I checked all the boxes. Why am I not happy?
When I was growing up, my mom used to tell me that there was a formula for being happy. For a Boomer mom, it was probably similar to others. The checklist went like this:
Get good grades so you can…
Get into a good college so you can…
Get a good job so you can…
Get a promotion so you can…
Buy the house and the car so you can…
Feel confident you can support yourself so you can…
Get married so you can…
Then poof, you’ll be happy.
I was in my mid-30s when I finally checked all the boxes of the formula.
And I was more depressed than I ever was before. I kept telling myself, “I should be happy” or “I should be grateful,” but happy and grateful weren’t everyday occurrences.
I was frustrated. I felt like a failure. I had a good job and I should be happy. I had a healthy family and I should be grateful. But the more I thought I should be, the more frustrated and depressed I got. I thought there must be something wrong with me.
Even when I felt grateful, the dreaded feeling of waking up every day and crying on the way to work to my “good job” was overwhelming. My doctors gave me depression meds and I felt a bit numb for a while even though the tears never stopped coming. I felt like a bad mom, wife, friend, and employee. I moved through life like a keg of TNT ready to emotionally explode.
For a long time (several years), I did the motions throughout my life. It was exhausting, energy-draining, and full of illnesses.
The thing is, I was living someone else’s life…the life my mom thought would have made her happy. I was chasing someone else’s idea of happiness. I thought that was what I was supposed to want and do, but overall it created havoc in my body and made me doubt whether I was capable of being happy or even knowing what happy looked like for me.
It was easier just to go through the motions of life and try my best to ignore than explore what was happening. I kind of figured I would just grow to love my life or at least survive it, which I was used to.
Then one day, a fortunate thing happened. I had been taking my young son to therapy because his father, my first husband, moved across the country and it impacted him. After a year of his therapy, his therapist said to me, “Christina, your son will be fine when you are.”
Now I may drag my feet on my happiness, but when it came to the mental health of my son, I would do anything. So I got a therapist and started looking at my beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.
Now this is the part where I wish I could say that everything changed overnight, but it didn’t. It took several years for me to shift into more possibilities than the formula I had been given and to shift the way I looked at happiness. Instead of forcing my mom’s formula to work for me, I had to find my own—the one specifically for me.
What I learned:
If I want to be happy, I have to take it with me.
I would create big goals and sacrifice all my happiness until I got to the goal. I would shove forward on the steps to my goal—often sacrificing my sleep and wellness—until I achieved the goal. Then I could be happy. Only I wasn’t because I was already chasing and sacrificing for another goal.
We aren’t going to be happy when we get there if we don’t practice being happy on the way there.
I have to decide what my happiness is.
Is it feeling radiant, confident, joyful, or silly? What does it look like? It looks like so many things to so many people. What version of happiness do I want to feel?
How can I bring happiness with me? How can I infuse happiness into my day? How can I bring the happy into the steps of the goal? How can I be happy along the way?
Simple, simple questions that turned my beliefs and my thoughts upside down.
Because it wasn’t just about what I had to bring with me, it was more about what I needed to put down or let go of. This was the hard part for me.
I had to let go of:
1. Perfectionism. Happy certainly isn’t here because perfect is a moving target. We can always refine and shift what perfect looks like, and chances are, I’ll never really get there. It demanded that I be perfect too and by my 40s, I lost my interest in perfect because it was unattainable and kept me depressed.
2. People-pleasing. I wanted the formula to work for me. I wanted my mom to be proud of me. I wanted to please all the people around me, but that was really for their happiness, not mine. So I stopped putting everyone else’s pleasure way above mine.
3. External validation. Doing things my way meant not everyone (especially my mom) was going to understand. I needed to learn to validate myself and my own wisdom.
4. Worrying about the unknown. This was a big one because I liked to feel in control, but when you’re blazing a new path, there are a lot of unknowns. I had to learn to trust myself and my gifts.
5. Ignoring the Inner Critic. I believed that not acknowledging the inner critic and judgmental side of me was going to help. She came back every time. I learned how to love her without allowing her to take control of the situation.
6. The belief that I earned my worth. Everything was about productivity and the next goal; if there was no productivity or goal, I thought I was being flakey and not contributing to making my life better. There was no rest, no play—just sacrifice, sacrifice. Otherwise, I didn’t feel good about who I was. The truth is that we don’t earn our worthiness. We are just worthy.
7. Avoiding my feelings. Feelings are indicators as to where we are. By ignoring my feelings, I drove myself into chronic exhaustion and depression. Believe me when I say learning to tune in without allowing feelings to take control is one of the most powerful tools I have. Avoiding feelings just makes them stack up until our next blowup or depressive episode.
There’s a lot of healing in my specific traumas too, but these are the big stoppers that had me stuck in my sh*t and just out of reach of happiness.
Today I teach these tools because I never learned them growing up—like most of us. Being happy is an inside job. No one can tell you what happiness is for you, but I invite you to start listening to what’s within.
So what does happiness look like to you?