Maybe we should stop trying so hard to be happy.

Originally posted on October 2, 2016

fake-smile2

We live in a society that demands we always be happy and smiling.    “Negative” emotions are generally unacceptable, and we are told over and over again via pop psychologists and the mass media that constant happiness is not only our birthright, but our responsibility!    People are encouraged to stuff their feelings and wear a smile, no matter how they are really feeling.

Some people are more naturally given to cheerfulness than others, regardless of their circumstances.  We are all different; and those of us who aren’t naturally inclined to be upbeat and perky all the time are made to feel like we are somehow defective and our darker emotions aren’t okay.

So we seek out therapists, read self-help books, recite affirmations, pin up positive-thinking posters, and beat ourselves up if we don’t or can’t conform to the pervasive “don’t worry, be happy” ethos.

But what if not always being happy is actually saner than always being cheerful?  After all, there are a lot of things in the world to get depressed, upset, or angry about.    Acknowledging that bad things happen isn’t being negative; it’s being realistic.   For example, being afraid can sometimes save your life!

positive_thinking_cartoon

As long as you aren’t so depressed you feel like killing yourself or drowning yourself in alcohol or other substances, or can never see the bright side of anything, maybe embracing and accepting dark moods is a more authentic way to live.

Maybe if modern society acknowledged that dark emotions are a normal, non-pathological reaction to many things in life and accepted these emotions as easily as they  accept a perky smile and an “everything’s great!,” those of us who worry that we aren’t “happy enough” would actually begin to feel happier.    Maybe we need to stop trying to force ourselves into a box that doesn’t fit, and learn to embrace our painful feelings instead, and stop comparing ourselves to some ideal that we think we should be.

The world is not perfect and it never will be.  Why should we go through life, then, pretending everything’s perfect or beating ourselves up (and making ourselves more miserable) when we don’t measure up to some “happiness standard”?   It’s fake and it’s only going to make us feel like we’re defective.    Maybe we should just accept ALL our emotions as authentic and stop trying to always hide them away like something shameful.   If you’re happy, by all means, show it, but the emotional spectrum is like the color spectrum–there are many shades and hues, and a world with only one color is the most depressing kind of world I can think of, even if that one color is “happiness.”

Being truly happy isn’t a performance to impress everyone with how “positive” we are; it’s a feeling of genuine well-being brought about by accepting ourselves–ALL of ourselves–as we really are.     If you’re feeling sad or angry or upset, instead of berating yourself for it, accept your feelings as an authentic part of life.

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Eeyore wisdom.

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eeyorewisdom

Being vulnerable requires the courage of 1,000 strong men.

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The above meme pretty much explains the entirety of what this post is about and I could easily leave it at that.   But I am just itching right now to talk about this, because I feel like I just accomplished something pretty great–all because I was finally willing to take a big risk, one I normally wouldn’t take:  I let go of my fear of rejection long enough to tell someone I’ve grown to care about and like very much (as a friend) the truth about the way I felt about them, instead of skirting around my real feelings and avoiding the subject (but secretly going nuts).

I’ve always assumed (because of my internal programming) that I didn’t deserve to be liked or loved, and used to even push away people I liked through either becoming too needy and demanding (stepping over their boundaries), or too avoidant and aloof (building up too many boundaries for protection).  There was no in between for me–it was always one or the other.   I had no ability to regulate my reactions to others or defenses against them.

I also believed that I wasn’t loveable or even likeable, due to my internal programming.  My NM (narcissist mother)  taught me that I was not (though she never said she didn’t love me, I just knew because her actions and behaviors told me she did not).   I believed that if anyone ever got to know “the real me,” whatever THAT was, that they would grow to hate me.  And, because I was always sabotaging myself, sometimes I (unconsciously) made sure that would actually happen — by demanding too much, being too needy or high maintenance, or sometimes, rejecting THEM when I feared they might be getting ready to reject ME (pre-emptive rejection).    I did a lot of projecting too.  Assuming people were angry at me when actually I was the one who was angry at them.  Assuming they felt sorry for me when I actually just felt sorry for myself.  And assuming they would leave when actually it was really me who wanted to leave.   In those cases,  I could beg them to stay and be able to tell myself I did nothing wrong when they finally DID leave me.  Yes, I could be a manipulative little bitch!  (But I had no idea what I was doing).

