How We Settle for Unhappiness with Others and Within

A person stands with back to camera looking at open gateWhat are you capable of? What can you achieve? Depending on the angle from which you attack these questions, you’ll get a wide variety of answers.

The geneticist might say we are nothing more than the sum of our DNA, that we are coded and scripted to be a certain way. We are naturally gifted or cursed, and those gifts or curses predetermine our direction in life.

The existentialist might tell us that all is our choice. We are “doomed” by our free will to forge a path alone, into the bleak future. Depending on the existentialist’s philosophical bent, they might go so far as to lament the futility of making decisions based on the inherent uncertainty of life. But they’ll remind us that we have to choose. A strange paradox, indeed.

The social psychologist might have us look at ethnicity, social economic factors, sex/gender, and education. Based on these variables, the social psychologist might say we are a product of our upbringing and the norms that surround us. They might say the individual proves far less impactful than the group, that social dynamics hold sway over any supposed individual free will.

So what of counselors? What view do they take? Although I obviously can’t speak for all of them, I can safely argue that most of us prize relationships.

Now, when the word “relationship” pops up, what do you think about? Other people, usually. As important as strong, healthy interpersonal relationships are to our mental well-being, I wish to highlight the importance of expanding the definition of “relationship” to include everything—yes, everything—our minds attach to.

Here’s the crux of this article: we are unhappy when we hold on to relationships to people, places, and things that are (1) not satisfying and ultimately (2) not growth-oriented. Mentioning the geneticist, the philosopher, the sociologist, and the counselor brings up the point that, regardless of what angle you take, relationships to ourselves, others, and the rest of the world can make or break our sense of wholeness and joy experienced in our lives.

So look down at your shoes right now, or your feet if you are barefoot. Do you like what you see? What thoughts and emotions come up when viewing your shoes or feet? Now, how about the device you’re using to read this article. Do you like your phone, computer, tablet, whatever? If not, why not?

I know firsthand how settling leads to resentment and/or shame. This self-imposed emotional baggage further hinders desire and motivation. In this place, we cultivate stagnancy. We cultivate unhappiness.

Do this simple exercise with everything you can think of. Include your body, the way you think about yourself, how you express or hinder your emotions, and your favorite pair of shoes. What you’ll likely find—and I’ve found this to be true for every person I’ve worked with in therapy—is that we settle.

We wind up maintaining relationships that prove unsatisfying and growth-inhibiting. We settle for less than we deserve and less than we want. We settle for scraps, always fantasizing about the more we believe we can never have.

If this is true, then why do we do it? There are many answers: fear, ignorance of what’s available, guilt telling us our wants make us selfish. Regardless of the reason, I know firsthand how settling leads to resentment and/or shame. This self-imposed emotional baggage further hinders desire and motivation. In this place, we cultivate stagnancy. We cultivate unhappiness.

So, what to do? Well, the first—and I’ll say hardest—question I ask the person sitting across from me is, “What do you want?” Often, we’ve settled because we have been given a relationship through happenstance and mindless living. We’ve slipped into relationship habits that go unquestioned.

Asking what you want automatically leads to the follow-up question, “What is in my power to bring this relationship to life?” Wanting a better relationship with your body might mean diet and exercise. Wanting a better relationship with a loved one might mean deeper, more authentic communication. Wanting a better relationship with a higher power might mean church, meditation, or a nature walk.

Whatever the course of action, notice the movement! Purposeful movement leads to creative engagement with the world. It can lead to happiness, to deep, authentic joy.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joshua Nash, LPC-S, therapist in Austin, Texas

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lora

    Lora

    September 23rd, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    Nope I left the settling for anything less than the best behind a long time ago.

  • Perry

    Perry

    September 23rd, 2016 at 3:09 PM

    My guess is that for most of us that first question that you would ask, what do you want, is usually going to be one of the toughest that they ever have to answers. I am a pretty happy guy and i am still not always sure that I know the answer to that.

  • Bella

    Bella

    September 24th, 2016 at 8:52 PM

    I also left settling for anything less than the best behind a long time ago!

  • logan

    logan

    September 25th, 2016 at 7:56 AM

    I guess in my house my parents always taught us to go for it, even if it felt out of reach so I don’t believe that any of my brothers or sisters have ever once thought about settling for anything less.
    Now of course there are times when all of us want to because you know, working hard for something that you want does not always come too easily.
    But I always had a great support system in my mom and dad and that alone has made a huge difference for me, giving me the strength to go on even when I may have wanted to give up.

  • Karenna

    Karenna

    September 26th, 2016 at 7:18 AM

    Believe it or not I actually think that to be realistic there are times when you have to be open to both happiness and unhappiness, that both feelings are a part of life that can’t always be avoided

  • sue

    sue

    September 27th, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    sort of an easy conclusion to come to that if you settle with unhappiness with others then this is bound to be what you feel about yourself as well.

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