How to Improve your Life without Changing a Thing

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A few posts back I mentioned watching the movie Wild.  It’s about a lady whose life has hit “rock bottom”, and how she finds herself again and reboots her life by going on a hike.

I haven’t read “Eat, Pray, Love” (or seen the movie), but my understanding is that it deals with similar concepts.  There is a woman recovering from a difficult divorce, who goes on a journey to find who she is and what she’s looking for in life – joy, spirituality and love.

There are many similar stories about “transformative journeys”, where people come to a point in life where they are questioning things:

Who am I?  Why am I here?  What will make me happy?  What gives me purpose?  What do I really want out of life?  Is this all there is?  Isn’t there “more” to life?

So they embark on journeys of self-discovery; which usually involve walking away from the life they had and the life they knew, discovering *something* about themselves, and coming back a changed and hopefully more whole person.

 

In 1949, Joseph Campbell released a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  He had studied mythology from different cultures, and found a common thread in most mythology is “the hero’s journey”.  In the hero’s journey, someone starts in an ordinary world, and begins a quest only after they are compelled to by some event or tragedy.  Their quest takes them to different places, and a journey of growth and awakening, until they finally return to a variation on their old life, where they are more at peace and balanced.

At its essence, the hero’s journey is a story of personal change, and growth.  And stories like Wild, or Eat, Pray, Love tap into this basic narrative.

 

Think of the questions:

Who am I?  Why am I here?  What will make me happy?  What gives me purpose?  What do I really want out of life?  Is this all there is?  Isn’t there “more” to life?

These are hard questions, and ones I think we all ask ourselves from time to time.  The hero’s journey appeals to us because at some level, we have all thought of just walking away from everything and starting over.  Or at the very least, taking a “break” from our regular life and having our own journey (come on, admit it.  I know I’ve thought it, and for the most part I like my life).

The thing is, it’s not really an option for most of us.

Most of us can’t just walk away, or even take a time out from our regular life.

We have responsibilities that make this impossible – jobs, mortgages, kids, etc.  Impossible may be a strong word, but at the very least it’s extremely difficult.  Part of the challenge is, our choices have implications – so if we just decide to walk away from our jobs, financial obligations or families; chances are we are walking away forever.  These aren’t the sort of things you can just “test out”.

 

There’s a deeper problem with the hero’s journey however.

Even if we could just walk away and go on a journey of discovery and transformation, those stories are misleading; because they tell only part of the story.  They are kind of like romance stories which end with the couple getting married.  The romance leading up to the wedding may be the exciting or romantic part, but it’s just the beginning.

Just as finding love is very different from being able to hold onto it forever, having a transformative journey and finding yourself in the short term doesn’t mean you won’t end up just as lost again in the future.

Making changes is one thing.  Sustaining them is something else.

 

I have a childhood buddy who went on his own version of the hero’s journey.

We were probably in our early 30’s at the time, and he was working a professional career.  One day I received a group email from him saying he had quit his job and was moving across the country to become a white water rafting instructor.

Ummm, alright.

He and I had gone for lunch a few months prior, and I had no idea anything like this was looming, so I assumed something must have happened.  But he was gone, and we didn’t speak for a number of years.

A few years ago I heard he was back, so we got together one night for dinner.

I had to ask – what the hell had happened?  Why did he leave?

I’m sure there were a number of factors, but one of them he told me was deep dissatisfaction with the regular 9-5 life, where you are caught in this cycle of work, eat, sleep, rinse and repeat.  He asked himself those same questions – what am I doing?  Why am I doing this?  Is this all there is?

He had no dependents, and he had always loved the outdoors.

So he left.

 

Yet here he was, back home.

Back in the same career he had walked away from.  Largely living the same life he had been living before.

I asked him – if this was a life he needed to walk away from, why was he back?  And was he happy (or at least content) now, back living his old life?

In response, he told me a bit about the past few years of his life.

He had been living a fairly nomadic life.  He worked as a white water rafting guide/instructor during part of the year, and when the season was done he travelled the world.  He saw all sorts of things; amazing sights and places.  Thing is, he largely saw them alone.

He would meet women, and have some companionship.  But he was never in one place for very long; so with any relationship he got into, both people knew it was a temporary thing.  And after a while, he started to feel rootless and yearn for something more.

It wasn’t just that though.

Over time he found his job as a white water rafting instructor wasn’t what he thought it would be.  He had become sick of the day to day office life and wanted to have more adventure and excitement in his life.  Yet somehow, spending his days on the rapids was no longer exciting.

It was no longer fulfilling.

I remember sitting there in the restaurant, and him looking at me and saying:

“You know, I realized that it doesn’t matter what you are doing.  Eventually, everything becomes work”.

Those words still resonate with me, and I find them very powerful.

Eventually, everything becomes work.  Everything.

 

Everything becomes work, yet here he was back doing the same work he had done before.  So I asked him, what had changed?

The realization that everything eventually becomes work made him understand he had two options.

  1. When even the adrenaline rush of riding the rapids can become routine, how can we ever expect life to remain fresh and exciting? We can’t, unless we keep changing things up.  So he could either continue changing things up every time routine started to set in, and go off on some other adventure.  But since everything becomes routine, this would apply to jobs, relationships, lifestyle, etc; and he would always be on the move.
  2. The other option was changing his approach, so that was what he did. He was able to handle going back to his old job and his old life because he changed his mental approach.  His outlook, and attitude were now different.  He accepted that life isn’t always fun, and isn’t always exciting.  He approached his job as something he may not love, but also didn’t hate.  And it was enough for him, because it allowed him to support the life he wanted.