All this borderline crap was so painful, that over time, I built a thin covert-narcissistic defense over these unstable and unpredictable  behaviors.  (By the way, my therapist finally agrees with me that this is exactly what happened).  I stopped trying to reach out to anyone; I kept to myself, became a near recluse.  I avoided people when they would approach me, or made excuses why I was too busy.  I’d tell myself I didn’t like people–only animals (who would never judge or shame me and would always appreciate me).   I’d tell myself I was too good for other people anyway so I didn’t have to feel that shame of feeling left out of things (which I’d really set myself up for by sabotaging any incipient friendships when they seemed to be getting too close).

Even online, where I generally feel safer connecting with people and making friends, I’d still hold other people at arm’s length and let them tell me a lot more about themselves than I’d ever tell them (except in my blog posts).   I still felt like if I revealed too much, even online, I’d be dismissed as the “weak loser” my inner judge (really my mother’s nagging voice) always told me I was.   I cared about the friends I met online and could allow myself a little more emotional vulnerability (and could allow myself to empathize with them) than I could with others in real life, but still stopped myself at a point just short of a true emotional connection.  Eventually most of these friends moved on to more fertile waters, where there’d be more emotional give and take.

A few months ago, I met a new friend, one who I felt I could very much relate to in many ways, although some circumstances are different.   We had similar childhoods and reacted to our cold, abusive, more outgoing and garrulous  mothers  in similar ways.  Neither of us dared outshine our sparkling, charming, narcissistic mothers so we became shadows of what we could have been, never taking risks, never reaching out in healthy, authentic ways.   We walled ourselves off from others to avoid further rejection.   We are both broken people,  in therapy for early childhood trauma, but we are also both beginning to heal as we learn to navigate the many strange new feelings that are now finally becoming accessible to us.   We are not at the same stage of our journeys, but we have met at a kind of crossroads where both our journeys have met.    I believe this woman is a teacher to me, who came at a time when it was needed.   I may be a teacher to her as well, though I don’t want to assume that.

Although I value and care about all my online friends, I felt a kind of special kinship with this particular woman.  I had a strong feeling she had something very important to teach me that no one else could.  We began a tentative friendship, sometimes talking about the “deep stuff,” but mostly skirting around the real issues out of fear of revealing too much or making ourselves too vulnerable.     Over time, my affection and caring for this woman deepened (not romantic feelings, just a desire for deeper and more meaningful friendship) but I began to worry that if I told her how I really felt, that I would be rejected.  Again, that was me projecting my own insecurity onto her.   But on the other hand, this person is shy and avoidant, and it seemed logical that I might easily scare her away if I revealed too much, just as I can be so easily scared by too much emotional intensity from others.

And yet I long for emotional intensity, in spite of my fear of it.    I know that you can’t feel truly alive until you can be vulnerable and open your heart to another person, even though there’s a risk of being hurt.   But I’m lonely and isolated and tired of living behind walls of my own making.

I talked to my therapist about this at length.  I told him I wanted to reach out to this friend and tell her my feelings, even though I was scared to death.    He encouraged me to do so, saying it would be good practice for me and that even if I was rejected, it would still be a big step for me just for having tried.   He asked me to think about whether I was ready.    I did, and realized I was.

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This morning I finally did it.  I was a nervous wreck, imagining the worst and trying to brace myself for her inevitable escape!  I never trusted myself to know when I’d breached someone else’s boundaries because I never learned how to keep good boundaries or know how to navigate those of others.   I was taking a huge chance!

But I’ve had practice now, and in therapy have learned a lot about being able to tell without asking when it’s okay to remove boundaries or when it’s best to step away or build reinforcements.   So my friend and I finally talked on Facebook. We talked for over an hour.   I told her how protective and maternal I felt toward her, so much so that the thought of anyone hurting this incredibly strong but vulnerable woman (who is younger than me) makes me feel so enraged I would want to beat them to a pulp (and I’m not a violent type of person at all).  Maybe I have a “rescuer complex,” I don’t know, but why analyze it?    Once I started talking, things got easier.   I spilled out my need to explore my own vulnerability with her and start to navigate these “dangerous” waters of meaningful emotional connection and real friendship.

It turned out that she was grateful  that I brought my feelings up, because she had been worrying she might have told me too much before (she hadn’t).  But after my admission, she realized I was someone she could trust and she could feel safe opening up even more.    We both got pretty emotional, and if we were physically in front of each other, this would have been the moment we embraced and the swelling movie-music would have started up.

A few minutes later she sent me a heartbreaking post (in PDF) she had written a few days before about her cold, narcissistic mother and how helpless she had always felt in front of her.  It was so raw and  vulnerable and beautifully written (and I could relate to it so much) that it brought me to tears.  My friend said it also had made her feel so vulnerable and triggered after she wrote it that she decided to take her whole blog down (a blog which she had never made public).    I think that at some point she will probably want to share that post with the world, because I think it would help so many people and it touched me so much.   But I understand if she’s not ready for that yet.  It’s a big step, one that might be too overwhelming for her at the moment.   I’m just so grateful and moved that she trusted me enough to share it with me.

