Thursday, September 1, 2011

In Pursuit of Happiness

Photography by Ron Dahlquist
 by Norm Ephraime, Ed. D.

Let's face it.  We all want to be happy.  The pursuit of happiness is a common pursuit.  We all realize, sooner or later, that outer success does not produce lasting happiness.

So what does?  Loving ourselves and loving others.  In fact, we can only love others authentically when we love ourselves.

So why is it that some people seem to feel self love easily, while others spend their lives searching in relationships or career accomplishments to find it?  While it may seem cliche, the answer does seem to point
to experiences in childhood.

What we know as self esteem begins, originally, in the esteem parents have for their children.  Through the simplest acts of touch, attention to feelings, and guidance toward accomplishment, a child comes to see their own worth reflected in their parent's eyes.  They see themselves as love-able, i.e. worthy and able to be loved.

These feelings are so powerful that they have been found to influence longevity.  When through various forms of abuse and neglect a child fails to get this mirror of love, two things happen.  First the child begins to take in the feeling of defectiveness or un-loveability.  Since, to a child, a parent is God, parental abuse and neglect (including insensitivity to feelings) is experienced as justified.  "If mommy or daddy treats me this way, it must be my fault."

A second thing also happens.  Children are masters at devising strategies to get love or prevent abandonment.  A common "protective strategy" is perfectionism.  "If I'm perfect, then mommy or daddy will love me."

The search for perfection can become a lifetime one, whether it be for the perfect partner, the perfect accomplishment, or the perfect amusement or "high".  But the result will always be disappointing.  Nothing can replace self love.

Is there hope for those who didn't get enough love in childhood?  The answer is a resounding yes!!  But like anything worthwhile, it takes effort.  The key is in the way we experience our memories of parenting.

Rather than being simply static memories from childhood, each of us carries within our mind an "inner parent", a voice which talks to us much as our parents did.  If our parenting was primarily supportive, our self talk will also be supportive.  If our parenting was primarily negative, we will tend to be self critical much of the time.

Some of this self criticism will be a simple replay of what we heard.  More often, though, a child criticizes themselves to protect their relationship with parents.  In this fact lies both the source of much of our distress -- and the seed of our renewal.

Once we realize that people with high self-esteem talk lovingly to themselves -- especially when under stress, and those with low self-esteem are self critical, we create for ourselves a pathway to change.  The goal becomes changing the way we talk to ourselves.

Three Steps to Move from a Pursuit of Happiness to True Happiness

Step One:  Awareness

It's amazing how differently we can talk to ourselves at different times.  If we're having a good day, our mind often reflects this in positive thoughts.  Often, at such times, our mind can be very quiet and peaceful.

Contrast this with times we're under stress or after experiencing some disappointment.  At those times our mind can be quite negative and quite "busy."

In my experience, when our mind is full of anxiety, and general static, we are often re-experiencing a "child state of mind."  In essence, a negative life event has sent us shuttling back in time to experience younger feelings.  Once we can recognize how we've gone from feeling expansive and adult to insecure and childlike we have an amazing gift.  We can feel compassion.

Step Two:  Compassion

When ever we shift into an insecure child state of mind (we all do at times), we each "go home" to specific inner experiences of support, abuse, or neglect.  Depending on our particular childhood, we will be able to generate self love and self care at such times, or not.

But whatever happens, it's not our fault.  This fact is crucial.  Once we recognize that it's only by the luck of the draw that we go home, in our minds, to inner parental support, we become more empathic.

We can feel love for ourselves and our particular story.  From that compassion we can truly take better care of ourselves.  We can undertake authentic adult action.

Step Three:  Authentic Adult Action

In a child state of mind, we often feel passive and helpless.  Our self talk includes either anxious statements like "I'll never be good enough," "I can't do it," "If only," or self critical ones "snap out of it," "grow up," or "stop making a mountain out of a mole hill."

Once we recognize that we're in a child state, and have compassion to our unique childhood experience, we need to actively assert our adult energies.  Authentic adult actions are those which help us shift out of a child state to a more expansive and adult sense of ourselves.  Simply put, authentic adult action involves greater self care.

Often authentic adult action involves challenging our stream of negative self talk.  This is much easier to do when we realize that we're in a child state of mind.  We may be stuck in the pursuit of happiness and not truly happy.  Whenever we're having catastrophic "what if" thoughts about the future, we can become more relaxed if we recognize that our thinking may be more that of a young child than a full adult.

This can give us compassion -- and, often, a humorous perspective.  The three keys to self love and truer happiness are awareness, compassion, and authentic adult action.

About the Author:

Norm Ephraim, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist in Boston, Mass. specializing  in the treatment of anxiety and depression.  He is the author of Mood Shifting:  Understanding and Transforming Your Negative Moods.

Originally published 08/28/98 Revised 11/05/08 by Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D.


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