 

If you really look at the hero’s journey, what is it about?

Is it about the quest?  The adventure?

Was the story of Wild really about going on a hike?  Was Eat, Pray, Love really about escaping to a foreign land to, umm, eat, pray and love (sorry, I told you I haven’t read it)?  Was my buddy’s journey really about white water rafting?

No, the journey (or the quest) is just a short term thing, a break from ordinary life.  That may recharge someone for a bit, but it’s temporary.

Sustained change is about the lessons we learn; it’s really about personal and spiritual growth.  It’s about letting go of who you think you want to be and the life you think you should have, and instead accepting yourself for who you are.  It’s about finding peace, and contentment, and meaning in your life as it is now.  Which doesn’t mean you can’t change or improve, but it does mean you don’t have to.

 

What can you actually change in life?

Often circumstances dictate things, and you aren’t really able to change much.  You can get a different job, but eventually it will become work.  You can find a different partner, but they will have good and bad too.

Most of us can’t walk away from our lives.  We can’t go on some incredible transformative journey or adventure.  But I think we CAN come to terms with the fact that our life IS our adventure.

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Our attitude shapes almost everything.  Our expectations shape our experiences.  And how we approach things becomes our reality.

As my buddy found, eventually everything becomes work.  Everything becomes routine.

When things become routine, its human nature for us to start taking things for granted.  And when we do that we stop seeing the good in our lives because it has become our new normal. 

Instead, we see the negative.   We see the things we feel are missing, and we focus on our flaws, and how we aren’t who we thought we would be.

 

We are the only ones who can turn that around.

We can start by accepting we won’t always be happy, and we don’t need to be.  By accepting that things will suck sometimes, and that’s alright.

Changing our outlook involves changing our focus away from what we don’t have, and instead focusing on what we do have.

To do that, we need to remind ourselves everyday about the good we have right now.  We need to start practicing active appreciation, and teach ourselves to see the beauty all around us that we have become blind to.

Real change comes from within.  And the one thing you can always change is your outlook and attitude.

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Ruled By Fear

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When I was younger I wanted to be a physiotherapist.  Actually, before that I wanted to be a comic book artist, and before that I wanted to be an animal trainer (come on, you KNOW that would be awesome).  But in late high school I started thinking seriously about a career, and physio was what I wanted.

I was serious about it too.  In grade 12 I volunteered at a physio clinic in order to better understand what was involved, and as I saw it in action I knew it was something I would not only enjoy, but would also be good at.

So off I went to university, and in my first year I took all the prerequisites for Physiotherapy.  To get into Physio you need to apply to the faculty, and due to a limited number of spots available every year there was an interview process to get in.  I was confident I had a shot if I could get to the interview stage; but only the applicants with the top marks received interviews.

My marks were good, but not good enough.  And I tried for two years before coming to accept maybe physio wasn’t going to happen for me.

One day I was talking to someone about it, and they suggested I apply at different schools (out of town) as I would have a much better chance to get in.  That idea had never occurred to me, but even after hearing about it I never even tried.  I DID want to get into physio, but I was also an 18-19 year old kid who had never been away from home.  The reality was, I didn’t even consider trying to get into school somewhere else.  That wasn’t an option to me at the time.

Although I didn’t see it, my fear of being away from home, my friends and my family was greater than my desire to get into Physiotherapy school.

And so I didn’t even try.

I didn’t think of it as fear, but at some level that’s what it was.  I wanted something – I really did.  But I didn’t want it enough to make the take a chance, and to do what needed to be done to pursue that dream.

 

In life, we are often ruled by our fears.  We fear failure, and we fear rejection.  And these fears often end up shaping our behaviors and decisions.

 

Fear of Failure

When we fear failure, there are a few different ways it can manifest.

The most obvious one is removing ourselves from a situation, and not even trying.  When you don’t even try, it may be because you’ve convinced yourself in advance that you were going to fail – so why bother when you know how it will end up.

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Not trying may also be so you can convince yourself you didn’t fail.  I’m sure we’ve all seen and heard people say something like “I would have done X, if not for Y”.  Things like I would have been a professional musician if not for my mom and dad needing my help, or I would have been a doctor if I didn’t have kids, or any number of things.

When you don’t try it’s easy to lie to yourself and tell yourself these things.

Maybe it’s true and you would have been X; then again, maybe not.

You’ll never know.

The “what if” game is a wasted exercise, because no matter what you think may have happened – it didn’t.  You made the choices you made.  And life worked out the way it worked out.

 

Sometimes people do put in some effort, but fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  They don’t believe they can succeed, so they sabotage themselves by putting in minimal effort.

Then, when things don’t work out they tell themselves “see, I knew it wasn’t going to work out.”  Not accepting that the way they approached it was a significant contributor to how things ended up.

 

When this happens, one of the lies people tell themselves is if it didn’t work out it wasn’t meant to be.

Meant to be.

Fate.

To me that’s a cop out.  “It wasn’t meant to be” turns us into victims, and absolves us of any responsibility for the course of our life.

Things work out sometimes, and other times they don’t.  But if it’s all about “meant to be” then why are we here?  “Meant to be” turns us into nothing more than observers, it means we are passive participants in our own lives; and I can’t accept that.

