I have a sense that it's our choice how much happiness we allow in. I have had a love/hate relationship with happiness all my life. It has felt more comfortable to be mired in interpersonal drama, in relationships with dysfunctional or just incompatible people, to be struggling financially, to be focused on what is not right most of the time. That's what is familiar. A sense of feeling safe with lack of safety.
To happiness I respond as if it is a threat, so with anxiety, unless it is experienced within the familiar confines of what I have deemed to be 'safe'. The safe forms for me are walks in the woods, taking photos of flowers, staring blissfully at a sunset, enjoying the music I so love. Levels of almost uncontainable bliss are experienced quite often. It also makes me happy to share these things with a close friend. These simple and nearly always available pleasures mean that no matter how my moods may temporarily swing to and fro, I can find joy easily again and elevate out of self preoccupation into nature. So that is all great, and I am thankful for this permanent salve. I am aware however that I observe levels of happiness in others that I don't know about. The harmonious loving relationship, the stable finances and lovely permanent home….
I have gone back to basics in an attempt to understand the self deprivation. Then I saw the self contempt in the mix. The 'not good enough' belief. So gradually I have been allowing a simple happiness of acceptance of being me. There are even times now when I really feel a sense of celebration of myself. It's similar to what I feel when I take the space and time to really see and celebrate the uniqueness of another, and so in a way it's not actually even personal, not in a narcissistic sense.
It's great being me I sometimes realise! And that includes every character defect too. The realisation is what utterly uniquely fabulous being we all are. "If we really saw people, every person we meet would be the love of our lives" Byron Katie said, and I really get that. I can be in love with everyone I meet, the postman, the taxi driver, my mum, my sister…my neighbour….I marvel at them and myself and feel a thrill of awe and wonder at times. My biological evolutionary programming does not allow me to live in such an undefended state normally though, and appraising how much threat another poses is part of looking after myself in a healthy way….but there is a hint that perhaps we can go beyond feeling threatened by others. I am not there.
Coming from parents in an unhappy marriage I don't know how to do those loving close reliable intimate kinds of romantic relationships. It's so alien to me. I am not even sexually attracted to healthy functional successful men. But present an attractive slightly broken and lost man and I am instantly interested. Combine that with a strong 'helper' personality trait and idealism you can imagine….One of the downsides to being an idealist personality type is that you see the potential in others, even if it's a mile from actuated and will require years of therapy for that person. Realists don't have this issue, they see things as they are clearly, end of.
There are levels of happiness and joy in relationships I won't allow in because they are unfamiliar to me and so feel dangerous. It's the same for levels of personal happiness levels. I seem more comfortable focusing on problems. That is partly our negativity bias we hear so much about from the evolutionary psychologists. But it's also partly growing up in a dangerous household with an unpredictably emotionally and physically violent mother. I learned to be on alert all the time, certainly not to relax back in a sense of safety. There was much love from her too, but it could quickly change and so wasn't trustworthy. Relaxing back into love and wellbeing and feeling safe was not taught to me, and that is where joy arises, when we feel safe. In a stable environment. We can create those conditions for ourselves though even if we weren't taught it.
So what can I do to coax myself out of these now self imposed limitations? It has been my life's work. Here are a couple of the actions I took that I have done that have let more happiness in.
– dare to imagine more, and different from expectations given to us by others. I used to write lists and descriptions of my ideal life. What kind of partner, exactly my ideal house, car and job if I gave myself full permission to 'have it all' . I examined the washes of feelings that came up and embraced them, feeling arose of unworthiness, of self judgement and criticism, and that was valuable and they are all allowed. The effect of this was a gradual expansion of my parameters.
– as my life becomes more stable, successful and calmer and I start to feel safer, I watch out for unconscious tendencies to sabotage harmony, the pull back to familiar dangerous waters, the excitement of living on the edge, the gambling risk taker.
– self compassion has been the single most life changing addition to my life. It is a tool that I now use when I remember to, whenever I experience suffering. I use self compassion to soothe myself, and thereby experience greater emotional regulation. It has given me more courage to be honest with myself as the pain of doing this isn't so scary, self compassion is available to tend to the wounds and the pains. So if I'm going to meet a client and performance anxiety arises I can give myself a literal or metaphorical comforting hug, and say 'it will be alright, and even if it doesn't go well, that is also alright'.
– appreciation and gratitude when I remember to activate them, are immediate comforters. Things aren't so bad when I write a list of all that is going well. Counting ones blessings is a great way to feel more balanced, and it nudges out that tendency to complain.
– learning mindfulness has taught me to slow right down, to remember my breathing, to see my passing thoughts and witness that feelings come and go. There is no need to panic. So every day I work at this, a joyful work it is as I am helping myself and making life better. Many little exercises throughout the day, short moments of being present to what I am experiencing. So I set up a chair in the pool in the morning and I say over and over as I swim towards it, 'rest with everything'. Rest with this feeling of anxiety, rest with that worrisome thought, rest with that anger, with this joy, with this appreciation, rest with it all….and it moves on.
– for nurturing a sense of self knowledge and developing a well rounded self acceptance, writing a list of personal defects and positive qualities is a great exercise. In that order. Quite important to end with the positive qualities rather than defects so that we don't come away with a sense of even greater inadequacy! As my self compassion has grown I am no longer quite as daunted by the facing of my faults, and can unflinchingly face them without my self esteem being bruised. The self esteem is more robust now and in facing my faults I'm more understanding towards others, more compassionate and able to see how such qualities arose, often no fault of our own. There are mostly simple adaptations that took place in response to circumstances in life outwith their control.
– tempering generosity. I used to love giving to and helping everyone I met. I have noticed that unexamined giving to others does not work, for them mostly, and can be a waste of resources for me. If I give to others beyond their capacity to receive, they may reject the gift and me. We cannot receive more than we feel we deserve at any time. So now when I consider giving, I feel into how appropriate it is. Not do I feel they deserve it, but do they. Am I trying to buy the affection or loyalty of another with being over generous? Why do I feel obliged to pour out resources like this? Am I doing compulsive giving to buy love/approval/acceptance? Good questions I've had to answer.
– spending time around those who allow happiness in areas I have not allowed in for myself. This has been very valuable, to observe how others are with it. It can reassure the scared part of myself, when I see others safe and doing well in these areas. So spending time with friends with happy functional marriages, or confident people who can make public speeches, or being around and getting to know my wealthy clients and watching how they are with it. Learning by observation and maybe a little imitation….
Will continue this…