After a rough 2021 that included a breakup with his live-in partner, Tom’s life has finally been on the upswing. In the last few months, the 38-year-old landed a higher paying job as a marketing executive, moved into a better apartment, began working out regularly and feels as energized as he was in his 20s. But as much as his depression has declined, he’s felt a new kind of anxiety creeping in the past few months.
“I keep having this feeling that something bad is going to happen,” he tells me. “I’m just always on edge. It definitely makes it harder to enjoy when things are going well.”
It’s not uncommon for people to associate mental health with success, but being on a winning streak doesn’t inoculate someone from anxiety, which is why for the upwards of 6.8 million Americans afflicted with generalized anxiety disorder, experiencing success can just make them feel like their waiting for the bad news to arrive.
These individuals are “prone to catastrophizing or always worrying about what potentially negative thing is around the corner,” therapist Saba Lurie explains. “They have a hard time trusting when things go well and tend to expect the other shoe to drop sooner rather than later.” In psychology, the closest term that describes this sentiment is “cherophobia,” or the fear or aversion to being happy.
Although this is a result of anxiety, it’s similarly a consequence of low self-worth. “They also often worry that they’re not deserving of any good things that might come into their lives and that by welcoming such occurrences, they’re behaving selfishly,” Lurie continues.
Similar to feeling weak or unlovable, these negative beliefs influence our thoughts and behaviors over time, frequently in ways we don’t realize. “For some people with negative beliefs about how things in life will go, bad times confirm their expectations,” psychologist Paul Greene explains. “Good times understandably make them anxious because they defy their negative expectations.”
In other words, it’s not that positive thinking makes good things happen and negative thoughts yield the opposite. It’s that perpetually worrying about the bottom dropping out affects what we remember about our past and what we think will happen in the future. And so, if you always feel wigged out when things are going well, you may be less likely to look back on those (good) times accurately.
The good news is, it’s certainly possible to identify this pattern and push back on it. “If you tend to feel anxious when things are going well, question this expectation: Is it possible that things will continue to go well?” Greene says.
In addition to therapy, there are also free cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets online that can help you identify potentially harmful core beliefs and chart how they might impact your behavior and perception. But no matter how you decide to do the detective work, “examine the evidence for your expectation, and the evidence that contradicts it,” Greene notes. “Thinking it through in this fashion can sometimes lead you to surprising conclusions.”
When I ask Tom if there’s been any indication that something bad really is going to happen in his life, he’s stumped. Instead, the question only seems to prompt more examples of the opposite. “This is by far the best job I’ve ever had, I even got promoted within the first three months. I’m making a lot of new friends and starting to date again,” he concludes. “My only real complaint is that unsettled feeling.”