Jennie’s Reflections: 10 Foolproof Ways to Find Unhappiness

Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC

No one ever comes to a therapist saying, “I’d like to be less happy,” but a lot of people make choices that lead to unhappiness. Having seen this in action, I’d like to share with you the following list of things you can do if you want to be deeply unhappy:

1. Have unrealistically high expectations of those around you, and then get angry when those expectations aren’t met.

The people in your life should know exactly what you need at any given moment. You should be their highest priority, and they should drop everything to serve your needs and wants. Your friends and family should be a well-balanced combination of pragmatic, intelligent, down-to-earth, whimsical, fun, serious, discerning, spontaneous, and reliable. If they fail to be any of these things at any given time, you should punish them, either by screaming at them that they’re a failure or by withdrawing emotionally, until they can demonstrate that they have improved.

How to Know You’re Doing This:
If you find that no one meets your standards, you are probably doing this. If you find that your adult life (and possibly earlier) is littered with short-lived friendships, and if you have difficulty maintaining meaningful long-term relationships, it may mean that your expectations are unrealistic. It’s also worth noting that it may simply mean you choose the wrong people to surround yourself with – which also works well if you’re trying to become deeply unhappy.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
We thrive on connection with other people, but when your default is to view others through a critical lens, you enter every encounter with a distancing stance. If you constantly expect others to live up to your unrealistic expectations, either they will get tired of the criticism and find new friends and partners, or you will get angry at them and send them on their way.

2. Take everything very personally.

If someone does something you don’t like, it was probably intended to hurt your feelings. If someone doesn’t text you back within 45 seconds, they’re definitely angry at you. If someone cuts you off in traffic, they’re trying to put your life in danger. And if your favorite television show is cancelled, some high-falluten network executive is almost certainly out to get you. Never consider the possible perspectives of others, and never try to understand where they’re coming from.

How to Know You’re Doing This:
You constantly feel hurt. You don’t reason through possible explanations for another person’s behavior that have nothing to do with you. You enter any confrontation on the defensive because everyone and everything is out to get you.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
This is called “personalizing your pain,” which means that when something bad happens, you assume that it is done specifically to cause you anguish. Hurt feelings are most easily resolved when you’re able to enter a conversation with a desire to understand where the other person is coming from. But if you’ve already decided that you know where the other person is coming from – a cruel desire to hurt you – then a productive and healing conversation becomes impossible.

3. Never let someone know when you’re unhappy about something they’re doing.

Don’t set boundaries. If something is bothering you, let it go. If that something has been mounting for years and it’s still affecting you, continue to let it go. Surely the problem will eventually go away on its own. It would be such an imposition on them to initiate a conversation… and your needs aren’t actually that important anyway. Eventually, the other person will detect your silent fuming, and make the changes you’re hoping for. Or at least they should. Besides, if they don’t know why you’re angry, you’re certainly not going to tell them!

How to Know You’re Doing This:
You feel very angry about your unexpressed, unmet need. Your anger has mounted to the point where if you express it, you’ll probably explode and lose control entirely. If you get a little introspective, you realize that you’ve created an unwritten rule: the other person’s need to avoid the stress of confrontation trumps whatever your own need is.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
This passive style of communication ensures that you will never get your needs met. Because this is unsustainable, you will either find yourself exploding in anger, or distancing yourself from others. If you verbalize your needs, with compassion and consideration of the other person’s perspective, you can engage in an open discussion about how everyone can get what they want – and this, ultimately, is an act of kindness. It’s a way of saying, “I value our relationship, and in order to make it last long-term, here’s what has to change.” But if you never ask for what you need, your needs will simply remain unmet and your relationships will carry a great burden and then, in all likelihood, end.

4. Always let everyone know when you’re unhappy about something they’re doing, and tell them why they’re wrong and you know better.

Don’t focus on yourself. You’re just fine. Really, you’re better than fine – you’ve got it all figured out. And because you know so much, it would truly be doing the people around you a disservice not to share your wisdom. Your friend is battling serious clinical depression? Tell them about all the things you do that make you feel better when you’re sad. Your sister has gained a few pounds? Tell her she probably shouldn’t eat those cookies you see her grabbing.

How to Know You’re Doing This:
You notice that people give terse, clench-jawed acknowledgements in response to your well-intended advice. You probably also notice that you’re gossiping a lot. If you’re other-focused rather than self-focused, that probably doesn’t end when the person leaves the room.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
Generally, we focus our criticism of others on areas where we feel pretty insecure about ourselves. But condescendingly explaining to others why they’re such a mess does nothing to address our own insecurities. It’s only when we’re able to look at our own struggles, as uncomfortable as that may be, that we can start to improve ourselves and our lives.

5. Be a perfectionist.

Whatever you’re doing, you could do better. Point out all the ways this is true. Use the word “should” a lot. Ignore your basic human needs. You are a machine. Keep plugging along. Acknowledge that you are unworthy until you’ve met your goals. A sense of deserving is for other people: people who have enormous career success, perfect bodies, and total self-control.

How to Know You’re Doing This:
No matter what you achieve, the bar keeps moving. If you lose those 10 pounds, you notice your arms are still a little bit flabby. If you sell 10,000 copies of your book, you wonder why it wasn’t 100,000. If you get a promotion at work, you wonder why it didn’t happen sooner. You don’t give yourself credit for your accomplishments at all, and you don’t make allowances for the fact that you’re human.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
Perfectionism is very closely related to shame. That is, when you fall short of your unrealistically high expectations for yourself, you feel ashamed and unworthy. Contrary to popular belief, the shame feelings don’t go away when you achieve what you’re striving for; instead, the perfectionism finds a new source of insecurity to pray upon.