Rather, I think life presents us with opportunities, and it’s up to us to determine what we want to do them.

Sometimes we pass those opportunities by, maybe because we are scared we will fail or we feel we aren’t ready.

Life doesn’t care if we’re scared – it doesn’t care if we think we’re ready.  Opportunities arise, and we need to decide what to do with them.

Sometimes we embrace those opportunities and give them our all.  And sometimes we still fail.

When that happens it can hurt like hell.  But if it’s something that mattered to us and something we believed in, at least we know that we’ve tried.

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Fear of Rejection

I’ve written a lot about authenticity in relationships, and about how important it is to just “be yourself”, whoever that is.  And I DO believe that being authentic and vulnerable in a relationship is key to both happiness and long term success.

But one thing I tend to gloss over when writing about authenticity is how hard that is to do sometimes.

See, we all have egos and want to be liked and accepted.  And rejection hurts.

 

Fear of rejection can lead us to hide parts of ourselves, or even to pretend to be something we are not.

We probably all do this to a degree, because we want to impress and we want to be accepted.  And in the early days of a relationship it’s somewhat understandable.

It’s a paradox, where we need to feel accepted in order to feel emotionally safe with the other person.  At the same time, we need to be vulnerable and let our partners in in order to feel accepted and safe.

So usually in the early days it can be a gradual process of sharing and revealing ourselves.  Ultimately we need to let the other person in though, as much as we can.

Similar to how not trying out of fear of failure can CAUSE us to fail, holding back out of fear of rejection will limit the closeness in our relationships and ensure we will never be accepted for who we are.  After all, our partner can’t ever fully accept us if we won’t let them truly see us.

When that happens, that’s not a failure of the relationship.  That’s a failure within ourselves.  Because often, when a fear of rejection is causing us to hold back (or try to be someone we’re not), it’s because we have not accepted ourselves.

 

Accepting ourselves can be very, very hard.

We all have damage.

We all have insecurities.

We’ve all been hurt.

When that happens it’s very easy to build walls around ourselves in order to “protect” ourselves from further hurt.  It doesn’t work though, because our fears just hold us back from the life we really want.

 

Facing our fears is hard.

Letting go is hard.

Embracing life and opportunities is hard.

And being vulnerable and authentic is hard.

Each of these things comes at a cost, but the cost of not doing so is even higher.

 

We all have fears, of failure and of rejection.  You have them, and I have them.  And we all need to address them in the way that seems right for us.

For me, I don’t want to let fear hold me back.  When life presents me with opportunities, I don’t want my fears to cause me to pass them by.  If it’s something I believe in, I want to embrace it.  I want to be the authentic me, and take a chance.

I may be hurt.

I may fail.

But whether I succeed or fail at something, for the things that matter I want to be able to face the mirror at the end of the day and tell myself I gave it my all.

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What is Enough?

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In my last post I discussed one of my major life/relationship philosophies; the notion that my life is not my own.  It is, but even though I am an individual my actions impact others.  Due to this I can’t just *do what I want*, I need to keep others in mind with everything I do.

One of my other major life philosophies is the concept of enough.

What is enough?

What does this even mean?

 

A few weeks back I went and saw the movie Logan (great movie by the way), and before it there was a trailer for the upcoming Fast and the Furious movie with excerpts of interviews with the directors.  In it, the directors talked about how the Fast and the Furious movies are always spectacles, and for this one they felt they needed to top the previous one.  They wanted it to be bigger and better; with more explosions and more elaborate stunts.

This idea of “bigger is better” (or “more is better”) is common in movies (particularly sequels).  And this line of thinking isn’t limited to movies, it exists everywhere in life.

If something is good, then more of that something is better, right?  We can improve anything, just by having more of it.

 

How do we know we have a “good” life?  We measure it by our happiness, right?  So it stands to reason that if we REALLY had a good life we would always be happy.  And if we’re not always happy, then something is missing.

We just need to find what that something is, and then we will be happier.

But what do we need?

More money?  A better job?  A better house?  A better body? More sex?  More friends?  More time out “having fun”?  A better lover/partner?

One of these?  Some of these?  All of these?

Will ANY of these improve the quality of our life?  Will any of them actually make us happier?

 

Personally I think our notion that you can measure quality by of life by “happiness” is broken, but the “more is better” logic tells us yes.  And who knows, maybe changing some of these things would result in improvements to our level of happiness.

If we get that raise, maybe now we can go on that trip we wanted.  Maybe we upgrade to the bigger house, or the nicer car.  If we lose that weight maybe we will feel better about ourselves.

These sorts of things do feel pretty good, at least in the moment.  But it’s always short lived.  These sorts of improvements are only temporary, because there’s a fundamental problem with “more”.

It’s doesn’t matter how much you have.  There will ALWAYS be more.

You can always make more money.  There is always a better job, a better house.  You lose those 10 pounds, and there are always other changes you can make.  Even if your partner is pretty good, there is always going to be another person out there who will be a better lover or partner.

 

Here’s the problem…

When we believe we don’t have enough, it leads to unhappiness.  Because when feel we don’t have enough, we are focused on what we DON’T have.  We are focused on what our life is “missing”.

And when we are preoccupied with what we don’t have, we are unable to be present, to actually “live” in the moment.

 

So to me, the REAL question is not about more.

The REAL question becomes, what is enough.

