the day.

“And I know there [are] deeper traumas that we’re all likely working through, but the one thing we can control is really just the moment we have in front of us,” she said.

Additionally, try not to make “happiness” your final outcome.

“For my young adult clients, one thing I always encourage them to remember is that you have to avoid thinking of happiness as a goal or your final outcome,” Siddiqi said.

“One thing I see all the time: My clients will say ‘I just want to be happy,’ and then I’ll ask them ‘What does happiness look like for you?’ and they’ll say ‘I want to get married,’ ‘I want to get into this graduate program,’ ‘I want to lose 10 pounds,’ and there are all these concrete goals … a lot of them find that when they [reach their goals], there are still a lot of problems in life, there are still issues, they haven’t reached this ‘happiness,’” Siddiqi said.

Instead of looking at happiness as a destination, think of it as the choices along the way, she noted. “Part of embracing and being open to happiness is accepting the ups and downs,” Siddiqi said.

She encourages folks to remember that even in your lowest moments you have to be open to finding things that are good, and even in your highest moments you have to be grounded enough to remember that everything is temporary and the ebbs and flows of life are normal.

“It’s not one goal, it’s not one final outcome that I need to associate my happiness with,” she said. Because, if you do that, you’ll forever be searching for a fleeting moment.

Lewis added that even beyond happiness, you should strive for a life full of joy and fulfillment. “There’s a lot of toxic positivity around ‘I just want you to be happy,’” Lewis said.

Lewis said happiness looks different for different people, which can put pressure on the term “happiness.” It’s much easier to decipher if you feel joyful and if you feel fulfilled in your life.

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