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Happiness Quota: How Happy Are You Allowed To Be?

photo of mom with newborn, counseling raleigh © Katherine Broadway

Imagine this scene: A mother is in the hospital just having given birth to her baby. She is excited and happy. The nurse gives her the newborn. The baby turns her head toward mother and snuggles.

The baby is searching for warmth and comfort. The child probably is not hungry because it has just spent nine months with all its needs met. The baby is mostly traumatized and seeking comfort and safety.


We begin to learn how to manage our mother and our environment from birth. Babies are helpless to do for themselves, but they are able to affect the people around them. They cry when they are uncomfortable. They look at who is holding them. They settle into comfortable arms.

As children, we make many unconscious agreements with ourselves and with our main caretakers in order to get our needs met.

A baby can sense the emotional tone of the people he or she is around and will respond, making every effort possible to bond and connect to them. The baby learns quickly how each person reacts to what responses. It is in this way that unconscious agreements are made between baby and caretaker.

From these early experiences, people formulate core beliefs, values and expectations about how their life will be and how people will treat them. This is the core of their internal model of how life will work for them. From this model, life patterns are formed. Both the model and the patterns that develop reside deep in the unconscious mind. It is possible to live them without ever knowing what is directing us.


As a baby, if you received “good enough” parenting and had your needs met in a “good enough” way, you will have a sense of safety. This will give you the opportunity to grow into a strong, autonomous adult. The internal model of life will include expectations of positive experiences and the belief that when there are difficulties there will be resources to handle them and move forward.

If your needs were not met, you will become an adult who feels afraid, insecure and unsure who you are. You will believe that you are inadequate and undeserving of love and happiness. If there was deprivation and trauma, then your beliefs about yourself and life will be harsh and cruel. The belief “I am bad and deserve to be hurt and mistreated” will form.


Alice is an intelligent and engaging woman, yet she does not have many friends and has marginal success in life. When things begin to go well for her, she gets anxious and usually does something to sabotage the situation.

For example, if she gets too much positive attention at work that could lead to advancement, she will direct the attention elsewhere, causing her to lose opportunities for recognition. When her relationships begin to deepen, she will withdraw or create conflict.


Alice grew up in a home where her father was depressed and her mother was preoccupied with him and his needs. Alice was loved and taken care of, but was not given much attention. She and her needs and abilities were not noticed. She quickly learned that there would be little happiness for her. She made an unconscious agreement with herself and her mother to not take up too much time or get too much attention.

One of these agreements with herself was, “It is not safe to have time, attention and success.” She needed to live under the radar. She put a quota on how happy she can be, how much pleasure she can have and how successful she can become.


Alice’s Harsh Inner Critic plays a big role in this process. It whispers messages about how she does not deserve attention, time, success, love, happiness, friends and security, to name a few. It tells her she is bad and must not be seen. This protects her from the anxiety that comes from the prospect of having “too much” happiness.

Alice became aware of this behavior when she was working with a boss who had studied psychological dynamics. In a meeting, Alice was presenting an idea to solve a problem when suddenly she declared that it couldn’t work and withdrew her suggestion.

Her boss remarked that she seemed to have difficulty having her ideas taken seriously. He asked her to continue and with his support, she was able to develop her idea and successfully solve the problem. With his support, she entered therapy and is growing in the ability to believe she can be safe, confident and successful.

Do you get anxious when you get attention or feel happy and successful? Maybe you have a happiness quota for your life. If you want to change that I can help. Call me at (919) 881-2001.

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