Last summer I picked up a book called Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. It was an illuminating experience, to say the least. The author explores a lot of ideas that had already been bothering the back of my brain, things that just don’t jive with the current conventional Internet wisdom of “Practicing Positivity” (which I, myself, was promoting).
“Happiness,” the modern meme goes, “can be yours if only you learn to banish all “bad” thought, cut off ties with “negative” people, and work hard to fill your head with only “good” things.” Essentially, think positive in order to be positive.
And that’s what I tried to do, for years. But when I look back through the archives in this blog, when I read my old entries and then contrast them against the whole-life experience I was having when they were written, I see a disconnect. And, I see in myself some seriously unrealistic expectations of my own humanity. It makes me sad.
Because I feel like I was engaged in this endless cycle, a desperate grasping at happiness, that went something like this:
chasing chasing chasing - catching! - losing – chasing chasing - catching! - losing – chasing chasing . . . and on and on.
From the outside (on the blog) it probably appeared that I was “happy”, because when I did manage to capture those moments, I seized them – almost frantically – and then wrote about them, made Love Lists about them, and generally tried to get maximum efficiency out of each and every one.
Because I knew that just as quickly as they came, they’d be gone.
Practicing my positivity. Chasing chasing chasing. That is not happiness. Happy isn’t something that’s running away from you! Happy, if you have it, is right there when you wake up in the morning. And chasing? That’s what you do when you’re deeply, deeply unhappy, and maybe you don’t even know it.
What is it that makes me deeply unhappy? Well, my 18-year-old self had already figured that out, and I should have paid closer attention. Because countless times I’ve laughed as I told the story of how I graduated from high school, decided I had to be a “grown up”, dyed my hair a normal color and started wearing trendy clothing and got a super straight-laced job. And within 6 weeks, I was miserable. I was so depressed! So I up and quit that job, shaved my head to nothing but fuzz and unpacked all my weirdo clothes, and whattaya know, I was back to feeling great and groovy in no time.
So what makes me deeply unhappy? Trying to be something that I am not.
These days I’m no longer caught up with chasing happy. And I don’t really “practice positivity” anymore, at least not in the way that I used to. Because these days I’m much more concerned with being authentic than I am with being positive, and I’ve learned that for me the most important thing is to never deny my feelings, whatever those feelings may be.
So when I feel sad, which I do from time to time, I don’t label it “bad” and try to banish it. Instead, I jump right in. I put on meloncholy music and I write sentimental stories and I generally just embrace it. I tell my friends, “No thanks, I’d rather stay in tonight,” and I spend some time alone with my sadness.
And you know what? It feels good. It clears out. Whether it’s sadness or anger or hurt or envy, honoring the feelings lets them move right through me. Letting myself feel just exactly what I need to be feeling, makes me happy.
Here’s a really great story about authenticity:
Last spring Waits started a co-op nursery school. At first he loved it – the very first “drop” day I gave him a big pep talk on the way in, and when it came time for me to leave, he pointed at the door and said “Yeah, Mama go.” I had lots of [private] tears, but he had none.
But about 2 weeks in, everything changed. He became distraught when I would drop him, it was like he had a delayed reaction to our separation. The other parents (it was a co-op remember, so all the workers were parents) encouraged me to leave him even though he was upset. And I did leave, and they did what most caring people do when confronted with a child in distress: redirect. It’s what everyone teaches and everyone does, and it certainly seems to make sense at first, except . . . EXCEPT, that when you prematurely discontinue a child’s feelings, you actually deny their completely valid emotional experience. And emotions don’t just disappear. They hide – deep.
So Waits never really did get over my leaving, and most days when they couldn’t calm him down, the other parents would call me and ask me to come pick him up. It got to the point that by our last month at co-op, I didn’t even try to drop him. I was basically paying to work there, since the only time Waits attended was when he accompanied me on my shifts.
Fast forward to autumn and I enrolled Waits in a real preschool. On our first drop day I explained to the teacher about the delayed separation. And just the same as before, he was totally fine when I left him that day. For the first few weeks he was happy, until one day . . . “NOOOOOO MAMA DON’T GOOOOOO!!!” And it was happening all over again.
Now, I chose this particular preschool for many reasons, not the least of which was their very radical approach to childcare. And I trusted the teacher (an old friend, actually) very much. She encouraged me to leave him, and so I did.
When I arrived back at school that afternoon, I stepped out of the car and the first thing I heard was my baby wailing. He had cried the entire time I was gone, she informed me. She was calm. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
The next day it was the same, he screamed when I left (heartbreaking) and wept the whole time I was away. His teacher was enthusiastic “He cries, and we talk about why he’s crying. He’s really good at articulating his sadness. This is great!” It was hard for me, but I trusted her. And so it went on. Every single day.
For a week of crying.
For two weeks of crying.
For – nope, one day it just stopped.
Like magic. Overnight it all ended.
Because see, in this school Waits had been allowed to really feel his big feelings about me leaving, and he was offered a safe space where he could experience those feelings completely. To explore them. And when he realized that I would always come back, and that his teacher was there to love and support him, well, he was able to release those big feelings.
These days Waits wakes up every morning and asks “Is it a preschool day?” because it’s pretty much his favorite place in the world.
Waits needed to be authentic. He was SAD, and he didn’t need to try and “be positive”. He needed to feel his sadness all the way. That’s how he got to the other side of it. And that’s authenticity, brought to you by a 2-year old. So now I’ve learned that when Waits is upset, I shouldn’t try to “cheer him up”. Instead, I pull him onto my lap and hold him close and tell him, “I know, that’s so hard isn’t it? That must feel awful, we can take as much time as you need.” It’s all part of Unconditional Parenting, and watching it work – the amazing way that allowing authenticity can transform this child, well it got me thinking about myself.
So I’ve taken a page from unconditional parenting and applied a sort of “unconditional selfing”. It’s been life changing.
Allowing my own authenticity is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Trusting myself and making difficult choices – sometimes very difficult choices – is not easy. But it feels A-freakin’-mazing. And in all those years I spent “practicing positivity”, I never experienced the sort of sustaining self-love that I do now.
“I yam what I yam.”
The truth is that most days I wake up with a smile on my face and I feel excited to get out of bed, because I genuinely love my life. A year ago, I never thought I’d be able to say that and mean it. My life – my self – is a complicated, incredibly human, and sometimes messy thing. It’s definitely not traditional and it doesn’t fit nicely in boxes. But I think it’s beautiful. And by truly accepting it just exactly as it is, I’ve finally found my Happy.
So moving forward in this little web space, I can promise you one thing and one thing only: my authentic self. And that’s scary for me, you know? Because what if you don’t like me?!
I’ve even had people – pretty much everyone actually? – tell me that I should continue to censor, keep the blog always! pure! positive! because that’s what people want. But I don’t think that’s true. I think people want real. Aren’t we all just looking for something real in this world?
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a series of posts that will catch you up on everything that has happened in the year I’ve been away. Shit will get real. Because I’m not going to bother glossing over the difficult stuff. Not anymore. I’d just rather be me.
And my real life is mostly happy, and most of the time I am really positive. But sometimes I’m not, and sometimes I’m scared, and sometimes I just don’t know what to do with myself. And that’s okay too. At least, I hope that’s okay with you. I guess we shall see.
So there you go. With a dash of trepidation . . .
see you next week.