Finding Happiness after a Lonely Childhood

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Reader’s Question

I am a 20-year-old female who feels like I very often refuse happiness. It doesn’t always happen — sometimes I enjoy being happy, both by myself and with others, but I would say that I can’t feel happy for too long. I almost seek happiness breakers or mood swingers. I am quite a lonely person. I’ve always felt a bit misunderstood, and haven’t really had a normal romantic relationship — only some unserious ones. But I very, very often fantasize about having one, and they are not always happy. In my fantasies I usually have a great relationship with someone, then I always end my fantasy by breaking up with them, or being betrayed, or even me or my fantasy partner dying, which leads to me feeling unhappy.

I also very often feel lazy or afraid to feel joy by doing my hobbies. For instance, I want to continue going to dance classes because I love them, but still haven’t done so because I always find an excuse not to.

I can’t say that I was abused or anything like that in my childhood. I actually have very few memories of that time of my life. I had a normal relationship with my mother, but she was very young when she had me, so she was usually away studying, and actually moved to a different country when I was 13. I have never met my father and my mother refuses to tell me anything about him. I lived with my grandparents. They did fight quite a lot, and my grandfather used to go into ‘drinking marathons’ for a few weeks maybe 3 times a year, which led to some uncomfortable and even shameful situations. I don’t remember our family being close but I also don’t remember hating them.

So why do I look for reasons not to be happy? Why can’t I enjoy the happiness? I have to add that I am a very unconfident person, especially when it comes to my character. I am really hoping you can understand my situation and problem.

Psychologist’s Reply

It must be confusing to want happiness and yet also feel as if you reject it at the same time. Happiness is a difficult emotion to define for many people (including psychologists). The experience of happiness, like other emotions, is a temporary one. Researchers have found that our minds quickly adjust to both positive and negative mood changes — which can, unfortunately, set us up to constantly seek short-term mood boosts. Depending on our life experiences as well as our hard-wiring, some of us are more inclined to seek these mood boosts, whether they are positive or negative. Perhaps this is part of what may be happening for you. The interpersonal experiences and relationship history you describe may also be contributing to your current feelings of loneliness and difficulty with long-term relationships.

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Some psychologists believe (and have research to support) the idea that our childhood relationships influence our adult relationships. According to attachment theory, the type of attachments to our primary childhood caregivers impact our adult friendships and romantic attachments. Attachment psychologists have found evidence for three styles of attachment that exist in childhood, and are also evident in adulthood. Two psychologists, Hazan and Shaver*, developed a self-report questionnaire that outlines and defines these three attachment styles:

“I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.”
“I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely; difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.”
“I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.”

Based on the childhood you described, it is understandable that it could have been difficult for you to feel close and trusting towards your caregivers. Having a young, inexperienced mother who moved away and sent you to live with an unpredictable grandparent has probably influenced what you expect from others. Sometimes the absence of memories from your childhood (as opposed to negative ones) can also be indicative of difficulties that existed. As a young adult, these experiences may be getting clearer than they were in your younger years. You may also be nearing the age at which your mother had you — which could also be impacting your ambivalence toward romantic relationships.

Either way, your willingness to approach these feelings and explore ways to change them is a fantastic first step in getting the relationships and satisfaction you want in your life. I would encourage you to continue this exploration with a psychologist or other mental health professional so that you can get more of what you want from your relationships, work and play. If you are enrolled in school, your academic institution may have a free or low-cost student counseling center. These centers often have excellent individual and group counseling options for issues just like the ones you are experiencing. Otherwise, you can always search APA’s psychologist locator to find a professional who can help.

* Hazan, C. and P. Shaver (1987) ‘Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process‘, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52: 511-524.

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