6. Be a people pleaser.

Don’t worry about your own hopes and dreams. It’s more important to seek external validation. What other barometer could possibly tell you if you’re on the right track? If your parents want you to join the family business, don’t even entertain thoughts of another career. If your boss wants you to work overtime, cancel your vacation. Forget about self-care. Forget about what you want. It’s all about making other people happy.

How to Know You’re Doing This:
You find yourself hustling for praise from other people. When someone in a position isn’t completely satisfied, it’s devastating to your sense of self. When that person gives you a thumbs up, you find yourself glowing inside… but no time to enjoy that. You know it will disappear if you don’t jump right to your pattern of “please, perform, perfect”.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
When you are constantly concerned about meeting the standards of others, you lose touch with the internal sensor that lets you know what makes you happy. If you’ve been doing this for years, or perhaps your whole life, it’s very difficult to tap into your internal wisdom about your own values, needs, and goals. Furthermore, when you have a strong need for the approval of others, you become a magnet for narcissists, who are drawn to people desperately seeking approval. And then, when you finally do get the praise you’ve been hustling for, it reinforces the idea that you need to live up to someone else’s standards, distancing you even further from your sense of self.

7. When you feel lousy, withdraw socially.

After all, everyone is too busy for you. And even if they aren’t, they certainly don’t want to listen to you gripe. Your problems aren’t really that important, so if you call the people who love you (and do they really love you anyway, or have they just been faking it very convincingly for the last several decades?), they’ll tell you to suck it up and then go back to their busy schedule. Or maybe they won’t answer at all. Inevitably, you’ll probably feel worse for having tried to reach out.

How to Know You’re Doing This:
You feel very alone and disconnected. When you think about reaching for the phone, it feels like there’s a wall between you and the task – one you’d have to forcibly push your way through in order to call someone. You find yourself making excuses about how busy the people in your life are, and you rationalize not reaching out.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
I probably sound like a broken record, but connection is the root of contentedness and wholeheartedness. It’s why we’re all here. While it’s true that if you reach out to someone and they’re not available you may feel worse, it’s also very possible that talking to a loved one will help you to feel better. But regardless of that risk, it’s much worse not to try. Nothing feels lonelier than feeling that you have no one to call when you’re in need.

8. Once you identify something that makes you feel ashamed, don’t talk to anyone about it, ever.

Take your secret and bury it deep, deep inside you. Don’t share it with the people you’re closest to, don’t discuss it with the people who have a shared experience, don’t even mail it to Postsecret. Just clam it up and let it fester. Feel the shame deepen, pulling you even farther away from any drive to share the secret.

How to Know You’re Doing This:
You try very hard not to think about The Thing That Makes You Feel Shame. You go out of your way to avoid anything that reminds you of The Thing That Makes You Feel Shame. And if you’re confronted with something that forces you to think of it, you feel deeply depressed or anxious.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
A lot of people think that if they don’t talk about the things that cause them to feel shame, they’ll somehow go away. But the more you keep something secret, the more it’s reinforced that the secret you’re keeping is deeply shameful, too much to be shared with others. Ultimately, empathy is the strongest antidote to shame… so if you’re looking to be deeply unhappy, don’t ever share the things that make you feel ashamed with trusted loved ones.

9. Numb your emotions.

Drink to excess, or use recreational drugs. Shop til you drop. Have sex indiscriminately and never stop to consider whether you actually feel connected to your partners. Become a workaholic, define yourself exclusively by your output at the office, and don’t stop to take care of yourself. Become dependent on another person, and sacrifice your entire identity for theirs. Whatever you need to do to make absolutely sure you never have to feel your feelings… do that.

How to Know You’re Doing This:
Your life lacks balance, and whatever you’re using to numb yourself feels like it’s getting out of control, or your whole identity is wrapped up in it. If you take a moment to check and assess how you’re actually feeling, you’ve completely lost contact with the internal cues that let you know.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
Your emotions exist for a reason. As Pixar recently reminded us in Inside Out, anger tells you you’re being taken advantage of. Fear keeps you safe. Sadness creates empathy and connection. When you numb yourself, you lose access to these important feelings – and all of the information they contain.

10. Complain about things within your control; try to change things outside of your control.

Have you ever heard the serenity prayer?: “Allow me to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Disregard that. Work tirelessly to change the things that are outside the scope of your control. Don’t lift a finger to change the things that are within your control; instead, gripe about them to anyone who will listen.

How to Know You’re Doing This:
You feel really, really stuck. You’re unhappy, and working tirelessly to try to change it, but nothing’s budging.

Why This Leads to Unhappiness:
In every situation, there are elements that are within your control and those that are outside of your control. Once you’ve differentiated the two, you have more information you can use to make an informed decision about where to devote your energy. This can help you get “unstuck”. Of course, there are a lot of other reasons to stay stuck – the foremost of which being that change is scary. But managing that fear starts with figuring out what’s actually within your control.

A final word:

It should be noted that the people who come in with these concerns struggle greatly with them, and maintain these patterns for a wide variety of reasons. This article is not intended to minimize the pain felt by those who struggle with these presenting problems; rather, it is intended to bring to light a number of things that may be keeping you stuck.

If, after reading this article, you have decided that perhaps you don’t want to chase unhappiness after all, the help of a good therapist can help you to identify and unravel some of these patterns.


Jennie Steinberg, a psychotherapist in private practice in Downtown LA, thrives on helping clients on their identity journeys! Visit her website for more blog articles and practice information at http://www.jenniesteinberg.com.