 

Continuous growth is unsustainable.  There is always going to be something you don’t have.  You can always have more.

At what point are you able to be content with what you already have?

To me, THAT is the key.  Being able to say “yes, there’s more.  But that’s alright because what I have is enough for me”.

My job is enough.  My house is enough.  My partner is enough.  My life is enough.

I am enough.

 

Enough is about appreciating what you have right now, today; instead of focusing on what you don’t.  To me, this should be a good thing, a positive.

But instead, believing that what you have is enough seems to be looked down upon.  There seems to be this notion that saying something is enough is about not striving to improve, or about settling.

And in today’s culture, settling seems to be one of the worst things you can do.

Just turn on a television, open a magazine, or listen to the radio.  Within a few minutes, you will probably see or hear something telling you how amazing you are.  How special you are, and how you deserve the best.  After all, YOU are special – You aren’t like everyone else.  You should stand out, not fit in.  So if you don’t have the best, you are settling.  And you could or should have had more.  This same approach is used in marketing to make you want to get the best for your partner, or your children.  Aren’t they special too?  Don’t you want the best for them?  Don’t THEY deserve it?

Of COURSE your kids should have the best.  Of COURSE your partner should have the best.

But here’s a secret…

 

I am not special.

You are not special.

Sorry, it’s true.  We are all just people.

Regular people, going about our regular lives and doing regular things.  Most of us get up in the morning and go to work at jobs that aren’t glamorous but allow us to live our lives.  We cook our meals, do our laundry, clean our living spaces.  We pay our bills, and hope that at the end of the day there’s enough money and/or energy left over for us to take some time out and do something special for ourselves.

This is reality for most of us, and that should be alright.

 

 

I’m not saying that no matter what you have, it should be enough for you.  I’m not saying people shouldn’t want more out of life.

Sometimes you DON’T have enough money, and it’s damned hard to get by.  Maybe your family HAS outgrown your house, or your vehicle.

And sometimes your partner IS an asshole, and you DO deserve someone who will treat you better (and in turn allow you to treat them better).

 

It’s not bad to want more, or different.

But what I AM saying is more doesn’t necessarily make things better.

 

Ask yourself this – if what you have today isn’t making you happy, why in the world would you think that more would make it better?

 

Life is multi-faceted, and there is balance to be found in everything.  There are many areas in life where we can change, and improve.  And for each of these areas we need to figure out what enough looks like for ourselves.

 

Maybe you DO need that six figure salary.  Maybe you DO need that big vacation every year.

Enough for me may not be the same as enough for you.  And that’s alright.

Each person needs to define that for themselves, and doing so involves looking inward.  It involves truly understanding ourselves, and our boundaries.  It also involves understanding the difference between need and want, and in today’s world I think we often confuse that.

More isn’t better.  And it won’t make us happier.  And actually, sometimes it’s the scarcity of something that makes us appreciate even more when we do have it.

 

When I look at my life, there are a ton of things I would *love* to do.  I love travelling, and would be happy to do more of it.  I wish I could eat out more, or at least at some of the places I know are outside of my price range.  I wish I had more free time to just slack off, and do some things for me.

But then I ask myself, what REALLY matters?  What are my REAL priorities?

My children.  My family.  The people who actually matter in my life, and who I matter to.

I know what love looks like, and I know what caring looks like.  And I know what it means to me.

When look at my life I can truthfully say I like what I see.  And I know that for me at least, it’s enough.

The Identity Gap

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Identity is a big topic for me in my writing.  Who are you?  Who am I?  How well do we really understand ourselves as a person, and perhaps more importantly, how well do we accept ourselves?

Along this lines, one idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while is the idea of an “identity gap”.

To me, an identity gap is the gap between who we ARE and who we WANT TO BE.

 

Related to my post on fantasy, we all have an idealized version of self; this picture of who we wish we were, and how we wish our life looked.  This ideal is related to our dreams, and may be influenced by the things we see around us or the expectations that were placed on us growing up.

 

However this is just an ideal, and I don’t think ANYONE is their idealized version of “self”.  And for that matter, I don’t think anyone ever achieves it.

This concept of an identity gap has huge implications for the level of happiness a person has in their life.  And I think this happiness is directly related to three questions:

  1. How big is the gap between who you want to be and who you are?
  2. Do you accept that your idealized version of self is simply an ideal, and not reality?
  3. What are you doing to improve yourself and close the gap between who you are and who you want to be?

 

What is your Ideal Self?

This is a tough question to answer.  But I guess another way of look at it is, when you were a teenager who did you think you would be?  What did you think it actually meant to be an adult?

This is an area where man oh man, I think a lot of us screw up something fierce.

On one hand, we have all these adults all around us modelling what life as an adult looks like.  So you would think we would actually learn something from that.

On the other hand, we have tv shows, and advertising telling us how amazing we are, and how special we are, and how we “deserve the best”.

I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that even when all the evidence around us is telling us life as an adult is pretty mundane, there’s also a part of that expects life to look like a beer commercial.

 

I don’t think many teenagers/college students take a look at their parents and say “yup, that’s who I’m going to be when I grow up”.

For some reason we think we are different, and special, so of course our life will be different.  We will set goals, and achieve all of our wildest dreams.

 

A few posts back used a line I found:

What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.

That line seems simple at first, but it’s also one of the most profound things I’ve ever read.

How things are “supposed to be”.

What life is “supposed” to look like.

What “love” is supposed to look like.

