Taking responsibility for our own happiness.
Too often we behave as if we are powerless to change the circumstances of our lives. We are in a cage but we don't notice that the door is unlocked.
Recently a friend complained to me about a group that he joined. The environment was toxic and he felt constantly invalidated. He asked me for my advice about how to handle the situation. Here's what I said:
Make it how you want it.
It never occurred to him that he could simply leave the group and join another one that worked better for him. When I stated the obvious he said "Wait, what? You can do that?" Yes, of course, you can.
I see this over and over again. We cede our choices and our agency.
I knew a woman who wistfully related that she would love to travel but her husband wouldn't let her. What? He may not prefer it but I'm pretty sure he doesn't control where she goes. The strange thing is that she simply accepted it.
I have seen this in myself. My partner was more social than I was and wanted to go out almost every night. I started to feel more and more resentful about not getting enough downtime until I realized that I could make it how I want it. All I had to do was let him know how many nights a week I was available. Done.
Why do we do this?
To avoid uncomfortable conversations
We fear someone might not be happy with us. My friend did not want to have to tell the members of the group why he was leaving. I didn't want to disappoint my partner. The woman who wanted to travel did not want to have to tell her husband that she was going to travel.
Sometimes it's messages from our childhood.
- Don't get too big for your britches.
- The nail that sticks out gets hammered.
- What goes up must come down.
- Don't be so selfish.
We have unconsciously adopted someone else's fears. Now we get to decide. Are these in our best interest?
To avoid facing our fears
In the case of the woman who said she wanted to travel, I suspect that she had some fears about traveling and her husband provided her with an easy out. She could stay comfortable instead of having a vibrant life.
How can you tell if this is a situation where you can Make it how you want it?
It usually starts with complaining about someone restricting or impinging on us in some way. Our thinking is "If only the other person were different I could have what I want".
What if you were just one difficult conversation (with someone else or even with yourself) away from making it how you want it?
What if you could face your fears, make a bold move, and stop using other people as an excuse for not having the life you want?
It can be very threatening to take radical responsibility for our own happiness. By staying a victim to other people and to the circumstances of our life we get the sympathy of others and don't have to take any responsibility for our situation.
I'm not going to tell you it's going to be easy because it isn't. There are reasons why you haven't already done it. That's why it's important to set yourself up for success. Here are some things that helped me:
- Journal. Identify what you want. Acknowledge your fears. Own what you want. Make a plan. Take small steps each week.
- Ask a like-minded friend to be your accountability buddy: someone who cares enough about you to not let you off the hook.
- Work with a therapist to overcome your fears.
- Be kind to yourself in the process.
The rewards of facing your fears and owning your happiness are boundless.
Back in 2018, I was on my own. Two things I really love are travel and eating out. My story was "I can't travel or eat at a fine dining restaurant because I'm alone." I felt sad, frustrated, and stuck. My therapist wasn't having any of it. I almost regretted telling her because she challenged me to make it how I want it.
I love Rome and I had been studying Italian so I decided to take myself to Rome for a month to study Italian and go to a cooking school. I rented an adorable apartment for a month. It was in the historic center of Rome and a four-minute walk from my language school. In the mornings I was studying Italian at the language school and in the afternoons I took professional-level cooking classes and went to all the museums and sites I had on my meticulously planned schedule. On the weekends I took day trips to places like ancient Ostia and the Villa d'Este. I went to a wine tasting at Rimessa Roscioli and took a private tour of the Vatican art collection. To cap it all off, I took myself to dinner at a Michelin-star restaurant.
Of course, there were some uncomfortable times like when I got stuck in a downpour in Prati and had to walk home in soaked tennis shoes, but there was nothing I couldn't handle. I never for a minute regretted my decision.
There were lots of upsides too. Because I was on my own, I made friends wherever I went. In fact, I developed a friendship with the people who own the cooking school, and this October when I was back in Rome, I spent a weekend with them at their country house outside of Rome.
My life was never the same after that experience.
People saw me differently. I saw myself differently. My understanding of what my life could be expanded dramatically. Once you walk out of the cage, you're never going back in again.
We always have two choices. We can find our highest, most mature self and take responsibility for ourselves or we can stay small.
We are so much more powerful than we imagine.
If you're ready to make a bold move toward having what you really want here's what I suggest:
Find a quiet time, make a cup of tea, light a candle, and explore the following in your journal:
- The story I tell about why I can't have what I want. Start with "I can't have....because....."
- What would my life be like if I did have that thing? Who would I be? How would I feel?
- Why do I prevent myself from having what I want? For example, not having to face a fear or not wanting to outshine a family member. "I am giving up on what I want because..."
- I own my choice. Write "I commit to owning my choice to give up on what I want" or "I commit to owning my choice to have what I want. I am willing to do what it takes to have it."
Once you have some clarity it's time to make a plan and find someone who can support you, either a like-minded friend, a coach, or a therapist.
The final step is noticing how it feels to own your happiness. It was pretty thrilling for me and I hope it will be for you too.
Let me know how it goes in the comments.