4 Ways To Stop Sabotaging Your Own Happiness — And Get Back To What Brings You Joy

There's a deeper reason you can't get motivated.

two women joyfully hugging rawpixel / shutterstock.com 

Do you have activities you enjoy, yet you can’t seem to get yourself to do them? I’m not talking about things you know you should do, like exercise or eating healthily.

What I'm referring to are the things that bring us joy when we’re doing them. For some reason, we resist doing them anyway. Why do we do that?

Why is it so hard to make a habit out of goals that bring us joy?

The answer is complicated, but figuring it out can bring immense joy and satisfaction to your life. The resistance comes from subconscious emotional associations we don’t know we have. 


There are likely underlying negative feelings or beliefs associated with the activity. These negative associations in your subconscious mind are holding you back. 

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It’s not your fault

I often see this with clients struggling to stick to a creative activity. They’ve dreamed of writing a novel or they’ve always loved playing guitar. They set the time to practice their craft only to find, when that time rolls around, that they would rather be doing anything else.

Then the negative self-talk sets in: “I’m too lazy,” “I’m worthless,” “I’ll never really be a _____ [writer, musician, etc.]".


What they don’t realize is that this negative self-talk makes them feel even worse, adding to the negative associations they have with the creative activity. 

When we make decisions to do something or not, we tend to think this is our cognitive mind at work. We think we’re making decisions with our frontal lobes - that part of the brain that handles higher functions. However, our subconscious mind, buried in the midbrain, is often calling the shots. 

The midbrain categorizes things in pretty basic ways; feels good, feels bad, or neutral. Things that feel bad send signals of avoidance via your nervous system. Think of this as a small fight, flight, or freeze response. Your midbrain is warning you of danger ahead. What is that danger? It’s feeling bad.

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The nature of self-sabotage

You may be able to think of times you performed the joyful activity and it felt great. So, why the danger signals? It often comes from an event in your formative years. Maybe, you were made fun of for an attempt at the creativity and felt immensely embarrassed. You may have had parents or teachers who scolded you for spending time on frivolous activities. Perhaps you were taught that if you’re not working on something substantive, you’re being lazy or selfish. 

Those underlying negative feelings and beliefs thwart our best attempts at creating a habit of things we would otherwise enjoy. The activity triggers a negative association and we find ourselves blocked. No matter how many times we try to make a habit of this joyful activity, we can’t seem to make it stick. 

Some people lose sight of those joyful activities altogether. The part of a person that engages in activities they enjoy simply for pleasure becomes so shut down. They wouldn’t know where to start, creating a goal that brings them joy.

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How to identify a goal that brings you joy

In some cases, a child is taught to shut down all impulses toward playful or creative activities or things that are deemed self-indulgent. Early on, there’s a disconnect from recognizing these things as joyful. What can you do if you don’t know what brings you joy?

There are ways to recognize activities that, at one time, made you happy. Even things that seem too childish to do as an adult can shed light on a goal that brings you joy. For example, playing with dolls might point to a love of creative storytelling. Collecting rocks might suggest a love of geology. 

1. Reflect on your childhood experiences

What did you enjoy doing as a child? Ask siblings, relatives, or old family friends what you used to like doing as a child. Go through old photos and look for hints. Think of this as playing the archaeologist of your own life. What were your favorite toys, games, or imaginary style of play? How can these things be applied to your life today?

2. What jobs or fields of study have always interested you? 

Did you dream of being a rockstar, astronaut, or soccer player? Have you been fascinated by dinosaurs or reading Mayan hieroglyphs? 


Be as wildly imaginative as you can. The goal is not to become this actual profession, it’s to look for related activities you may enjoy, like learning about space, ancient civilizations, or dinosaurs. You may not become an astronaut or rockstar, but you can make a goal that brings you the joy of learning about it. 

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3. Play the private island game

If you won the lottery and had unlimited time, resources, and alone time, what would you do? List 10 wild and crazy ideas. Then, look for clues on how you could break that down into smaller activities. Maybe you’d read the classics or go swimming a lot. How can you incorporate some of that into your daily life? 

4. When have you experienced flow?

Flow is a state where you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice how much time is passing and you become less aware of your environment. This state is commonly experienced while doing athletic or creative activities. Can you think of a time when you were so absorbed in a task that you didn’t notice anything else? 


Once you figure out what you want to make into a goal that brings you joy, you can create new, positive associations that make it easy. It takes a little time and patience, but if you approach it as a playful game, you’re already setting yourself up to succeed. 

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Committing to goals that bring you joy

The mission is to swap out negative associates (feelings and beliefs) around the activity. Once you have strong, positive associations with your joyful goal, you won’t encounter resistance. Be sure to mark your calendar for days and times, then make it happen.

Build positive associations for your goals

Imagine yourself doing the activity and feeling good. Make a daily meditation of visualizing yourself doing your joyful goal. Get as detailed as you can. Picture where you’ll be, the time of day, whether you’ll be listening to music, and any other details in the environment. 


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See yourself approaching the activity and feeling relaxed and happy. You may want to bring to mind another time when you felt relaxed and happy to create that emotional state, then brings that feeling into the joyful goal. See yourself getting started, spending time doing the activity, and finishing. Again, feel good about having completed the task. 

While this practice may seem silly, it’s a powerful tool for creating a positive association. With repetition, it will begin to replace the negative feelings and beliefs without needing to know what they were. 

Set a reminder and do this for 5 minutes before bed. Bonus points if you do it 5 minutes in the morning, too. 


Small amounts of time with the activity

You can assuage the fear-based signals in your nervous system if the activity time is short enough. Commit to doing the task a few times a week for 5 minutes. Write, play music, study astronomy, or read about dinosaurs for 5 minutes - or whatever your joyful goal is. Don’t go over the time limit, even if you’re enjoying it. When the alarm goes off, stop!

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You’re replacing old fears with a new pattern of wanting more. As you work on the task, and nothing bad happens, the warning signals will disappear.  Additionally, such a small time commitment is easy to keep, so you’ll feel less fearful of disappointing yourself. 


Monitor your self-talk

Be sure you’re thinking and feeling positive throughout the process. Whether you’re planning the time, doing the activity, or looking at the end result, tell yourself “well done!” 

Remember, the midbrain moves towards what feels good. So, congratulate yourself. Do a little dance, sing a song, or give yourself a high five. Literally. The novelty and playfulness of this encourages your brain to want more. 

Once you have a goal that brings you joy in mind, these simple practices will reinforce it. Most people can find 5 minutes a day to visualize doing the activity while loving it. Find 3 or 4 times in your week to do 5 minutes of the activity. Again, focus on feeling good and congratulating yourself. 

These short amounts of time will build a new foundation of positive associations for your joyful goal and you’ll make an easy habit of it in no time. 


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Nicole Corbett is a certified hypnotherapist and shamanic healer who combines spiritual and intuitive traditions with hypnosis to help clients reframe and release old patterns.