Years ago, when I was seeking a divorce, my lawyer asked me one day in the middle of my frustration and fear regarding custody of my boys if I wanted to be right or I wanted to be free.
It was one of the best questions anyone had ever asked me, and I didn’t have to think about my answer.
“Free,” I said. In that moment, I gave up on my rather naïve ideas about justice and cooperation in the process of divorce. I stopped worrying about being right. I understood no one but me was interested in the best situation for the kids. I fought for as much freedom as I could get, not for myself, but for them.
The memory came vividly back to me when I read this article by Arthur Brooks from Big Think. The author describes an interaction with a successful but unhappy financier, who remarks she would rather be special than happy. Her definition of special has to do with professional success. Ordinary people, she says, can be happy. She wants to be more special than that.
Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash
I thought about that choice, and I wonder, are special or happy the only two choices? Is there some rule stating one can’t be special and happy?
Why do we believe we have to give up something to be happy?
Can ordinary people be happy but extraordinary people can’t?
Are ordinary people happy?
Is ordinariness shameful? Is happiness a goal only for those who can’t be special in any way, a kind of booby prize?
I don’t believe happiness has anything to do with being ordinary, extraordinary (as defined by whom?) or somewhere in between. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I wonder if we’re losing our ability to distinguish between temporarily satisfying our addictions, expectations, and compulsions while numbing our pain and fear, and feeling true, enduring happiness.
Happiness, after all, is a state of being rather than a state of doing. To some degree we must allow it – give it time, space, and a safe place to exist. It’s not something to pursue or try to create. It’s already within us, somewhere.
(This creation of space, by the way, is a pillar of minimalism. If everything is important, nothing is. One discards until what’s truly important is revealed.)
I jotted down this statement: I’d rather be dutiful, loyal, responsible, a good parent/partner/daughter/sister, rich, powerful, in control, right or successful, than happy. I didn’t think hard about it. I have chosen everything on that list at one time or another in my life. I haven’t chosen happiness or seen it as a choice, and I’ve been unconscious of my belief that happiness can’t coexist with my standards of integrity.
Happiness just doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to me. It’s not culturally sanctioned. Ambition, power, wealth – those are worthy goals. Those are things that matter. Obviously (so obvious it goes without saying directly), those are the roads to happiness. One can be happy, but it must be earned, and happiness is not the goal, just a nice bonus. The real goal is productivity. The shadow side of productivity is consumption.
But productivity is a moving goalpost, and it doesn’t make us happy.
It occurs to me we talk about happiness or unhappiness as a blanket state of being, but it’s really more like Swiss cheese. I feel chronically unhappy about some aspects of my life, and chronically angry about others. Yet every day I also feel periods of happiness when I allow itand take the time to be present in the moment.
When I allow myself to play in the garden, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to settle down with a good book, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be creative, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be who I am, I feel happy.
Gardening, reading, being creative, and living authentically take time, intention, discipline, and energy. Discipline. Can you believe it? It takes discipline to remember I’m not a human doing, but a human being. My intrinsic worth as a being isn’t tied to productivity or consumption. The treadmill of productivity is easy. Stepping off and relaxing takes discipline. And that’s not only me.
The nature of addiction (physical and mental dependence) in any form is that it gradually pushes everything else out of our lives. Our addiction consumes our time, energy and money. Anything not in service to the addiction is discarded, including relationships, health, free time, quiet time, and creativity. Our addiction becomes our primary relationship and those around us quickly learn we’re not available for anyone or anything else.
Workaholism and perfectionism are addictions, along with productivity, toxic positivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, over-exercising, and sex addictions.
Happiness is power. That which takes us away from our happiness is disempowering.
Why do we live in, perpetuate, and enable a culture that relentlessly and brutally disconnects us from happiness?
That’s easy. Our individual happiness does not benefit capitalism, because happiness can’t be bought or sold. Capitalism benefits from an unhappy population brainwashed into believing productivity and consumption will make us happy. Who benefits from violence, division, hatred, manipulating our fear, restriction of choice, and disconnecting us from the simple pleasure of happiness?
Those currently in power and determined to stay that way, both governmental and corporate.
Who allows and enables that power-over stranglehold?
One of my favorite minimalist bloggers gave me something to think about last weekend with this piece. In it, she proposes we work on doing things real rather than doing them right.
As a reforming perfectionist, she got my attention. When I imagined approaching my life with the ultimate goal of authenticity, the relief was stunning. On the heels of the relief, though, I felt appalled.
