I've come to a gut-level realization at age 41 that I wish had come sooner. It's this: Acting to please myself is a good thing. For me and for others.
most of my life, I've been fearful of asking for what I really want.
Especially if it temporarily displeases someone else. Hell, sometimes I
really haven't known what I really want. I've been ensnared in various
webs of obligation--familial, cultural, occupational. What may have
started as an external pressure quickly became self-imposed. And I've
told myself that if I suffer and deny myself, I will be a good and
selfless person. Great cosmic rewards will ensue.
I can't tell you how many choices I've made in life that were no fun
at all. I've pursued hobbies, religions, and jobs that brought me no
joy; changed my appearance drastically to meet various standards; played
the martyr mom with no time to herself; gotten locked into old, tired
family dynamics. The guiding principle was, "Forget about who you are--this is who you should be." My surface-level desire was to gain approval
and avoid criticism; this became an unceasing force-field that blocked
my intuition. If you had asked me at any given point, "Are you doing
what pleases you?" I would have said, "Well, it builds character. That's
good for me, right?"
I no longer think that's a logical train of thought. If it were, I
would not have suffered with such intense depression and anxiety. Hell,
the depression and anxiety became part of the whole misguided belief
system--See? I'm suffering! I'm doing it right!
All of this is not to say that goals don't come with sacrifices. But
there is a huge difference between moving toward a personally
meaningful goal, accepting short-term discomforts along the way, and
making self-denial a goal unto itself. The latter carries with it a
puritanical assumption that happiness is wrong.
Here's a great example of what I mean. I have a child with
developmental disabilities, who needs a lot of time and attention. It
matters greatly that I give her that time and attention in a purposeful
way, with the goal of helping her rise to various challenges so she can
gain security and self-efficacy. Obviously, that helps me, too--a
calmer kid means a happier home life, and more time for me to take a
bath and read a book. I may have to weather several epic tantrums before
I can take that bath, but knowing I am pursuing my own happiness as
well as hers is immensely comforting.
By contrast, I've had periods with my daughter in which I let myself
get completely overtaken and exhausted. I felt unable to say "no" to
her tantrums and demands, burdened by her needs, when the real burden
was the misshapen gratification I got from playing Atlas. At those
times, she's sure gotten a lot of my time and attention, but in the form
of coddling, lecturing, and yelling. I've done things that perpetuated
her anxiety and helplessness, while appearing on the surface to be a
great sacrifice. Who really benefited? She missed opportunities for
growth, and I missed my bath.
I am not surprised, nor do I blame myself, that it took me so long
to find the contentment that should have been my birthright. I was a
Type B, through-and-through, stuck in a family of origin with many
outspoken Type A's. Appearances, education, credentials--I don't
believe it's inherently wrong to value these things, but it is against
my nature to do so. I'm really happiest with a quiet and externally
unremarkable life; while I can be very ambitious and concerned with
excellence, I must always take pains to protect my downtime. The rat
race has eaten me alive at several points. And--much as this would have
horrified my younger self-- I am perfectly content with no makeup, old
clothes, and those "extra" 10 pounds. I grew up thinking all of this was
shameful--that contentment, itself, was shameful.
In addition, I have had relationships with family members that have
caused me unhappiness, yet I've felt unable to ask for the changes I
want, lest I be perceived as selfish. I recently took a huge step in
changing one of these relationships. It's really a sea change, for me
and for that person. In the short term, this change does mean causing
another person's unhappiness--that's really scary. But I did it. I
realized it was selfish to continue on the way things were. All that
person was getting was my resentment, anyway.
In making this change, I was acting on a growing sense that pursuing
my happiness is not selfish. And in the process of making the change
and weathering the fallout, I came to understand this at the gut level.
Entire periods of my childhood and early adulthood, which had felt foggy
and confused, now made sense. The roadblocks in my marriage and in my
parenting became entirely surmountable. I started eating what I really
wanted, and stopped using shopping as a substitute for self-care. I'm
sorry I don't have better words for this awakening, but if you've ever
had one, you know that it rearranges your entire brain and your entire
past, present, and future.
Which isn't to say that I have drifted to a higher plane than you
poor mortals. The function of an awakening is not to wipe away all
problems, but to cast them as soluble. Solving them is still a lot of
work. I am still going to play Atlas, worry about added sugars, and feel
guilty for leaving the floor unswept. But I can always strive to be
happier, now that I understand that that's a worthy goal.
It strikes me as funny, what a bad name "happiness" has gotten in
modern times. Puritanical attitudes toward pleasure and relaxation have a
flip side--binges and indulgences that bring more guilt than joy. And
then there are the prominent figures who claim that happiness is about
irresponsibility and private gain, hence the "prosperity churches" and
visionaries who ignore fate itself. I myself confused finding happiness
with hurting others or being self-indulgent. Imagine my relief--joy is
not a finite resource! Not for me. Not for anyone. Now if you'll excuse
me, my son and I are going to watch the "Duck Song" on YouTube for like
the 4,000th time. Yay!
Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of
Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since
2005. She is a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board as well as one
of our storytellers. Click here to read more posts from Lisa.