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This is Your Life: An Essay on Guilt, Selfishness, and Happiness


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One of my goals this summer (a post about that soon!) is to immerse myself in lots of books. The two that are on my bedside table right now are Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. It is fascinating to read them simultaneously, as many of the subjects overlap and complement one another. For example, both Cain and Covey write about society's view of success shifting from a Character Ethic (internal qualities, such as Benjamin Franklin's emphasis on self discipline, humility, and hard work) to a Personality Ethic (a focus on exterior presentation: body language, confidence levels, and ability to persuade). While Quiet focuses on how this new paradigm has impacted introverts, 7 Habits looks at how one can achieve happiness from within, not from asking others to change.

I should say that I haven't finished either book yet; I'm about a third of the way through each. However, they call to my Soul so much that I can't help but set them down often and reflect on the messages and advice within.

7 Habits has been particularly influential. Part of Covey's message is that you always have choices, and how you react to others (not how you can influence them to act) determines both your character and your happiness. In other words, he to some extent believes that one's character is determined by the conscious and unconscious choices made in reaction to one's environment. The author also emphasizes that, while not an immediate process, change in your own behavior and attitudes can shift those of others'.

I'm sure you've heard similar adages:
  • No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. (Eleanor Roosevelt)
  • Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. (Abraham Lincoln)
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Attitude is everything.
  • Happiness is a choice.

I have mixed feelings about the message that you are completely in control of your own happiness. When I came across these in my teens in the midst of deep depression sparked by years of emotional abuse (read more here), I felt that I was being blamed for the situation I was in, even though I was a victim. How can one be happy or choose happiness while walking through a darkness that has been created and enforced by others, where there is no end in sight?

On the other hand, I know now, intellectually, that no one else controls my own happiness. It is futile and unhealthy for me to determine my mood on others', and I dearly want to learn how to believe in my own potential and goodness, not rely on others to build me up. Neither can I control others' happiness, for to do so would be to control all factors in their lives, an absolute impossibility.

I have a bad habit of feeling guilty. I feel guilty when I make the "wrong" decision, when I make someone upset, when I think I've made someone upset, when someone I love isn't happy, when I put myself first, or when I can't make everyone happy all the time. (My goodness, loves, how much pressure I am putting on myself!) I feel guilty when I choose my own happiness over someone else's. I feel guilty when I think about following my own dreams, doing something I love, or indulging – whether it be in sleep, painting, writing, or something else entirely. And for much, if not most, of my life, I have let this guilt determine the things I do, the choices I make, and the dreams I follow. I have blamed those who I see as the source of this guilt for "making" me forfeit what I really want. Worse, when I say yes when I want to say no, I enforce the idea – both on others and on my own subconscious – that what I am doing is unimportant and unworthy of my time; in essence, I am saying, "I, my passions, and my time have no value".

I'm trying to be gentle with myself, to learn how to say what I mean and stand by it, to practice empathy without having it consume my own Self. I am trying to balance my independence with others' needs. I am trying to give myself permission to feel and to want things that is incongrouous with others' ideas of what I should feel or want. And I am repeating my mantra over and over: I am loved, I am lovable, I am whole... and I am enough.

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I would love to know your thoughts on this post, on guilt, on giving yourself permission, and on happiness. Leave a comment below or write me at ingrid(at)mypeacetree(dot)com. (Did you notice that I took a leap and bought a domain name?!)

Further inspiration: Leonie's post about permission made me cry. This post is inspiring, too. And check out my words of wisdom board on Pinterest.

1 comment:

Naomi Hattaway said...

I'm still in the middle of finding my normal when it comes to permission and guilt.!!!

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