This may seem like an odd subject, but it’s truly something I had to work on this past year. I was not accustomed to being happy. And not just any kind of happiness, but the happiness that comes from fulfilment from within. I didn’t know that was a thing.
As you know, I’ve battled several mental illnesses over the years, and it’s felt exactly like that. Like there was a war that I had no say in going on inside my mind and body for years. When I looked at happy people, I assumed they were like me. Just smiling to hide the immense pain they felt on a nearly 24-hour constant loop. Even sleeping bore no solace for me. I was haunted by terrible dreams, sleep paralysis, and night terrors almost nightly. Imagine my surprise when I realized that there are people out there, that are happy on their own with or without disabilities and trauma. They’re just living each day and loving themselves.
The one-word question that followed was, of course, “How?”
Fake it ’til you make it
One thing I heard a lot in therapy was, “Fake it ’til you make it!”
So I smiled and smiled, and laughed and laughed. If you’ve hung out with me, you know I have a well-developed sense of humor and know my way around a joke or two. If you hang out with my two brothers, you’ll also see this trait. Guess why? It’s a defense mechanism from childhood. I faked it ’til I “made it” every day, and felt nothing but pain inside.
The logic was that if you act happy, eventually you would become happy. That little gem made me cock my head to the side and doubt every therapist I’ve come into contact with as soon as it left their lips. That could be one of the reasons why I never made any real progress in any kind of therapy, outside of my final summer in Guam and this year.
What is happiness for me at this moment in time? It’s the knowledge that my experiences are helping others and making a difference in their lives. It’s seeing and feeling the Universe deliver on the things I ask for because I know that I deserve them now. It’s having self-confidence and recognizing my own strength finally, and realizing that I can do anything. It’s being able to follow through on things that I want to do for myself. It’s being able to trust my judgment and move forward without second-guessing myself negatively like, “I don’t know if I can do that.”
Now my second guesses sound more like, “Ooo, what else can I do or learn about this?”
Happiness is seeing the amount of progress I’ve made after feeling like I was drowning for so long. I feel like I’m a Michael Phelps-shark hybrid. I have the self-confidence of a champion and all the tools evolution has given me to be an apex predator. This metaphorical water is now my element instead of a place that I have to hold on for dear life. Yes, it’s nerdy, but that’s me. What I’m trying to say is that I feel capable and ready.
How did I learn to trust that happiness?
I learned to trust it in several ways. First, I had to trust my psychiatrist and the many programs that I was in throughout the year. I had to trust that they were trying to help me. Every time I’ve been hospitalized, I’ve thought, “I’m too damaged for help. This isn’t going to work.”
I relied on my smile and acting carefree to get released far too often. So, these next few times, I really had to argue with that mindset. I had to ask, “What if it does work this time?” And this time, I had to show my pain. When I did, it wasn’t pretty. I wouldn’t shower, my hair would be a birds nest, and I walked so slowly. I barely acknowledged anyone or smiled, which is like hell freezing over. I ugly cried, isolated, and made phone calls that I probably shouldn’t have to people that harmed me. But it took going through this and trusting in the help of professionals to reach happiness.
Second, I had to trust myself. I have been at odds with myself since a very young age, probably about three or four years old. I bickered with and insulted myself, calling myself ugly and stupid and worthless. My inner-critic was my outer-critic, too. I called myself a worthless piece of shit almost every minute. I was just echoing things that were said to me. Even if I did something good, like got an A. First, it would be criticism from my parents that the score wasn’t higher, then it was me turned on myself saying, “You suck. You should’ve done better. They don’t want you, you’re such a loser. You’re a mistake. They don’t love you.”
Now, do you see one of the reasons why I believed love was conditional and transactional? Yeah, that’s rough for a child to learn and difficult to unlearn as an adult. I had to trust myself and be kind to myself. I imagined a little light or a little seed. It would get brighter or pop out a little leaf and roots every time I was kind to myself or second-guessed myself in a nice way. It would dim or shrivel if I fell back into negative self-talk. That small visual made such a difference. Right now I’m a lighthouse and have a Sequoia in my heart. That’s a beautiful place to be from a tiny flame and a small seed.
Third, I had to begin to trust others again. Not only did that traumatic breakup make me lose trust in people, but I also stopped trusting after a bad living situation, and a falling out with a group of friends before leaving for Guam. I closed myself off to new people and kept them at arms’ length unless I was forced to spend time around them. I was scared of getting hurt and used again. I enjoyed being alone at the time because I told myself that I was better off without having to trust others. But feeling trust in others and yourself is a big part of happiness. It’s a human connection. We need it whether we want to or not. Firm boundaries and knowing yourself are key here.
And finally, I had to understand that I was not alone in my pain. For trauma survivors, wrapping your head around the idea that someone out there has gone through equal to or more than you, but is now living a happy and productive life is damn near impossible. Trauma is isolating. It feels like no one understands and like if you were to try to explain it to someone, they’d cut ties with you because what you went through was so horrible. And don’t forget that trauma affects everyone differently. There’s often the anecdote of a small dog and a big dog walking through a mud puddle. The small dog is nearly covered, while the big dog only has mud up to his knees (dogs have knees, right?). The moral of the story is that everyone goes through the same thing differently. You might not even know that a friend of yours has experienced something similar to you because trauma creates such a visceral response in the body. This is why support groups and group therapy help people immensely.
The difference in happiness that lies in others and happiness that comes from within is almost tangible. The same way that I currently feel like I have a lighthouse inside because my happiness is self-made was the same way that I felt like a flickering match when I depended on others.
Want to find inner-happiness? Get to know yourself. Take baby steps. Recognize your mistakes, but find a way to NOT beat yourself up for them. Get a self-help book or two. Heck, I’ll shamelessly plug my self-love journal, too. Spend some time with yourself and write what you envision a happy life to be like. Then take the steps to achieve it. And be flexible with it! Your happy today could be just “eh” tomorrow.
30-Day Self-Love Journal (Spiral Notebook)
In this journal, you will have each prompt to work on to improve your most important relationship!
Spiral notebooks are available now!
What makes you feel like you light up inside? And happy Thanksgiving! If you didn’t see my Tuesday email, it’s okay! Another one is coming out at midnight on Black Friday!)