Who we are “supposed” to be.

 

I’m reminder of a scene from movie Boyhood.  It’s kind of a bizarre film, as it doesn’t really follow a traditional mold; but it’s also really powerful.  It was filmed over 12 years, and during the film you actually see the characters age and grow up.

In it Patricia Arquette starts out as a young mother with little education.  And during the 12 years of the film her children grow up, she is married and divorced twice, and gains an education and becomes a college professor (I think).

Late in the film there’s a scene where her son is leaving for college and she breaks down.  She reflects on all the things that have happened in her life, all the things she has done and accomplished.  And then she says:

I just thought there would be more.

 

I just thought there would be more.

Life hasn’t matched up to the picture she had in her head.  There was an identity gap, and when comparing reality to ideal, life ended up being a disappointment.

 

I think this happens often.

For some reason we expect “more”.  And real life isn’t able to measure up.

In our society right now, depression rates are up.  Anxiety rates are up.  People talk about happiness as if it’s this magical thing that they can achieve.  This goal in life that will make everything better.

So how do we make this better?

 

An Ideal is a Dream

I think one of the first things we need to do is accept that our ideal is simply something to strive towards, and not something we are likely to ever achieve.

And that’s alright.

We are all just “regular” people.  We aren’t any better than anyone else, and we do not deserve special treatment.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have goals – because we should.  We need them, as goals give us something to strive towards.

Instead of just looking at our imaginary end state, we need to be able to set small milestones or goals, and celebrate the little successes we have along the way.

Because sometimes our ideal isn’t actually realistic.

So we shouldn’t measure our success in life against it’s end state.  We need to be able to look at where we are now, and appreciate it each and every day.

 

How are you Trying to Improve?

Let’s say I want to make a fence.  What do I need to do?

Does it help me to wake up everyday, look in my yard and think “man, I wish I had a fence”?

Ummm, no so much.

How about if I buy some wood and some screws, and put them in my yard and just leave them there?

I suppose that gets me a bit closer, but again, it’s not very helpful.

 

Instead, a few things need to happen.

  • First I need to understand where I am today.
  • Next I need to understand where I want to be.
  • Then I need a plan to get from point A to point B.
  • Lastly (and perhaps most importantly) I need initiative. I need to be willing to do something about it.

 

So everything starts with accepting yourself for who you are TODAY.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, good sides and bad sides.  And until we accept ourselves for who we are today (warts and all), we can never move forward or improve.  We are never able to live in the present moment, and able to appreciate the life we DO have.

When people are focused on their identity gap, they are focused on who they are not instead of who they are. And when THAT is the focus?  If someone is focused on what they are missing or who they are not, I don’t think they will ever be happy.  Because it doesn’t matter how much you improve, you can always get better.  And people who are focused on what they are not are unable to live in the moment and appreciate the things they DO have.

So any improvements need to first start with self acceptance.

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Once you have accepted who you are today, you are now in a position to better understand the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Ironically, once you have accepted yourself it may not matter as much.

Because although we can always be “more”, when we have accepted ourselves we know we are “enough”.

The “Easy Road”

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My last post was about living in fantasy land, and how dating and affairs are really a form of escapism.  They aren’t real love, and they aren’t even real life.

And I think sometimes problems can occur when people get confused about what “real life” actually is.

When people have online profiles (like facebook), they only present the things they want you to see.  It’s usually a “sanitized” version of their life.  They show the good parts, the celebrations, the parties, the trips.  If you looked only at peoples profiles, you would think they all had the perfect life, where everything was happy all the time and there were never any problems.

But that’s not what life really looks like.  Real life isn’t just the image of ourselves we portray.  It’s not the like the movies, and it’s not about escapism.

Real life can be messy.  It has highs and lows, and it requires us to face challenges and overcome them.

 

Looking for Fun

In the comments section of my last post, commenter wordsaremylife wrote (about her husband leaving):

my father summed it up perfectly, “He wants to be a college kid again. Fun without responsibility.”

 

This is a common thread in almost every story of a failed marriage or an affair.  Someone eventually seems to come to the conclusion that a marriage is just too much like work, and for some reason they believe it should be different.

They seem to think:

  • Life should be easy.
  • Love should be easy.

So many people seem to want life to come with an easy button, and when they find it doesn’t because things have gotten difficult?

They quit.

They walk out, and go in search of something simpler.

In search of fun, without responsibility.

Because it’s easier to walk out than to work on improving what you already have.

Thing is, often what they are walking out on is simply “real life”, and they are leaving it in pursuit of something that doesn’t actually exist.

 

Accepting Responsibility

I’ll be the first to admit that people often get so caught up in the “responsibility” side of life that they forget to have fun.  And when you ARE caught up in responsibility, it can be overwhelming.

But quitting is not the answer.  Escaping is not the answer.

Here’s a few important things that often get overlooked:

  • Life isn’t always easy.
  • Life doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to.
  • Life doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time.
  • Life is not all about you!!!
  • Responsibility isn’t a bad thing.

Not only is responsibility not a bad thing, I actually think it’s a great thing.  Being able to be responsible, and take responsibility for things means you are taking ownership of your own life.  And what could be better than that?

Responsibility means you aren’t a victim. 

Things happen in life, sometimes good and sometimes bad.  And usually we have no control over those things.

But we ALWAYS have control over ourselves, and how we react.  How we respond.

That is something that is always up to us.

