I hear a lot of people talk about the importance of “choosing happiness” as a survivor of trauma. I have a big problem with this phrase especially when it’s used as an all-encompassing answer, summary blueprint and go-to advice to other survivors. It’s right up there with “forgive and forget” in my opinion. If this is your main message to someone who has been abused, let me tell you why this might be the worst thing you could possibly say to them.
I am here to speak from my own experience. This issue may not be triggering or harmful to everyone, but I would like to represent those of us who have struggled with the darker side of this seemly hopeful phrase and to convey the specifics of how it can be so detrimental.
In context: “You can choose happiness after [bad things have happened].”
Well, in my experience, it is possible to choose to be happy in the midst of very unhealthy circumstances. I personally found ways of experiencing excitement, hope, joy, curiosity, and courage in the midst of bad times. There were many things to be grateful for throughout my life. Yes, I was abused but I also was fed, clothed, celebrated by people on the outside, allowed access to the arts, given amazing travel memories and some things that many people might never get the chance to experience in their lifetime. My upbringing was abusive in multiple ways but it was also a privileged one. For many people, choosing happiness in the midst of trauma is much harder than it was for me when they don’t have such basic needs provided for and special opportunities to treasure.
Because, you see, for almost 20 years, I did “choose happiness”. And doing so helped keep me prisoner all that time.
There were many reasons it was easier for me to “choose happiness” than face reality. Chiefly, it allowed me to stay in deep denial and therefore avoid the full psychological weight of my situation. And good thing too, because no child is supposed to bear the emotional consequences of being physically or mentally abused. But human beings are amazing in that way. We are built for survival. Denial is a natural and key function of that survival ability. It’s useful. Until it’s not. We are not meant to stay in perpetual survival mode. At some point, sometimes after decades, our systems usually give out and something has to change.
So far, the best way I’ve found to summarize my experience of denial is to use the image of masks. My abuser was my father. In order to see him everyday, interact with him, obey him, work alongside him and even defend and represent him to the world, (to be able to be “happy”), I held an imaginary mask in front of his face. Whenever I looked his way, I looked at him not as he really was, but at this mask I’d made. The mask was what I wished so badly he could be: a good father, a good teacher, guide and boss. I know this now, because when I finally tore down that mask, my ability to “choose happiness” broke under the built up weight of 20 years of learned denial. Then I had to feel the fear, the pain, the loss and confusion.
The next chapter in my story was the hardest because the pressure to “be happy” was at its peak for me. We had all been taught and conditioned by my father to push down our real emotions and make a nice facade on the outside but now we were touring and filming tv shows and I was trapped under my own smiling mask. I know it was scary for my family to see me cracking and breaking behind the scenes and it had to be equally confusing and disturbing to see me clawing at the mask of our father. Unmasked, he was dangerous and aggressive and I was in pain and battling depression. My natural reactions were held against me as evidence of me being the problem. The pressure to always be happy meant that being upset and reactive, or being depressed, was seen as wrong. I was singled out because I was threatening the status of everyone’s “happy”.
There was no way I could successfully sort through all of that trauma while still being in that place. As soon as I left, the healing work began. And it started with dropping the expectation to choose “happy” and to instead lean into everything I had been avoiding for all those years and begin to learn how to safely process it. That’s what shaped my belief on what is truly important for survivors: getting to a safe place or safe people where you can share your pain, witness your truth, and process your reality without judgement and begin to learn what is truly healthy for you. A lot of people haven’t had the chance to find that yet and when met with the messages of “choose happiness”, it can seem like your permission to heal is being taken away. This can induce shame at the need for healing in the first place and shame in turn takes away any chance at emotional safety in a place or group of people.
I want to note: I have such incredible happiness in my life now. To the extent that any pain wounded me deeply, I find a matching capacity for deeper love and understanding continuing to grow. When difficult waves come, I try to give myself permission to feel the sadness, loss or anger without the shame associated with failing to be “happy” all the time. In this, I am endeavoring to always learn to be more whole-hearted, integrated and congruent. But I would assert that this comes, in part, from choosing to walk away from the messages that told me I couldn’t be unhappy.
Someone once shared with me this beautiful lesson from the animal kingdom: when a storm comes upon a herd of cows out on the plains, they usually turn away from the clouds and try to outrun the approaching storm. But all that ends up happening is the storm eventually catches up and the cows are stuck running with the storm, caught by what they were desperately trying to avoid. Buffalo, on the other hand, tend to wait until the storm is about to break and then they charge headlong into the storm itself. As it passes overhead, the buffalo travel the opposite direction and get through to the other side with much less effort than their exhausted cow relatives. We should know that storms don’t last forever. We need to be brave enough to lean into them instead of telling everyone that they can or should avoid them. It means we’re only delaying our discomfort and potentially compounding issues that will one day have to be addressed. “Choosing happiness” is not a successful detour around therapy or recovery. At it’s worst, it can be a harmful message that keeps people thinking that they have to outrun the storm to survive.
Genuine and healthy happiness is beautiful. Something to be celebrated and treasured. I wish happiness for every single human being out there. I now have a life with so much frequent happiness that I try to share it often and in any way I can. However, I know it has meant the world to me when someone refrains from setting an expectation of “happiness” or victory or success around my story. Someone who is willing to weather the storm when it comes and charge into the hard stuff is the true friend and companion. Let’s choose to do life with those people. Let’s choose to be those people. Let’s choose to be truthful and vulnerable in our lives and relationships. We’ll be healthier people as a result.
– Jessica Fisher