I know I need to respect her boundaries and not be too pushy about that or anything else.    I’ve realized that learning to connect with another person, and learning when boundaries should be removed or stay in place, is like an intricate dance — knowing when it’s your turn, when it’s the other person’s turn, being careful to not to step on the toes of the other, but still remain courageous enough to reveal your heart when it feels right and sometimes learn to let go and let your partner spin you around.   And also, always be willing to risk the possibility you may fall and get hurt.

Relationships are kept in balance and become healthy through empathic understanding of and respect for each other’s need for either more space or deeper connection, and this type of empathy is, fortunately, something we both possess, but just were never trained to use — and never had the confidence to try.

I feel like I made progress today, and I can’t wait to tell my therapist.  I know he will be proud of me, but mostly I’m proud of myself for taking a risk and finding that instead of the rejection I’d so feared,  that I helped someone else open their heart to me even more.   As my friend said to me later, we are helping each other learn, and this is a valuable and wonderful experience for both of us which can help us grow even more, as long as we’re both mindful about it.   Everyone you meet in life has the potential to become a teacher, and my friend has taught me today that vulnerability is the greatest kind of strength and the only thing that can lead us out of the darkness.

Listening to Shame — Brene Brown

I have found Brene Brown’s videos incredibly helpful.  Anyone who has struggled with trauma, shame, and fear of vulnerability would do well to watch her videos.    I’ve already posted “The Power of Vulnerability,” and have watched it dozens of times.   Here’s another one I just watched called “Listening to Shame.”   Brene is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever seen. Follow her on Youtube!

Maybe we should stop trying so hard to be happy.

fake-smile2

We live in a society that demands we always be happy and smiling.    “Negative” emotions are generally unacceptable, and we are told over and over again via pop psychologists and the mass media that constant happiness is not only our birthright, but our responsibility!    People are encouraged to stuff their feelings and wear a smile, no matter how they are really feeling.

Some people are more naturally given to cheerfulness than others, regardless of their circumstances.  We are all different; and those of us who aren’t naturally inclined to be upbeat and perky all the time are made to feel like we are somehow defective and our darker emotions aren’t okay.

So we seek out therapists, read self-help books, recite affirmations, pin up positive-thinking posters, and beat ourselves up if we don’t or can’t conform to the pervasive “don’t worry, be happy” ethos.

But what if not always being happy is actually saner than always being cheerful?  After all, there are a lot of things in the world to get depressed, upset, or angry about.    Acknowledging that bad things happen isn’t being negative; it’s being realistic.   For example, being afraid can sometimes save your life!

positive_thinking_cartoon

As long as you aren’t so depressed you feel like killing yourself or drowning yourself in alcohol or other substances, or can never see the bright side of anything, maybe embracing and accepting dark moods is a more authentic way to live.

Maybe if modern society acknowledged that dark emotions are a normal, non-pathological reaction to many things in life and accepted these emotions as easily as they  accept a perky smile and an “everything’s great!,” those of us who worry that we aren’t “happy enough” would actually begin to feel happier.    Maybe we need to stop trying to force ourselves into a box that doesn’t fit, and learn to embrace our painful feelings instead, and stop comparing ourselves to some ideal that we think we should be.

The world is not perfect and it never will be.  Why should we go through life, then, pretending everything’s perfect or beating ourselves up (and making ourselves more miserable) when we don’t measure up to some “happiness standard”?   It’s fake and it’s only going to make us feel like we’re defective.    Maybe we should just accept ALL our emotions as authentic and stop trying to always hide them away like something shameful.   If you’re happy, by all means, show it, but the emotional spectrum is like the color spectrum–there are many shades and hues, and a world with only one color is the most depressing kind of world I can think of, even if that one color is “happiness.”

Being truly happy isn’t a performance to impress everyone with how “positive” we are; it’s a feeling of genuine well-being brought about by accepting ourselves–ALL of ourselves–as we really are.     If you’re feeling sad or angry or upset, instead of berating yourself for it, accept your feelings as an authentic part of life.

Clarity (or, through a glass, darkly).

A meaningful life.

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meaningfullife

Being a ballsy blogger.