We choose what situations we put ourselves into, and we choose how to respond to those situations.

 

Putting in Effort

If you’re an adult (legally, if not mentally) you have bills.  So I’m pretty sure you have a job too.

I’ve had a number of jobs over the years, and in all the time I’ve held a job I have yet to find one that doesn’t expect anything of me.

I’ve yet to see a job description that says something like “We will pay you a fantastic salary to do things the way YOU want.  You can come and go as you please, with no real duties and no expectations on you.”

*Maybe* jobs like that exist.  I kind of doubt it though.  If they do, I’ll guess there aren’t very many of them and they’re probably in high demand.

No, generally the jobs that pay more also have higher expectations and responsibilities.  That’s kind of the way it works.

With most things in life, if you want to get more out of something you need to be willing to put more in.

Putting in effort in everything in life is key to maximizing what you get out of it.

This is why I can’t understand the mentality of people who are looking for the easy road in life.  People who are looking for fun without responsibility.  And people who just quit and walk away when things get hard.

If everything is supposed to be easy, where is the sense of accomplishment?  Where is the sense of ownership in having built something that matters?

 

I’m not saying people should NEVER quit.  Because there comes a point in time where you have to accept that things aren’t working, and you have to be willing to go in a different direction.

But I am saying there’s a HUGE different between putting everything you have into something, and being able to accept when it doesn’t work, vs quitting when things get hard or when things make you uncomfortable.

 

The Color Red

Years ago I took some philosophy classes in university.  University was a long time ago, so I don’t remember much; but periodically bits of Philosophy classes pop up in my head.

One of my classes was Epistemology (the study of knowledge), and in it I remember my prof presenting a hypothetical world where everything was red.

Paraphrasing here, he asked us:

“in a world where everything was red, would you be able to see the color red?  Would you even be able to conceive of it?”

That’s always stuck with me, and I think it’s especially relevant here.

Life isn’t always easy, and not only is that alright – it’s also NECESSARY.

We need to experience good AND bad, pleasure AND pain.  It’s the opposite side of the spectrum that allows us to appreciate the differences in life.

 

When people are looking for the “easy road”, they are trying to avoid the parts of life that make them uncomfortable.  Fun, without the responsibility.  Which is similar to pleasure, without the pain.  Or love, without the sacrifice.

 

But that’s not the way life works.

One of the more formative books I’ve read in recent years is Brene Browns “The Gifts of Imperfection”.  And beyond the discussion of trying to live an authentic life, one of the most important moments in it is when she talks about numbing behaviors.

We all have issues, and we all have pain to deal with in our lives.  But if you’re looking for the easy road, it’s because you want to avoid that pain.  So people turn to different things in order to numb the pain.  Drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex (affairs can be big ones), there are a number of numbing behaviors people will use.

But all of these are just escapes, and they don’t deal with the actual problems.  Because as Brene Brown says, we cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also number the positive emotions.

Fun without responsibility, pleasure without pain?  These aren’t sustainable.  They are short term “fixes” that do more harm than good.

 

The Keys To “Real Life”

Real life is complicated, and messy.  In real life we can’t selectively choose what we want to deal with and what we want to avoid.

But this also makes real life wonderful.

Earlier I mentioned that it’s the opposite side of the spectrum that allows us to appreciate the differences in life.

The key word there is APPRECIATE.

 

In real life, we need to be able to appreciate what we have, and not just look at what we are missing.  In fact, practicing active appreciation is probably one of the most important things you can ever learn to do.

 

People who can’t appreciate what they have tend to be chronically unhappy, while people who practice active appreciation tend to be happy, or at least content in life.

Active appreciation means living in the moment.  And when I say that I don’t mean being a selfish hedonistic a$$hole.  It means looking around you at what is REALLY important.

I guess that means different things to different people, but to me that means family and friends.  It means trying to do the right things and live with integrity.  It means facing issues instead of avoiding them.  It means BUILDING something instead of just using something.  And it means trying to appreciate what I DO have in my life instead of focusing on what is missing.

 

That doesn’t mean things are always good or I’ll get what I want.  And that doesn’t mean I’m always going to be happy.  But it means I can always put forth effort, and influence my situation in a positive way.

easyroad

Happiness is Overrated

asian young Couple not talking after  fight  in living roomThere seems to be a huge focus on happiness these days, specifically in relationships.

I’m at an age now where a lot of long term relationships/marriages are failing, or people are starting new relationships (after their marriage has failed).  And in these failed relationships, unhappiness is almost always cited as the main reason.

I hear things like:

  • I just want to be happy
  • Everyone deserves to be happy
  • Lifes too short to not be happy
  • I’m happy now (in the new relationship)

This focus on happiness worries me a bit, and in fact I think happiness is kind of a dangerous and even subversive concept.  And although I understand what people are getting at, I think they’re often missing the point.

Of course people “want to be happy”.  Really, does anyone actually go around and claim the opposite?  Unless you’re Grumpy from the seven dwarves, I don’t think anyone really wants to be unhappy (though I will admit there are some people who almost seem to thrive off negativity).

Yes, there are different emotions and generally the positive emotions are seen as preferable experiences to negative emotions (which is probably why some are classified as positive and others as negative).

I totally get all that.

Here’s my problem – what exactly is happiness?

Do you know?  Because I sure don’t; and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff.  I do however know that happiness is more than just a feeling.  Further no one is always happy, and even when someone IS happy, they aren’t going to be happy in every aspect of their life.