How can doing things real ever be good enough?
As I’ve thought about this the last couple of days, I’ve realized this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing choice. Maybe the most effective goal in most cases is to be authentic and do things right, whatever that means. Surely balance between the two is possible?
The difficulty lies in defining the word “right.” Who decides what’s right? How do I know when I’ve done things “right?”
I hate the answer. The answer is I know I’ve done things right if people are pleased. Back on that cursed slippery slope!
A dear married friend said to me recently, “My life would look very different if I was on my own.” My friend’s honesty and the quiet sadness with which the words were spoken touched me to the heart.
How do we recognize ourselves, our real selves, in the confusion of our lives and relationships? How do we balance authenticity and cooperation? How do we mitigate the damage to our connections when we choose to be right (what the other wants) rather than real for the sake of those same connections?
It hurts me to ask these questions. I can’t begin to answer them.
I admire authenticity when it doesn’t trample over the needs of others, but what about when it does? What about people who appear to have no regard for those around them, who are unwilling to hold space for any authenticity but their own?
I don’t want to be one of those people.
Doing it right, which is to say making choices based on what others view as appropriate, seems at first glance to be an excellent way to stay safe. The truth is, such a practice tears one apart in very short order, because there are too many onlookers and we can’t please every one of them.
Here’s an example. When I’m teaching a private swim lesson, do I work effectively and appropriately with the student; please the onlooking parent or adult (in the case of a child); please my coworkers and colleagues, all of whom are very fine teachers and at least one of whom watches from the lifeguard stand; please other staff, patients and patrons who might be present; or do I forget everything but the connection between the student and myself for those 30 minutes in the pool and just be real and please myself?
Teaching, for me, is like swimming or writing or dancing. It’s a place where I don’t try to do it right. I do it real. Real is a long way from perfect. Right seems closer to perfect than real. Real is intuitive, experimental, frequently messy, uninhibited. When I choose to be real, I choose joy. I try not to think about what that looks like to others. I try not to care. I rest in it and feed myself with it and feel fully present and alive when I’m being real.
But then, so often, out of nothing and nowhere, comes the message:
“You didn’t do that right.”
No. Of course not. I almost never do. But I did it real, and for a few minutes I was happy there.
This is not about an inability to accept feedback or instruction. People close to me will tell you I frequently ask for feedback, for someone to teach me a new skill, for someone to help me improve. Feedback is not the same as being told I’m doing it wrong. I’m always interested in doing it better.
What’s curious about right vs. real is so often I run into this with trivial things, things like ironing, or washing dishes, or opening a can. They way I organize my stuff. The way I store my clothes. The way I live in my space. As I live my life, when someone tells me I keep the broom in the wrong place, what I hear is I’m wrong. I’m broken. I’m Failing To Please (again. Yawn.) Why can’t I store the broom in the right place?
Usually, I acquiesce. For the sake of peace. For the sake of the relationship. Because it doesn’t really matter, after all. I can be flexible and adaptive.
The difficulty is living inauthentically is an unbelievable amount of work. Everything is effortful, because I don’t do anything naturally. I repress my authentic impulses and desires. I feel numb, apathetic, and cut off from myself.
It’s entirely disempowering.
But it keeps things peaceful. It pleases others. It’s cooperative. I comfort myself with the fact that my willingness to do it right (according to them) makes others happy.
I don’t believe my realness will ever make anyone happy, except me.
I’m willing to hope for a balance, though. I have no idea how to find it, or even if I can find it. Maybe my real is too wrong to ever balance out?
Doing it right or doing it real?
My daily crime.
My first post on this blog was about pleasing people. It surprised me, how easy it was to break that habit, once I made up my mind. I still slip into the old pattern of pleasing when I’m not paying attention, but I can even smile now (sometimes) when people express outrage because I Failed To Please. It’s not my job to live up to any expectations but my own.
Ah, there’s the rub. My own expectations, internalized from years of external expectations, can be crippling.
Along with the rest of the country, we are sweltering here in Maine, with heat indices over 100 degrees and the big three H’s: haze, heat, and humidity. Relief is on the way, but right now the only sensible thing to do is hole up with my window AC unit rattling and clunking, shut the blinds, and stay quiet.
