Last weekend, I went out to lunch with a few people. We started talking about politics and the news of the day — never a good idea in mixed company. Then, at one moment in the discussion, I made a counterpoint to another woman's point, and I suddenly found a human-sized lump in my throat as this person proceeded to launch themselves down my esophagus, metaphorically speaking.
I replied with a family-friendly five-letter word and sat back for the rest of the conversation and brooded. I wasn’t angry for a few minutes; I was angry for hours. I envisioned all manner of horrible things happening to this person, and I felt a strong urge to move out of the state, reset my entire life, and find new friends who didn’t like to pounce on others like rabid she-demons.
Worse yet, later that evening I downloaded the entire experience in a rage-filled tirade to my poor partner who had weathered quite a day of his own. We talked about this person, the experience, and my broader dissatisfactions ... for hours. Instead of discussing our future together or joking about happier things, I held us in a state of co-rhumination about the ills of my life and the world.
Eventually, he said something that stuck with me, and it will likely stick with me for the rest of my life. It was a concept I've read about countless times. Others had shared it with me in not so many words. But, for whatever reason, it felt like the first time I had ever heard this concept before — maybe because I was angry that the dinner I had tried to make for us was FUBAR, or that I felt my “fat pants” were the only appropriate fashion choice that night, or that he’s the closest to me outside of family, or that I felt completely emotionally empty and done. Maybe it was all of those things combined. Regardless, he told me this, and it shattered my reality:
You’re going to have to figure out how to be happy in your own mind and figure out how to make the environment around you support you in your happiness.
Okay, maybe that’s not a direct quote, but it’s pretty close.
I have read numerous times (and even shared here in this newsletter) that we are not responsible for how other people feel, and we can’t always control what other people will do to us. We are responsible for our own feelings, our own actions, and our own reactions to what people do to us. Empathy is all well and good, but, at the end of the day, we are responsible for how we feel, and it is up to us to make an environment around ourselves, to whatever extent possible, that supports us in our happiness.
It occurred to me, in that moment, that I wasn’t owning my role in how I felt, and I hadn’t owned it for quite a while. My environment was conducive to my work and other people finding it clean, but it wasn’t conducive to my own happiness. I had always looked to external stimuli for happiness — everything from shopping to other people’s good opinion of me. I had also been raised not to trust others outside my family circle, so when pounced on by an outsider, it fulfilled my worst assumptions about people, which shut me down almost completely. Years of single-sex education also taught me that woman-on-woman violence was one of the worst kinds, since it alienated women from one another, increasing the likelihood of their victimization by men, and generally eroding women’s collective power. But I digress.
Ultimately, the health and wellbeing of everything and everyone I care about depends on my ability to hold onto my own happiness. Bringing anger, frustration, and resentment to the people you love Isn’t how one shows love, obviously. That’s not to say one should hold up an inauthentic mask at all times. It’s only to say that, as inconvenient as it may be, happiness is a byproduct of a choice.
You could be surrounded by a hundred clowns, a thousand cute bunnies, piles of money, and know you have a one-on-one dinner with Oprah in a minute and you can still be deeply unhappy because of how you choose to feel.
You could also live in squalor without a penny to your name and no one to call family and still be profoundly happy.
So, for the sake of my family and friends, I am committed to working on this. I won’t change overnight. I may never actually change at all — old habits are hard to break. But I have nothing but sadness, frustration, and anger to lose.