Do you believe you should be feeling happy?
When I was in my twenties, I was fairly lost and confused. I had grown up with that feeling that everyone else knew things that I didn’t and had it all together. At twenty-four I quit drinking and my life changed, dramatically. But this is not an article about drinking or sobriety. For the next few years, I began to mature and learn about myself and the world I lived in. I found a career I loved. I had friends. I discovered who I actually was and that most people, especially those in their twenties, do not have their shit together so completely. I did not miss out on any manual that was passed out in homeroom on the day I was late.
A therapist once said to me, “Life is much more ambiguous than you realize.” I had been bemoaning the fact that I never had a plan for life, that my messed up parents had not taught me anything important and that I was simply tossing about on the sea of life. She asked me what I meant by a plan. I described people I had known in college who had always known they would go to college, mom and dad paid for it, knew what they would major in and what job they wanted after, and got the car for graduation and the job, and went off happily living life. Meanwhile, college was never mentioned in my family. My mother wanted me to marry a doctor or engineer. My father just wanted me to “get a job!” This was all they knew about life. I’m guessing this was all they knew about how to feel good about themselves and their lives. The truth was they were miserable. Divorced, hateful, bitter, frightened people.
Abe Lincoln said that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Many self-help authors and inspirational speakers and coaches talk about the importance of a positive attitude. Happiness is a skill. When you feel happy, review what lead to that moment and do that again. I like to add that when you most need to keep a positive attitude is when it is most difficult to do so. Some days, we just don’t feel good. Some years, like 2020, are terrible. Bad things happen and we feel, well…bad.
The incredible unknowns of life in a pandemic are enough to create fear, anxiety, anger, etc. This is in addition to the normal angst of ordinary life. Many people have lost their jobs or the routines of working on site. Many people have lost loved ones. We don’t know when it will end. We have very little control over our lives and where we can go and what we can do on a day to day basis. Are we supposed to feel ok? It reminds me a lot of how I felt in my early twenties. It’s ok to feel bad, maybe you’re not supposed to have all your ducks in a row right now. There is an expression in AA when someone is newly sober and having a difficult time: “You are right where you are supposed to be.” If you can’t even find your ducks to line them up then that is where you are. That is where you have to start. Duck hunting. If you are too sad about losing your ducks then feel sad. That is where you are. That is where you begin.
Perhaps keeping a positive attitude and facing and expressing real feelings are not mutually exclusive. It can be eminently exhausting to walk around always smiling and cheerful and ignore the hurricane in your gut. It’s ok to fall apart. It’s a good idea to try to do this with the knowledge that you will not always feel this way. A former mentor of mine used to tell me, “go ahead and have a tantrum: lay on the floor, stomp your feet, scream, cry … whatever you need to do. But set a timer. After ten minutes, you are done. Pick yourself up and move on.”
There are times in life when we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t know how far we might have to go. We don’t even know how to take the next step. Stop ‘should-ing’ on yourself: You should be glad you have a job. You should get over your loss. You should be grateful you are healthy, etc. Says who? Maybe you ‘should’ be feeling like crap because Christmas sucked this year, unemployment has run out, you hate the part-time job you got, you miss your children, you miss your mom, your sick of wearing a mask, and sick of feeling fear every time someone sneezes. I feel sorry for myself sometimes because I don’t have the beach house I’ve wanted for the last ten years. Go ahead, judge me. Sometimes that’s just where I am. I feel defeated and like what’s left of my life is so short I will never accomplish anything more. I will never be able to retire. I won’t get what I want, but I ‘should’ just be grateful for what I have.
Let’s be real. It’s been a terrible year with a lot of terrible things that happened. We have hope that many things will begin to get better soon. Meanwhile, we are still where we are. Sometimes it’s good enough just to breathe and not hurt anyone.