Impossible to sleep without AC in my attic, with the temperature and humidity running neck-in-neck. I’m grateful for the cooling unit, and it’s noisy. I learned when I moved to Maine from Colorado the combination of cooled air and high humidity confuse the body. I need a sheet to protect myself from the blowing cool air. But the instant I pull up the sheet, I start gently steaming in my damp bed. Sheet on. Sheet off. Sheet on. Sheet off. Whirr … clunk … whirr … roar … clunk … whirr … goes the cycling air conditioner.
I lay awake during the night, tossing and turning and thinking about all the things I needed to do today, all the things I didn’t do yesterday, and how, and why, and how quickly, and in what order. I thought about carrying dishwater to the garden and prepping for this week’s swim lessons. I thought about the books I’m writing, my new website, this week’s blog post, and housework. I thought about the gardening I’m not finding time to do, switching from 5-lb to 3-lb hand weights and doing more reps, and the challenges my friends face in their private lives.
I felt fear, and I thought fearful thoughts.
I know much of what drives me is fear. It occurred to me my response to fear feels exactly like my cringing, cowering, I’ll-show-you-my-belly-and-be-a-good-dog-if-you’ll-only-love-me people pleasing.
I’ve never noticed that before.
Much of my behavior is unconsciously driven by a desire to propitiate fear. Speeding, perfectionism, toxic positivity, trying well past the point I should have turned away, finishing tasks quickly rather than well, judging my worth in terms of doing rather than being, the list goes on. Some part of me believes if I do it right, find a way to work harder or be a better person, fear will go away and I’ll be secure, happy, beloved.
I recognize the taste and smell of that belief. It’s the same one I thought I’d discarded when I wrote that first blog post.
I’m still pleasing, but now I’m pleasing fear rather than people.
Maybe the desperate people pleasing I’ve engaged in has really been about fear all along. If I don’t please you, you won’t love me. If I don’t please you, you won’t take care of me. If I don’t please you, you won’t be proud of me. If I don’t please you, you’ll leave me.
What I absolutely know about trying to please is it doesn’t work. People pleasing increased my fear and insecurity rather than diminishing it. It kept me squarely where the blows landed … and landed … and landed.
Pleasing fear. Not gonna happen. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I “succeed,” it will want more, or different. Fear will never be satisfied. Ever.
Fear. Danger. Pain. Threat. The specifics of our fear are unimportant. What keeps me awake Monday night might be a different list than what keeps me awake Friday night. It all boils down to danger, pain, threat. What I fear now, in my 50s, is different than the nameless fears of my childhood.
But the fear itself is the same, the same feeling, the same texture, the same merciless driver.
I need to find a different way to manage it than trying to please.
I can’t hide under the bed and freeze or flee from internalized fear. Fawning is people pleasing. What’s left? Fight.
Here’s something I can do!
The first step in fighting is to know one’s adversary, and emotional intelligence has taught me fear can be an advantage, a friend. I don’t want to eradicate my ability to feel fear. My fear, though, has grown into a monster, distorted, invasive, choking.
All that gardening I can’t get to? Maybe I need to do some internal weeding, pruning, and clearing this summer.
Is fear going to continue to use me, or am I going to master it?
As I implemented the holistic planning process earlier in the year, the first step was defining the whole I was trying to manage. I continue to feel challenged as I remember to include my needs in the whole. My default has always been to work harder in pursuit of goals, but now I recognize the wisdom of working smarter instead.
Last week I read a post titled ‘Do You Like the Person You are Becoming?’ by one of my favorite minimalists, Joshua Becker. His piece doesn’t focus on needs, but on how we feel about who we are in the context of our lives and projects.
Something about his language cut right to the heart of my struggle to hold onto my own hand as I go forward into the future.
I feel a lot of movement right now. The season is part of it, with its new growth and hope. Pandemic limitations are relaxing and human affairs flow more “normally.” Personally, I’ve had some new opportunities, some of which I engaged with and some of which I didn’t. I’m involved with an exciting new creative project (more about that later).
At the same time, balance is hard. I squeeze the last minute out of every hour and berate myself when I feel unproductive. The gardens and yard cry out to me, but I haven’t spent more than an hour playing with them. If I work hard creatively all day, I feel too drained to exercise. If I exercise and choose to be more active, I’m unhappy with my creative progress.
Now, more than ever before, I simply can’t do it all.
Writing has made me confident, authentic, joyful and playful.
Which woman do I like better? Whom do I want to live with and see in the mirror?
The fact is I could meet all my needs and still not like myself. I could have chosen to make more money, but I would have liked myself less.
Learning to love myself has been an incredible journey, one that saved my life.