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I’ve never been a risk taker. At all. But there’s one exception–blogging. I take a lot of risks when I write and often post things that are:

1. Extremely personal and potentially embarrassing

2. Controversial and potentially incendiary

3. Unpopular opinions

3. Religious or political (though I try to avoid this because I respect all my readers, some of whose beliefs may differ very much from mine).

I’ve never regretted taking risks on this blog. Yes, some of my posts have angered some people. I had to learn to deal with that. At the end of the day, it’s my blog and my opinions and my feelings and my experiences. I’m tired of pretending to be someone I am not in real life, and I’m certainly not going to pretend to be someone I’m not when I’m blogging.  Sometimes I feel like the blogging world is the only place I can really be myself.

Popular opinions are a dime a dozen, but when you post something not so popular, you never know who you may reach who really needed to hear what you had to say. You feel good about yourself for having the courage to be authentic and candid. That tends to extend into the real world after awhile.

Being ballsy also tends to make your blog stand out, and I think that’s a big reason this blog has become somewhat popular.  Even if people don’t always agree with you, they’re always checking in to see what you’ll say next.   You don’t get popular by being a blogging wallflower.  Just make sure you really stand by what you say and be prepared to defend what you believe while still remaining respectful of those who don’t agree with you or dislike what you have to say.   If you’re just stirring the pot to get attention, people can tell.

Being a ballsy blogger has gotten so much easier over time. Outside of a few trolls and critics, none of the terrible things I imagined would happen ever did. I no longer hover over the “Publish” button for hours wringing my hands and sweating and asking myself, “should I?”  I don’t keep posts hidden for days as “Private” only to delete them later.  I hardly think about it any more. I just press that Publish button and don’t look back.  And I’ve never regretted it.

Emotions and authenticity.

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Emotions are the first language we ever speak. Their expression is a pre-verbal language that is gradually replaced with words as we grow out of infancy. All emotions are really just energy moving through the body (though I think they originate in the soul). This movement is expressed through various physical reactions as the emotion moves out of us–laughter, crying, sighs, various non-verbal sounds, wiggling or jumping up and down with joy, trembling, and various expressions of anger (of course we need to be mindful of this one). This idea of emotions as a language isn’t my own; it’s been suggested by others, but I think I would have come to that conclusion on my own sooner or later.

Babies and animals (especially higher level mammals like dogs or monkeys) don’t have words, but they are very good at communicating their feelings and needs. In fact, they are better at this than adult humans, because there is no pretense and no words to mask or obliterate visceral emotion. With a baby or an animal, what you see is what you get.

We don’t begin to have problems with this until adolescence or sometimes later childhood, when spoken language has become fluent. You don’t see a toddler or a dog presenting a false self or hiding their real feelings. Unless abused early on, there is no shame in their emotional expression. An animal or an infant will not lie to you, manipulate you, or tell you they are happy when they’re anything but. That’s because they don’t have the language behind which it becomes possible to hide.

Babies cry to communicate. We may not like it when they do, but it’s the most important way they communicate. It’s really just a pre-verbal language that helps them get their needs met. Of course they could be crying because they’re uncomfortable or in pain, but they also cry when they need nurturing and just need to feel attached to Mom. Most of us are naturally drawn to comfort a crying baby, but really, they are just telling us about their physical and emotional needs that in a few years might be expressed by, “I’m hungry” or “I’m angry” or “I need a hug” or “I feel lonely.” It’s not always “bad” when a baby cries, although it seems so to us, and we want them to stop. Babies also use their whole bodies when they cry. As the emotion moves through them, their entire body responds. They kick their legs, punch the air, and howl. When an adult expresses strong emotion, such as crying (and sometimes laughing), they tend to hold themselves back to some extent, only letting part or none of their body respond to the emotion. Babies also wiggle when they’re happy. Do you know of any adult who wiggles or jumps up and down with joy? It’s something we outgrow as adult, but is that really necessary? What’s really wrong with wiggling or running around the room with happiness or sobbing with abandon?

When a dog sees its owner, it will bark excitedly and jump up and down with joy. If it has misbehaved, it will show its guilt (and I’m convinced that dogs DO feel guilt and shame). If it’s sad or afraid, it whimpers and its whole body trembles. It doesn’t need to say “I’m sad” or “I’m happy” or “I feel ashamed.” Its body and face says it better than any words ever could. That’s why I think people relate to dogs so well. Dogs represent our own emotional natures, that to a greater or lesser extent, almost all of us keep behind wraps most of the time.