Happiness is not like a light switch that is “on” or “off”.  You can be happy at home, but not in your job.  Or happy when you get a bit of down time, but feel overwhelmed when faced with all the things that need to be done as part of domestic life.

Happiness is complex, and the aspects and levels of it aren’t consistent over time.

 

“Unhappy” Relationships

So what does this really mean to relationships?

When people leave (or thinking about leaving) a relationship because “they aren’t happy”, I don’t think it’s really about happiness.

Instead, I think it’s about conflict that a couple has been unable to resolve.

Over time, unresolved conflict creates an environment of hurt, and likely resentment.  That in turn creates tension in the relationship, as one or both members feel their needs aren’t being met and they aren’t being heard.  A few posts ago I talked about connection, and a big component of connection is feeling valued, heard, and seen.  So if you feel you aren’t being heard, this will cause the connection to break down.

Over time this leads to a perpetual state of tension within the relationship, which is emotionally draining.

With broken connection and a state of tension, a couple will have a harder time finding joy even in the good parts of the relationship and instead will often focus more on the problems as they become magnified.

And THIS will result in…

(ready for it?)

…unhappiness.

 

I know what you’re thinking –“but ZombieDrew, isn’t that the same thing?  Doesn’t it still boil down to the couple being unhappy?

Nope, and the distinction here is really important.

 

First, it’s important to remember that having conflict doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship.  It means you’re normal.  Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and is a byproduct of two different people building a life together.  You won’t always agree and you won’t always get along, and that’s alright.

Another important thing is unhappiness isn’t the problem, it’s a SYMPTOM of a different (and truly, a larger) problem.

And understanding that?  THAT really matters.

Because you can’t solve a symptom, you can’t solve unhappy.  You need to understand the actual problem.  And if you can understand the actual problem, THEN you can do something about it!!!

 

The Search for Happiness

My issue with people leaving relationships because they are unhappy (or searching for happiness) is that often they don’t really know WHY they were unhappy.  They stopped at the symptom, the feeling.

They knew they were “having problems”, and found themselves in a situation where they were unhappy for so long they believed the only way out was to leave the relationship.

They want to be happy again (after all, everyone “deserves” to be happy, life is too short to not be happy, blah blah blah).  So they leave, in order to find that feeling again.

(Actually often they go in search of the feeling before leaving the relationships, having emotional and or physical affairs that provide the “feeling” of happiness, which only solidifies their belief that there was something wrong with the relationship they are/were in.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

In any case, pursuit of a feeling leaves them looking for something they will likely never find.

 

Building Relationships

One of the big fallacies of relationships is that you just need to find the right person.  I absolutely hate this thinking, because it absolves people of responsibility in relationships.

Oh, our relationship failed because he/she wasn’t the right person.  I just need to find someone more compatible.

Sorry, that’s a load of crap.  Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of compatibility involved in relationships (though I believe it’s a much smaller factor than most people would think).

But here’s the thing – relationships are a skill.  And like any other skill, we can always improve the skill side of a relationship.  No matter how bad (or good) your relationship is right now, it can get better.

And THAT should be good news.

The catch is, you need to be willing to work to develop that skill.  And both parties need to be willing to do this.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal (no relationships are), but both people need to be trying.  And if they are?  Then ANY issue can be improved upon.

Notice I didn’t say fixed, some things can’t be fixed.  But all problems can get better.

 

Believing Change Can Happen

Its really important to believe that all problems can get better, because sometimes a couple DOES look at why they are having issues, they start to understand the problems; and then they give up.  They feel overwhelmed by the issues and take the attitude that they are “too big to fix”, or they can’t be changed because “this is just the way I am”.  And as a result they don’t really try.

This approach of quitting without really trying is called Learned Helplessness, and unfortunately it is a common approach for people who struggle with conflict resolution, people with mental health issues, as well as people who just aren’t very happy.

It’s a belief that someone has no control over the situation they are in, so why bother trying.  But it’s a broken thinking pattern, because people ALWAYS have control over their own choices and their own actions.  As I said, ANY issue can be improved.  But you have to be willing to put in the work.

learnedHelplessness

 

Going back to the “unhappy relationship”, this is almost always a question of conflict resolution.  Problems can’t be ignored, avoidance never works.  And you are NEVER helpless to make change.

It’s may seem easier at first to ignore things and avoid them, because dealing with things has an emotional cost.  But avoidance is a short sighted approach, because nothing gets resolved and the long term emotional costs of trying to deal with things when they’ve hit a critical mass are always higher later.

Plus, even when you are “avoiding” issues, they are always there.  These issues find ways to come out, normally through passive aggressive behavior by one or both parties, and that will only deepen the environment of hurt and resentment (making things worse).

 

The way out of this mess is through communication.  REAL communication.

When people talk about communication being the key to successful relationships, they aren’t just referring to talking.  Communication is about actually listening, trying to understand each other, and dealing with conflict in ways that are beneficial to the team.

If you aren’t actively working on making things better, then you aren’t really communicating.

CommunicationIssue

 

 

Happiness is Mostly About You

One thing I don’t like about this focus on happiness is, it’s an individual act.  It’s a focus on what a relationship does (or doesn’t do) for YOU.  While that is obviously important, I personally don’t think any relationship can thrive if that’s the focus.

Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Both people’s needs and wants have to be respected and valued, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.

