Happiness Is Not a Choice
There are more clichés about being happy than the hairs on my head. Most of them frustrate me. Some of them even trigger me. They may be well-intentioned, but the result of these “happiness” memes and quotes is to invalidate other emotions. And by now, you know my deep commitment to unconditional emotional expression. So when I read “happiness is a choice”, I typically end up screaming at the computer, “No. It’s not!”
Don’t get me wrong. It is possible to stop our thoughts from fueling our emotions. That is absolutely true. But when a feeling comes up in the body (and it comes first contrary to popular opinion), we have a choice. We can shove it back down and defend against it with a mask of happiness. Or we can allow it to flow through like it wants, like it needs, like our inner child needs. One choice denies healing. One choice allows for healing.
All that said, I am acutely aware of the self talk created by my feelings from my traumatic past. Realistically, every single person in first world societies has this same self talk, with or without severe trauma. It runs on a continuum. And since my trauma was severe, my self talk is louder and more obvious. You may have guessed what that self talk says. “I’ll be happy when …”
I’ll Be Happy When I Get a Break
And there is nothing that fuels this self talk more than parenting. I’ll be happy when the kids are sleeping. I’ll be happy when they stop waking up at 6 AM every weekend morning. I’ll be happy when they get out of this phase of life. I’ll be happy when they are grown and self-sufficient. As a single mother with no ex-husband to take the kids on weekends and no close family I would trust with my children, I am especially prone to these thoughts. And there is one thought I hear more than any other. I’ll be happy when I get a break.
Don’t start assuming that I am a bad mother. There is nothing more important to me than motherhood. I am devoted to parenting and my children. If you read my blog regularly, you will know that. But a break would be nice. So when I found out my children would go on a week-long trip to a farm with their third grade class, I was thrilled … and terrified. I was thrilled because of that break I wanted and for the experience my children would have. What a gift to me and them. The reason I was terrified might be more obvious.
But I focused on finally getting that break I wanted. I thought about how much I would get done. I will sleep past 5:30 A.M. I will get the entire house cleaned from top to bottom. I will sleep past 6:00 A.M. I will eat adult food every night for dinner. I will sleep past 6:30 A.M. I might go salsa dancing. I might even sleep past 7 A.M. I will leave the house after 8 P.M. just because I can. That’s just crazy talk right there.
Here Comes the Anxiety
But as the date drew near, I sensed this wasn’t going to be the week of happiness I had hoped for. I could sense the anxiety building. What if they get sick? What if they get so homesick, they are traumatized for life? What if they don’t get enough sleep and drive their teacher crazy with their constant whining? What if they don’t eat the food and fall further off the growth curve? They are already small enough. What if they run out of clothes because they roll around in too much dirt and mud? And of course, it gets worse. What if they get lost in Penn Station? What if there is a train accident? What if the farm catches on fire? And of course, there is the most obvious question based on my background. What if there is a pedophile?
But I know this worry. I know it is based on the childhood fears. But is it possible to be happy during a week away from my children? Is it possible to be happy during that break I had longed for? Or will the anxiety steal it away like normal? Even more importantly, is the break necessary to be happy? The answer is found in one simple question. Where does that self-talk come from?
It comes from childhood. It comes from those inner parts who desperately wanted something to be different in childhood. As a child, I was desperately trying to make things better for myself. I wanted a family that loved me. I wanted a peaceful home. I wanted a mother who wasn’t manipulative and a father who wasn’t a drunk, abusive tyrant. I wanted to be loved. And when I hear that phrase, “I’ll be happy when …” in my head, I know what is happening. My inner child is still searching for something that will make it all better.
What Do I Do About It?
And guess who makes it better. Me. When I hear that voice, it is not time to examine my external world. It is time to go inward. It is time to meet the needs of that inner child by re-parenting her as she needed the first time. It is time to provide her the love she was denied. And there is no amount of external change that will do that for her. Sure. I could get more sleep. I could go salsa dancing. I could eat a salad. And those things help. But that won’t fix the self-talk. That won’t fix “I’ll be happy when…”
So I have that long-awaited break this week. I even get to do a little conference traveling because the universe is kind enough not to leave me by myself all week. But my anxiety will still be here. And my inner child will still need my love. And my inner defender will still need to be heard too. And when the old emotions aren’t flowing through my system, I will find moments of happiness. And it is the same happiness I find when my children are right beside me.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW
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