This article is part one of a two-part series.
Updated May 28, 2019

When it comes to personal and professional development, it’s vital to look at two sides of the story. Most of the time, it makes sense to focus on where we want to go — i.e. the goal of becoming happier, what that looks like, and what practices and behaviors will help us get there.

But there’s another side of the conversation that’s just as important to talk about: What is keeping us unhappy? What are the patterns and behaviors we’re tapping into that keep us feeling “stuck” and in a negative space?

It may not be pleasant, but it’s real. And most of the time, it can be difficult to even pinpoint what these behaviors are because they’re so ingrained in us. The good news is that by just increasing your awareness of these behaviors, you’re that much more likely to catch yourself sooner and make a choice that leads you in a more productive, if not happier, direction.

Here are five behaviors that may very well be keeping you from reaching your full potential; and as you read, I invite you to take note of an example in the past (or currently) when you’ve demonstrated this behavior. In part two of this series, I’ll share five more tips to assist in letting go of these unproductive behaviors and inviting more happiness into your life.

Behavior #1 – Withholding

You know that moment in a conversation, perhaps with your partner or just a good friend, where you feel like you’re going to open up a little more fully or bring up a topic that’s really been on your mind… and then you don’t?  Instead, you stay quiet or let the conversation move on to some other topic. That’s withholding.

Withholding also happens when something has you unsettled, but you don’t want to rock the boat, or just can’t “find the right time” to bring it up.  So you let it pass, but you aren’t really letting it go.  It’s more like you’re burying it. Yep, that’s withholding, too.

The challenge with withholding is that it can start in a seemingly innocuous way. It starts small – a little here, a little there.  And withholding doesn’t have to happen just in conversation. After a while, you start withholding connection, ideas, effort, emotions, engagement, and much more. The gap between you and “them” widens and widens until you feel alone. In that isolation, everything you held back on looms and circles around you.

Want to be really unhappy? Be sure to withhold often, and then blame the other person(s) for not giving you the chance to be more open.

Behavior #2 – Live According to Others’ Expectations

Why be true to yourself, when you can live according to others’ expectations of and for you?  I get it, the question sounds ridiculous, right? But, trust me, it can be brutally accurate. Whether we like it or not, the forces of people-pleasing, societal norms, and “meeting our responsibilities” has incredible sway on us.

There’s a reason why the number one regret of the dying is not being true to ourselves.  From day one, we live under our parents’ expectations. From there, we begin to take on our teachers’ expectations. For 12 straight years –- and that’s without college. Plus, we’re graded on whether or not we meet our teachers’ expectations, too! Then, we graduate to the expectations of our friends, our first bosses, our first significant other, and so on.  We want to fit in, we want to belong (understandably, belonging is a HUGE human need!), and so we live into those expectations. All the while leaving our own expectations on the back burner.

If you want to be truly unhappy, ignore your values and what’s really important to you. Don’t trust that intuitive, amazingly calm and largely quiet wise voice within. Wait until much, much later in life to start focusing on who you really are and what really matters most to you.

Behavior #3Always Make Superficial Changes

Ready to keep riding this train to “Unhappiness Town”? If you want to be really, truly unhappy, always make surface level changes and never address the real issues boiling underneath. Just let the same challenges resurface over and over again, and it’ll feel like “no matter what I try” nothing works, nothing changes.

This maddening cycle is all-too-common and easy to get caught up in. You can change your fitness and nutritional habits all you want. But if your real, deep-down belief is that you’ll never lose weight and you’ll always be out of shape, then it’s only a matter of time before you self-sabotage. You’ll continue to focus on what’s not working and on how even a little progress isn’t really all that much. That energy will build, until… SNAP. Binge time!

Imagine this: you’re at work, and you’ve been working extra hard and putting in extra effort on a project. You’re even achieving great results for the work you’ve done. But your boss doesn’t recognize the effort or results, and that doesn’t feel great. Instead of having a conversation about feeling unappreciated, we’ll focus instead on organizing more meetings to review all the work we’re doing. Or we’ll send more emails to update our boss on progress. Or any number of other strategies that — you guessed it — do not get to the real issue of feeling unappreciated. Insert a personal relationship scenario here and you’ll see the same cycle.

So to stay wonderfully, blissfully unhappy, be sure to stay on the surface with strategies that miss the mark, all while creating extra work for yourself.  And be sure not to look within at the real issue causing you strife.

Behavior #4 – Seek to Be Right

Ready for another behavior that’s a great way to stay perfectly unhappy? Put all your focus and energy into convincing yourself — and others, of course — that you’re right. Right about your view, decision, emotion, perspective… any of it!  Make sure you have plenty of evidence accumulated for a long period of time, and instead of deeply listening to other people’s views, listen only enough to form your counter-argument.

Why seek understanding when you can be right and let others know that you’re right?

Again, I know this perspective and question sounds ridiculous. But consider for a moment how much time and energy you put into supporting your perspective.

You may or may not be right. But I can guarantee to focus on being right has a definite impact on relationships –- personal and professional. And with so much focus on being right, do you think there’s much energy leftover to put into repairing those relationships, building connection, and being happy? You guessed it, nope!

Oh, and for extra unhappiness bonus points, a fun corollary to this behavior is to convince yourself, “I already know how this will end, so why bother?”

Behavior #5 – Never Let Go of Anything

Holding on creates tension.  Just think of anything you’ve ever physically tried to hold onto too long -– the strain in your arms, shoulders, neck. You can probably feel it now if you really picture it.

It’s no different than how your heart or mind hold on to past experiences. Remember a time when you felt you were right, or that someone harmed or disrespected you? When we hold onto something emotionally and mentally long enough, it becomes part of our identity and how we know ourselves. And then, because it becomes familiar to us, it becomes normal.

The unhappiness sets in because we can’t imagine the possibility that life could be any different. And so, letting go would actually cause fear, because letting go would now mean uncertainty and stepping into the unknown.

We’d rather be miserable (the devil we know) than face uncertainty (the devil we don’t).

And, if you’d like one more Bonus Behavior for Unhappiness – be sure to ruminate too long on any of these!  When we want to be really unhappy, it helps to focus only on the unhappiness and what you believe to be the unchangeable causes of your unhappiness.

Listen, all joking aside…

I don’t want to make light of some of the real pain that we experience in life. Everyone goes through their own circumstances that can feel and be quite difficult, even terrible. The point is that we can become stuck in that chapter of our lives — reading and rereading it over and over again — and this ultimately turns pain into suffering.

Making changes doesn’t need to happen all at once. It’s not about “snapping out of it” as some people demand, without compassion.

Instead, try diving into the above areas with compassion, understanding, and love. And explore what’s possible… even if what’s possible is just one small step back in the direction of peace, contentment, or happiness.

In part two of this article, we’ll explore five practices that build happiness and resiliency. In the meantime, feel free to continue the conversation in our Facebook community!

Also published on Medium.