Have any of you ever heard of Cherophobia? It’s the literal fear of happiness. While it sounds crazy, an article in Psychology Today confirms this phobia is not only real, but far more prevalent than one might think (I know, there’s a phobia or disorder for everything these days, right?).
What made me want to write about this today is that not only do I identify with this particular disorder at least to some degree, but thinking about the way this disorder is often exhibited, I not only agree that a large number of people suffer from this to some extent, but that we are teaching our children to have the same fear – and that breaks my heart.
As you would probably expect, Cherophobia is not easy to truly diagnose. There are levels and degrees of this disorder, but at its root, people that suffer from this disorder avoid situations that would make them feel true joy or, if they attend such events, they appear standoffish or disconnected, never allowing themselves to fully participate and ‘run the risk’ of feeling the happiness they either believe others feel or that they think is unavailable to them or that they for some reason do not deserve.
Recently, there was a speaker I had the honor of hearing that addressed this phobia in such a unique way that it forced me to re-examine my own relationship with happiness.
The speaker posed a question which in and of itself was relatively innocuous – how often do you answer a question about the weather, your day, your weekend or your relationship with a qualifier such as it’s good now, but yesterday was awful or it’s pretty good but tomorrow is going to be awful?
I realize this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you look at it overall, it really does seem to be indicative of our overall outlook regarding life. As a society, we seem to think – and are teaching our children – that while something may be perfect now, just wait- it’ll turn to crap again just like we expect it to. Additionally, the prevalence of and media attention on crime, violence, and all things fear-based, happiness is all but obliterated from our emotional vocabulary. Accepting the joy or peace of a given moment is no longer the default, but something we have to consciously decide to do and more often than not, we make the choice to not embrace that emotion because we don’t want to experience the let down when the moment passes.
Now I get it. There is plenty of things in our world to be fearful of and this feeds into our innate need to identify risk and find a way to eliminate it. But the thing is that as our society has become more civilized and safe, the number of things that are truly a risk to the masses have become fewer and fewer but our fight or flight response has made our ability to identify a true risk unreliable and overly sensitive. Moreover, things our ability to tolerate risk or even inconvenience has become so narrow that our responses to things as common as traffic jams suddenly explode into something intolerable and dangerous. We have become perpetually on alert and have taught our children to fear all things different or challenging.
But the thing is by always being on alert for the smallest perceived risk removes the ability to actually embrace a given moment fully. It is literally impossible to fully enjoy the company of others at a party or enjoy the thrill of conquering a challenge if at least half of our mind is focused on the “what if’s” or “could be’s” and as a result, conditioned ourselves keep happiness at arms-length creating an overwhelming number of people to be isolated, depressed, disengaged, and suicidal.
This resonates so clearly within me that I wonder if those around me can hear the ringing. Keeping my distance from happiness was something learned at an early age and something I have mastered throughout my 50+ years. I cannot count the number of memories that I have that include something bad happening directly after I was truly happy creating in my mind a connection between the two. For example, I remember my 16th birthday. It was really the only birthday party I remember having or wanting and I was really excited about having friends come to celebrate with me. I almost never had friends to my house so this was a particularly significant event. But as often happens with alcoholic parents, what is supposed to be fun becomes complicated.
A fun shopping spree for party food and gifts ended in my having to crawl through the window to let everyone in because my mom had locked us all out. I was not only late to my own party, but my friends witnessed my embarrassment and my mothers’ not-so-pleasant response to my frustration. This was followed by the constant need to apologize to my friends for my mom’s erratic behavior as one minute she was laughing and trying to show us her dance moves and the next she was screaming and pulling me up the stairs by my hair the next moment because we had become too loud for her.
Events like this taught me not to hope; to not have positive expectations and more importantly, to not risk being happy because happiness almost always led to the worst punishments. As a result, I made myself “small”. I found that by keeping myself quiet, keeping my expectations low, and not risking opening the door to something that might actually bring me joy, it was safer for me and those around me. I didn’t have to be reminded that I didn’t deserve the things that other people had in their lives. I was, as I often said, the stray dog begging for scraps under the table. Occasionally you get tossed a piece of filet mignon, sometimes you get kicked in the ribs and shooed away. Either way, you get what you deserve.
Having realized this is what I taught myself to believe, I am working hard to move past my fear of happiness and embrace life, living for the moments of joy rather than living to avoid them. While I can’t say I don’t still find myself back in the same traps, I have finally gotten to the place where I can truly believe that happiness in and of itself is a good thing and something to be sought after. I have to admit that I still have trouble pushing myself to enter into situations where I might be exuberant because I fear what will happen as a result, but I recognize that this is all a process and on the days that I allow myself to be happy, I have won.
I realize that maybe some of this is stuff you have heard from me before, but wanted to reiterate to all of you – and to myself – happiness is not to be feared. Happiness is not a punishment or danger. Happiness is a reflection of love – love expressed from one person to another, from a puppy to a child, from God to each and every one of us. Depriving ourselves of happiness keeps us from embracing the blessings God is giving to us and makes us begin questioning His very existence.
So here is my request for you all.
Beginning today – this week with Valentine’s Day on the horizon and we are bombarded by images of what happiness “should” be – try just once to see the beauty of the day and acknowledge it without qualifying it. Accept that carnation from the child in your life and enjoy the gift as the expression of love that it is instead of just one more thing that you have to throw away when your child isn’t looking. And finally, and most importantly, look up today and acknowledge the happiness that comes from just being able to open your eyes, breathe in and out, and take on a new day, whatever it holds. The more we can live in the small, happy moments, the more those moments will become the focus of our lives and we can all overcome our cherphobia.