Tag Archives: Personal Responsibility

How to be happy (Part 2)

In the last part we looked at what it might be like to take the path of Personal Responsibility, as described by Marshall Rosenburg. It’s a hard road because on it, in a very real sense, we’re left with “no-one else to blame” but ourselves. In fact, during my struggle with exactly this fact, I began to understand that thinking in terms of “fault” and “blame” is not only inaccurate, as Rosenburg suggests, but also really unhelpful in the pursuit of happiness.

Unlucky for me, there was a big old mountain to climb before I could see it:

2. Acknowledge Your Past

If you’re anything like me, pretty soon after you start trying to take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings and actions, one of two things will happen.

  1. You’ll become angry and try extra hard to blame or find fault with people and things outside you.
  2. You’ll become depressed, anxious and unhappy because you start to blame or find fault with yourself.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll get both at the same time!

We’re all carrying pain in our past. If nothing else, the violence of being born is something. But for most of us, painful memories and experiences from later in our lives are there as well.

Image Credit: NeedPix

As children we learn to deal with the insults and beat-downs we receive, the times when we’re ignored or half listened-to, the injustices we face. Some of them are small, others much larger. In all cases, the flexibility of our brains allows us to develop strategies to cope without needing to think about it.

As I child I learned these four things:

  1. Intellectualisation – I read as much as I could about human motivation and behaviour, trying to understand why the people around me were doing things that hurt so much.
  2. Distraction – I kept myself as busy as I could, no matter how. This had the bonus that, when things I did were judged by others to be “worthwhile” I could get a self-esteem boost from their approval.
  3. False Humour – when people would call me names at school, I’d go along with it, agreeing with them and laughing, for example. Later I invented an extroverted, upbeat “camp” persona. Later still, I acted cool, happy and relaxed, even when I was dying inside.
  4. Externalisation – I made it my mission to root out injustice, finding elements of culture, politics or public life that I didn’t like, and constructing violent arguments against them.

These reflexes of thought and action really work! That’s why they exist in the first place: Encoded in the synapses of the brain, a pattern gets stronger each time it helps us to avoid pain or find pleasure. If a strategy doesn’t work, it’s soon replaced by one that does. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve “got it figured out” and in time our strategies get so ingrained, so automatic that we think of them as “just the way I am”.

Simple explanation of synaptic growth and pruning from Harvard University

When we try and unravel the past, and to be accurate about what’s driving our thoughts, feelings and actions in the present, massive alarm bells start to ring. As far as our brains are concerned, nothing much has changed: We’re still vulnerable children in a confusing, possibly hostile world, and we need these defenses there to keep us safe.

For me it was definitely like this: each time I’d try to look at a painful memory or experience, it was as if I was hanging from a crane 50m in the air by a single thread, and some kind of gremlin was approaching with a pair of scissors. Very frightening, very hard to think rationally, and even harder to remain there, given any choice at all.

And what’s the point? You might well ask. Why dig up the past in the first place?

“…it was as if I was hanging from a crane 50m in the air by a single thread, and some kind of gremlin was approaching with a pair of scissors.”

The only answer I can really give is that “I had to”: Once I stopped blaming others and gave space to personal responsibility, I realised that these old patterns of behaviour were so powerful, so pervasive, that it was “them”, not “me”, if you like, that was running the show. I saw that I had no idea at all who I was or what I really wanted, and I needed to find out.

It wasn’t, and still isn’t easy. In many ways, the hardest thing to do is the simplest: to observe without judgement.

So often, after something had gone wrong, perhaps, I’d ask myself the question: “What am I feeling?”, “Why did I just say that?”, “What am I bringing to the table”, and a flood of judgement, criticism, blame, anger, fear, boredom or fatigue would bury me. I started crying all the time, became needy, paranoid and volatile, as if the last thing on earth I should do was carry on…

Part 3: Connect

If you’re touched by any of this, have gone through or are going through anything that feels similar, I’d really love to hear from you, especially if you’re a guy. Click below to tweet at me, leave a comment, or DM me here, I promise to get back to you.

Cover image via PxHere under creative commons license.