I have no intention of going backwards.
Another tenet of minimalism is understanding the feeling we don’t have enough space and time doesn’t mean we need more space and time. It means we need less stuff and fewer things to do. We need to find a way to make our lives easier, not harder.
We need to love ourselves enough to create a meaningful, joyful life with plenty of space and time.
Maybe, as I begin my day, the question is not what I want and need to accomplish, but what choices will make me like myself better than I did the day before.
Can it be done? Is it possible to lead a balanced, vibrant life, full of texture and joy, keep an adequate roof over my head, and create a more secure future while doing the work I love, all while loving the person I am?
(I finally know what I want to be when I grow up! Not only what I want to do, but who I want to be!)
In this age of disinformation, misinformation, and connectivity, it’s ironic that some of the most emotionally intelligent among us are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Such people have a twisted mastery of emotional intelligence; enough to successfully manipulate and recruit others behind lies, postmodernism and ideology, but not enough to use constructively.
We are evolved to be emotional creatures, and the combination of our feelings and intellect is powerful, but we must maintain a balance of both. Feelings without the tempering effect of information will often lead us astray. Intellect without feelings abandons traits that make us human, such as intuition and compassion.
Belief is built on trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something, and once we establish a belief, we think of it as part of our identity. However, true identity is not defined by our beliefs, choices, style, or preferences. Those are merely toxic mimics for a healthy identity, which evolves, changes, and expands as we learn and grow.
When influencers encourage us to mistake our beliefs for our identities, they’re wielding a powerful social tool in order to glue together communities they can manipulate. Within such communities, to question or lose confidence in a belief results in severe social sanctions intended to stifle any such challenge. Influencers work hard to control and manage both our emotions and access to information that might threaten the belief they’re selling.
Fear of being outcast effectively disables our willingness to objectively examine the beliefs our community espouses.
If we are low in emotional intelligence, our lives don’t work well. Happiness eludes us. Relationships are problematic and frequently unhealthy. We’re ignorant of our needs and thus neglect them. We become estranged from ourselves (our true identities) and lose our flexibility and resilience. We take everything personally, and fiercely protect our beliefs, no matter how damaging and illogical they are.
We stop growing and learning. We murder our curiosity and become afraid to ask questions or seek new information.
Worst of all, we are blind to the emotional manipulations of others. An appeal to our desire to heal the planet, be kind and compassionate, be tolerant and generous, pushes us into enabling the agendas of others before we’ve thoroughly researched and explored those agendas. We react to the views and criticisms of others reflexively, fearful of appearing in a bad light.
We cannot identify our power and thus fail to protect it, making it easy for others to take it away.
Many well-meaning people are duped by predators who play on their fears and/or desire to make a positive contribution to the culture and conversation. If we identify as a good person, a peaceful person, we’re deeply distressed by the accusation that we’re hateful, and will accept any kind of ideological nonsense in order to maintain our social identity. We, in turn, pass on the pressure to others. If we must believe the moon is made of green cheese in order to be accepted, others must also believe it for us to accept them.
Our lack of emotional intelligence makes our current chaos of dis- and misinformation predictable. People interested in power and control have no problem lying, and our low emotional skills make us quite vulnerable to those lies, especially when they’re presented with high emotion.
We don’t have mastery of our emotions and thus become victims.
I’m reading a book titled Controlling People, by Patricia Evans. It’s an interesting look at why some people are so controlling of others. Here’s a quote I resonated with:
“What blinds people the most to controlling behavior is the belief that the person who consistently defines them truly loves them.”
We are so often manipulated by others because we believe they have something we need. Love. Wealth. A raise or promotion. Validation. Belonging. Something.
As long as we believe anyone has something we need, we’re open to manipulation. We’ve entered the ancient archetype of prostitution. We’ll make choices based on pleasing that person in order to earn what we need.
The minute we enter into that dynamic, we’ve become disempowered, and I assure you that pleasing people never works. It always ends badly. Show me someone, no matter how beloved, who demands you please them in order to be rewarded, and I’ll show you a power predator incapable of love or being pleased.
Such people do not share power. Ever.
When you are no longer useful, you will be discarded.
Emotional intelligence empowers us to find an effective balance between feelings and information. It allows us to discard our pseudo selves and support a dynamic identity. It helps us discern the difference between someone seeking to control and disempower us with emotional appeals and someone committed to power-with and win-win, where disagreement and curiosity are not punished and we’re encouraged to think for ourselves.