2 Reasons You May Feel You Don’t Deserve to Be Happy

5 min read
Source: johnhain/Pixabay

Source: johnhain/Pixabay

Though our forefathers built into our Declaration of Independence our right to pursue happiness, that happiness we seek is elusive for all too many of us. We do our best but find it never works out, or we have to settle for something less, yet we most often keep pushing ahead.

But for some, the pursuit quickly runs out of steam or never happens—they somehow learned that they don’t deserve happiness and gave up trying long ago. As a result, such folks often take what they can get, accept or expect the worst, and ride the wave of life’s ups and downs without ever swimming. Why?

Much of what we do is driven by an underlying problem or emotion, and that’s the case here. The reason for feeling unworthy of happiness usually comes from two primary sources: guilt and feeling defective.


Elvis Presley’s twin brother died at birth, and according to biographers, this plagued Elvis, leaving him with survivor’s guilt that shaped how he coped with life. But guilt is fluid and can arise from many sources; for others, it may be about roads not taken, things they should have done but didn’t, or relationships that fell apart. Regardless of the source, you feel responsible for some outcome: If only you did ____, it would have made all the difference. Because of your error, sin, or failure, you now have to pay the price of being plagued with remorse and not deserving of happiness.

I’m defective

I don’t deserve to be happy because look at me. Here, you fill in the blank—I have so many problems; I can never be good enough; I’m ugly or stupid. This is about self-esteem, what you see in the mirror, a self-image shaped by others when you were young who saw you as incapable or ugly or stupid, etc.

Unless you were fortunate enough to have some other adult to balance it out, it was impossible for you not to absorb these perceptions and messages as a child. You become what they say—that you are unlovable or incapable—and believe because of that, no one can love you, and you can’t be successful. You don’t deserve happiness because you are unable to achieve it.

Undoing the past: guilt

With guilt comes a story we create that both explains why we feel the way we do and keeps the guilt alive. I’ve talked with dozens of children who believed their parents divorced because they didn’t clean their room or finish their homework, trauma-ridden soldiers who, like Elvis, can’t shake the guilt of not saving their buddy, parents who believed they were working two jobs to provide for their family, but now, seeing their struggling, drug-addicted adult child, blame themselves for not being home more.

But there’s rational and irrational guilt. Rational guilt is where you violate your values—I try to be loving towards my kids, but I lost it and totally overreacted with my son; the guilt I feel comes from not living up to my standards. Irrational guilt comes from shoulds—others’ rules handed to you or imposed by someone else—or from a distorted sense of reality: I caused my parents’ divorce; I didn’t save my buddy, though I had no way to do that—a too simple explanation for a traumatic situation. Life is more complicated than your story; your responsibility and power were not as great as you believe.

If your guilt is rational—you violated your values by overreacting to your son—acknowledge it, learn the lesson, and move on. Apologize to your son, and work on managing your stress or temper. If it’s irrational, you need to push back against that scolding, self-critical voice that tells you you should have done better and not made mistakes. This is about realizing that you did the best you could at the time and beating yourself up forever will achieve nothing more.

Undoing the past: feeling defective

If allowing happiness in means forgiving yourself or pushing back to let go of that irrational guilt, you need to do the same to shake those messages of being defective—that you’ll never be good enough, that you’re unlovable, that you can’t change. Challenge those assumptions and views that no longer represent who you are. Here, you want to be aware of your self-talk and begin to rewire your brain by not automatically believing the old garbage your inner critic is spewing out. But it starts with making a firm decision to no longer accept the script given to you and to stop living it like a life sentence.

Because feelings always lag behind thoughts and behaviors, you can’t expect to feel better suddenly; rewiring your brain takes time. What will speed up the process most is action—changing what you do, stopping those behaviors that keep your not-deserving, unhappy life in place, pushing caring people away, running from commitments, holding on to your addictions, or continuing to hang with people who feel the same and keep you feeling the same.

This process may have that fake-it-till-you-make-it feel, and that’s OK. If you keep doing what you’re doing and resign yourself to unhappiness, life is accommodating and will do a good job of giving you what you expect.

You’re not a little kid anymore; your stories and other’s perceptions no longer have to shape you. Maybe it’s time to shake the past so you can be the deserving adult you are.

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