How to be happy (Part 1)

Three years ago, I took the first step on a journey which has been more difficult, and at the same time more rewarding, than I imagined anything could ever be. The end is still nowhere in sight, but today I can say for certain that I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I want to show you where I’ve gone so far.

A Story

A woman is walking beside a river. She sees an old man sitting on the bank and wailing as if in terrible pain. “What’s wrong?” she asks, “Are you alright?”

“No no!” He sobs, “I’m so unhappy! I’ve been sitting here beside this river all my life, and I’m so very tired! If only the other bank would come to me I would feel at peace!”
“The other side of the river?” The woman asks, amazed. “You want the other side of the river to come to you?”

“Yes! Yes!” Cries the man, “So many people have passed this way and told me how beautiful it is on the other side of the river, I must see it! It’s the only thing I need before I die!”
“Well can’t you swim?” She asks.
“No no! I’m too old to swim, the current would carry me away!”
“And what about the bridge? It’s just a few miles down…”
“Oh no! I couldn’t go there!” Cries the man, “I have such pain in my knees!”
“The ferry, then, I’ll go and ask the ferryman to come and carry you across.”

“No! No! NO!” He howls, “I’m terrified of water! Please kind lady, if you really want to help me, come, sit down beside me here and pray. I’m sure in time the other bank will come.”

(adapted from a talk by SN Goenka)

1. Take Responsibility

In the beginning, just like the man by the river, I was waiting for something to happen. Just like him I felt awful, and at the same time powerless to do anything about it; crippled, if you like, by problems that were “out of my control”.

The first real decision I took was that I had to change something. Whatever I thought I was doing to help myself, it wasn’t working. The evidence was right in front of me: I was miserable, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

“Whatever I was doing or thought I was doing to help myself, it wasn’t working.”

A few months later, I came across the writing of Marshall Rosenberg. In his book, Nonviolent Communication, he talks about denial of responsibility, and says that our lives become complicated when we attribute to external causes, the things that actually happen inside us.

Let’s say you’ve left your children in the car for a couple of minutes, you’re waiting at the checkout in the supermarket and someone cuts in front of you. How true is it to say “I feel angry because that idiot jumped the queue”?

Well, in fact there are a lot of other factors at play:

  • Are you in a hurry? If you weren’t worried about the kids, would you mind it less?
  • Why do you think he did it? Would you feel differently if he was buying something sugary for his diabetic wife who was half dead in a coma outside?
  • How do you interpret what he did? Do you see it as a sign that he thinks he’s better than everyone else, perhaps? Are there other guesses you could make?
  • What else are you bringing to the table? Do you feel annoyed that you’re sticking to the rules and he isn’t? Does it feel unfair to you? Do you feel guilty for leaving the kids?

This isn’t about fault or blame. No-one’s denying that you feel angry. No-one’s saying you shouldn’t. It’s just more accurate, if you will, to say something like: “I feel angry seeing that guy jump the queue because now my wait will be longer and I really need to get back to my children.”

Seems benign enough, but there’s a real difficulty here. Think about it: by explaining my anger in relation to my own needs, rather than the actions of “that idiot”, I invite the idea that my own choices might have more to do with my anger than I thought. I’ve acknowledged, after all, that I feel angry, at least in part because I’m anxious about the kids, who I decided to leave in the car. This, in turn, automatically brings other, also inaccurate, also emotive thoughts: I left the kids in the car because

  • I didn’t want the hassle of dragging them around the shop. (I’m so lazy)
  • I thought I would be much quicker than this. (I’m so stupid)
  • I always find it difficult to say no to them when they ask for sweets. (I’m such a bad parent)
  • I wanted to say yes when they asked if they could stay. (I’ll feel so guilty if they get abducted)

Whoa! That escalated fast!

And it’s true; at pretty much the moment that I dipped my toe in this water, everything got much, much worse.

Part 2: Acknowledge Your Past

If you’re touched by any of this, have gone through or are going through anything that feels similar, I’d really love to hear from you, especially if you’re a guy. Click below to tweet at me, leave a comment, or DM me here, I promise to get back to you.

Cover image via PxHere under creative commons license.