I’ll never forget the time I was helping a friend pet-sit. The owners had a dog and a cat, and while we were there, the owners came home. When the dog heard the key in the lock, he began to bark excitedly and jump wildly at the door, intermittently spinning around in circles, wagging his tail crazily and practically tripping over his own oversized feet in his excitement. When the owners came in, he practically knocked them to the floor, licking both their faces happily. Even the cat went nuts with happiness, rolling around ecstatically on the floor in front of them. He also ran up to the owners, purring loudly and meowing. Do you know any people over the age of 6 or 7 who act like these animals did during a reunion?

Of course we don’t want to become babies or pet dogs and cats, but they have a lot to teach us about authenticity and the courage to be emotionally vulnerable.

I’m in no way trying to imply that language isn’t a good thing. We evolved it for a reason. Language makes it possible for us to use more of our minds and make new discoveries. It’s the reason we can write a symphony, a novel, or make new scientific discoveries. Good language skills are an indicator of high intellectual ability. Words can also be great tools for genuine emotional expression. But when we grow up and start to use language completely in place of bodily emotional reactions to communicate, we throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think schools are responsible for a lot of this. Schools–like work environments–discourage the honest expression of emotions. We begin to hide our true feelings.

Of course, bad parenting that fails to mirror a child’s true feelings does the same thing and is even more damaging because it happens when the child is still pre-verbal.  A child whose emotional needs have not been met and who isn’t mirrored when very young becomes ashamed of their emotions and tries to hide their vulnerability.  In some cases the damage is so great the person develops complex PTSD or a personality disorder.  We need to find ways to be emotionally honest without reverting to a preverbal, infantile state. I think we’d also be not only more emotionally healthy, but also more physically healthy if there weren’t so much shame attached to emotional expression.  Numerous studies have shown that chronic illness later in life is linked to repressed emotions.  I think what happens is when they’re not allowed to move through the body naturally, they get trapped in the body and can make you sick.

To help us get there, I recommend watching anything by Brene Brown, an author and public speaker who thinks that vulnerability and authenticity are things we modern humans need a lot more of. Her most popular video is “The Power of Vulnerability.” Many people have said it has completely turned their lives around.

On people pleasing.

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I think most of us who were exposed to narcissistic abuse for any length of time learn to become people pleasers, always deferring to our “betters” (the narcissists) and becoming human doormats. People pleasing is known by many terms, but “codependent” in particular comes to mind. It’s an extremely unhealthy way to live.

All my life I’ve been a people pleaser. ‘ve always been terrified of saying “no.” I’ve always gone along with things I didn’t like just to keep the peace. The problem with being a people pleaser is that it tends to attract further abuse (they know we’re pushovers so they’ll up the ante); and potential abusers can “smell us out.” People pleasing also never really pleases anyone. Someone is always going to be displeased, even if it’s only ourselves. Chances are, the person you’re trying so hard to win the approval of is going to find something wrong with what you’re doing for them anyway, especially if they’re narcissists.

People who try too hard to please everyone–like politicians who can’t commit fully to either liberal or conservative stances because they’re too afraid of the disapproval of either side, wind up alienating everyone. It comes off as insincere–and it is. You just know they’re hiding something.

people-pleaser

I remember the first time I realized how fake I was being while engaged in people-pleasing. I was about 9 or 10. We were visiting some relatives in another state and my uncle had a collection of decoy ducks he was very proud of. I could have cared less, but because I’d been raised to always be polite, I faked intense interest in his hobby. In fact, my “act” was so extreme he really thought I was interested and kept talking to me about his ducks even though I wanted to scream at him to shut up already. It’s fine to be polite and civil, but I was so afraid he would “discover” my boredom with his hobby that I went above and beyond-and felt absolutely disgusted with myself later. Of course that didn’t stop the people pleasing. No one living in constant terror and shame the way I did would be able to stop.

Freedom from the “people pleasing” game where you always wind up losing doesn’t mean not helping others or being cold and selfish. People pleasing is very disordered and even narcissistic in itself–because you’re trying to please others to get approval or love, not because you really care about their feelings or well-being. You don’t need empathy to be a people-pleaser, just a weak and beaten down ego that makes you grovel like a dog for a treat. People pleasing is actually a central feature of several personality disorders–BPD, Avoidant PD, Dependent PD, and Covert Narcissism.

Unlike people pleasing, true caring and altruistic feelings for others are not about pleasing people–they’re random acts of kindness that come from an authentic and confident person’s heart, and nothing about it is fake. I’m working toward this too. Right now I’m still caught up in the fear of displeasing anyone and the ramifications that has for me. It’s very self-centered.

In summary, people pleasing is about lies–it’s all about trying to boost a shaky self esteem and it’s about as fake and inauthentic as you can get.