For relationships to be successful the focus needs to shift from what the relationship does for me to what it does for us.  It needs to be a partnership that is mutually beneficial; and where people are just as interested in what they can add to it as what they get out of it.

unhappy-person-quotes-1.jpg

Communicating and building your relationships skills is difficult, because it can’t just be about you.  It requires facing the mirror and accepting your own part in the relationship issues.  It also requires truly letting go of past hurts and resentment in order to move forward.

But although these skills are difficult to build, they are the most important skills you will ever build in your lifetime.  They are worth the effort, and worth the stumbles that will happen along the way.

In my mind, as long as both partners are showing consistent effort towards building them, and being conscious about sliding back into avoidance and passive aggressive behavior, ANY relationship can not only succeed, but thrive.

 

Built to Last?

Happiness is a feeling, and feelings come and go.

Healthy relationships on the other hand have a number of components to them; pleasure, joy, appreciation and contentment.

And importantly, an acceptance that negative emotions are normal, and that conflict is a natural and even needed part of trying to grow both individually and as a couple.

Sometimes happiness is missing, and that should be alright.  Because if you can communicate, and resolve conflicts together without holding on to anger and resentment you will always find it again.  In fact it’s working through these difficult times that ultimately brings a couple closer.

 

So when people leave a relationship because they aren’t happy, I think it’s a cop out.  An excuse.

I understand leaving the relationship because you had communication issues and unresolved conflicts that were creating a toxic environment, and you reached a point that you gave up hope that things would ever improve.

I even understand leaving a relationship because you realized that addressing the issues was scary, and you weren’t prepared to do the work to make things better.

At least those reasons are honest.

They involve a level of self-awareness, and a realization that there is no magic wand or perfect person out there.  That those issues will still come up again, and will need to be addressed in the future or they could happen again.

 

But simply saying it’s because you were unhappy without understanding why, and chasing that feeling?  That simply sets you up to repeat the same mistakes again, and all but guarantees more unhappiness in your future.

 

meantToBe

What if Life had a Rewind Button?

rewindHeader

A few weeks ago I sold a car.

I’ve never sold anything worth more than a couple of dollars before, so the experience was actually a little bit intimidating.

To get the car ready to sell we needed to bring it to a shop for a safety check, and then address any issues that came from that (thankfully there’s weren’t many).  Once that was done and the car was cleaned up inside and out it was time to put it up for sale.

All that was left was the little question of price.

What was an appropriate price?  Truthfully, I had no idea.  So it was time to do some research.  I looked up other ads for the same model and year, talked to an insurance company for an estimated value, and checked a website with estimated values for cars.

I took all these numbers, factored in the condition of the car, and made a judgement call on what seemed “right”.

I posted the ad on Friday morning, hoping that the car would go within a few weeks…

…and then my phone started to ring.

I had a number of people interested in coming to take a look at it, and when I got home from work I had two people show up at my place right away.  Both were interested in the car, and I ended up selling it for exactly what I asked.  No bargaining, no haggling.

Pretty good, right?

In most ways, yeah.  But the response also makes me think I could and probably should have charged more.

I kind of wished I could have gone back in time 24 hours and added another $500 to what I was asking.  I mean, I could definitely use the money and I’m (now) pretty sure I would have got it.

Thing is, I can’t.  There is no rewind button.

Pricing the car was based on a decision that seemed like the right one at the time.  And that was all I could do.

 

 

That’s pretty much how life goes.  We are constantly making decisions, both big and small.  And when we make them, they are the decisions that appeared right to us in that moment.

Why?

Who knows.

Maybe our choice was based on careful deliberation or maybe it was an impulsive action.  Maybe we did something because we thought it was the altruistic thing to do, or maybe we were only thinking about ourselves (basically being a selfish asshole).

In some ways, our “intent” doesn’t matter as much as the result does.  Was that decision actually a good one?  And more importantly, if presented with the same choice in the future would we make the same decision?

Even if we later realize that the decision was a terrible one, we can’t change it.  Life doesn’t come with a rewind button.

Once we’ve made choice, it’s happened – and it’s up to us to own our decisions and live with the consequences – good or bad.

 

In psychology, rumination is a term used to describe being:

compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solution

– Wikipedia

 

Generally speaking, rumination is a BAD thing.  Getting caught up in would’ve, could’ve, should’ve and what if? can trap you in the past.  Sometimes people spend so much time and energy worrying about the things they’ve done and how they should or could have done them differently that they are unable to move forward in life.

The way I see it, time spent in rumination is nothing but wasted time.

No matter how much we may wish life came with a rewind button we can’t change it.  It doesn’t matter if you would do something differently with what you know now, you didn’t.

It’s happened.

A choice we made, and now all you can do is live with the consequences.

 

That’s not to say the past doesn’t matter.

We are still the owners of our own decisions.  So we need to own them, and be accountable for them.

This is well summed up by the late Muhammad Ali:

LearningAndGrowth

Learning is the key here.  Life doesn’t have a rewind button.  We are always moving forward, whether we like it or not.

 

We should always try to learn from our choices.

I’m not the same me that I was at 20.

I’m not the same me that I was at 30.

And I shouldn’t be.

 

Our past is important because it shapes us.  And it provides considerable value if we look at what we’ve done, what was good, what was bad, and try to be better next time.

But it should never trap us.

We make choices, good and bad.  But we only become trapped in our past when we refuse to use it to grow.