Lessons Learned From The Other Side Of The Couch

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Facing Heartache & Pursuing Happiness

I’ve been a therapist for many years now. Over the course of those years people of various backgrounds, struggling with a variety of different challenges, have sat across from me.

Some have been young, others old. Some were full-time homemakers, others were skilled tradesmen, students, or unemployed. Still others were involved in successful practices involving medicine, the law, or business.

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A number of these individuals had grown up in wonderfully supportive homes, while others had struggled growing up in abusive, chaotic and horribly dysfunctional families.

Pretty early on in my career I began to notice that regardless of one’s history, or present circumstances, the people who succeeded in building a happy and full life had certain traits in common. For some people, these traits, or characteristics, seem to have developed easily. Perhaps they were winners in the genetic lottery. For most, however, the traits that helped them weather life’s storms, and create happier lives, appeared to be hard won.

Today I want to look at just one of these traits. Of all the qualities that add to one’s ability to build a full and happy life, this one may be the most difficult to build. But not no impossible. Far from it. With persistence, and continued practice, this trait will take root in one’s character, and a richer life will be crafted as a result.

Responsibility   

Assuming responsibility for one’s happiness is one of the top key traits I’ve seen in those who appear most fulfilled in life. This is true whether the person is currently struggling with grief, depression, anxiety or some other distress. It is not that these people don’t recognize the severity of the hardships that bear down on them: they do not view life through rose colored glasses. Very much the opposite. They are realists to the core.

Instead of glossing over the heartaches of life, they squarely acknowledge the pain of each setback. Having down so, however, they also take full responsibility for the task of then moving forward and building a happy life as best as their abilities will allow.

A more natural reaction to have in the face of great heartache, and one that many of us may have indulged in on occasion, is to exclaim “If only XYZ were different, then I could be happy.”

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This way of thinking is attractive because it often contains at least a kernel of truth. If your boss had been fair, you really would have received that promotion, and that truly would have made life much better. If that other driver had not run the red light you would not have been injured, and would not now be facing months of physical therapy. If only….

It’s interesting to note, however, that those who manage to build happy lives despite these sort of hardships do not spend a lot of time dwelling on the “If only” scenarios of life. Sure, they recognize when life has dealt them a harsh challenge. They might momentarily become sad, grief stricken or angry. But this is does not become an entrenched state of mind. They find no permanent comfort in viewing life from that perspective. It is not a mental state where they set up camp.

More often than not, when they do get dragged into those mental marsh lands, they find ways to dig themselves out. They continue to look for paths to higher ground where they can stand on the firmer road of hope, friendship, and a life of shared purpose.  

What fuels these men and women, in part, is a sober acceptance of the reality that only one person can ultimately change their life. Only one person has responsibility for their happiness. That one person, of course, is them self.

An example of this approach to life may help drive the point home. Some years ago I had been talking to a friend, Chris, at dinner when the conversation turned to the topic of his father. Chris mentioned that his dad (let’s call him Jack) had a difficult childhood. As a teen growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s, Jack unexpectedly found himself in a compromising situation. Sizing he situation up, he quickly decided that leaving the state in search of friendly environs would redound to his great advantage. Jack had heard that California was the land of opportunity, and so a young man in his teens he struck out on his own and headed off to the Golden State.

After arriving in California he bounced around from job to job, even spending some time as a professional boxer. Eventually, however, he decided that learning a trade was the way to carve out a more secure financial future. Jack figured that becoming an electrician would be a good idea: it provided a decent income, and work would always be plentiful for someone with that skill set.

Getting an electrician license required several years of apprenticeship. The rewards of being in that trade would not come easily. Even so, Jack knew that the payoff would be worth the price and apprenticed himself to a local electrician.

After several years of working long hours for very little money, Jack went to the government office that issued electrician licenses. After patiently waiting in line, he stepped up to the licensure desk where a neatly dressed woman sat. “Good morning mam. I’m here to apply for my electrician’s license.”

The woman looked puzzled and remained quiet for a moment before saying “You can’t get an electricians license.” Jack thought she had misunderstood. “I’ve got all my documents right here. All the hours I’ve apprenticed. It’s all in order.” He politely placed his paperwork on the desk.

Without looking down at the documents the women calmly replied “It’s not a matter of how many hours you’ve apprenticed. That’s not it at all. We don’t issue electrician licenses to negroes.”

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Chris finished telling the story.  I thought for a moment, then commented about how the injustice of the situation would cause me to be both angry and bitter.

It seemed a reasonable sentiment. After all, without any just cause his father had wasted several years of his life, hours of labor, and the application of his skills pursuing a goal that was foreclosed by blatant bigotry. I started to elaborate but my protests were cut short. Chris leaned back in his chair and began laughing.

Smiling and shaking his head in disbelief he said “Well, you don’t know my father. He is one of the least bitter men I’ve ever known. Nope, if he was bitter he didn’t let it stick to him. Instead he just walked away and began to think about other trades he could pursue. Didn’t take him long to land on the idea of selling real estate… and he ended up doing extremely well. I mean really, really well. My dad wasn’t one to let others determine his happiness. He took charge of his own life.”

That story struck a note. Chris’ father had not justified the bigotry that foreclosed the possibility of being an electrician. But neither did he let it define him, consume his thoughts, curtail his pursuit of success, or dampen his happiness. He focused on what he could do to carve out a life that was meaningful, full, and satisfying. As a result, he was not only freed from bitter resentment, but emotionally unburdened so as to fully enjoy the success that his continued hard work and skills would eventually bring about.

Conclusion

Whether we are struggling with gross injustice, misfortune, illness, or the ramifications of our own poor choices, the final responsibility for a life well lived ultimately rests on our own shoulders.

It’s true that some of us face much tougher challenges than others. The disparity in the hardships we face can seem unfair. Even so, this does not alter the reality of how we secure a full and happy life: by accepting that no matter the challenges we face, it is up to each of us to build a full and happy life.

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Those that I’ve known who do this well would not claim that it is easy. Many of them have been faced with terrible losses and setbacks. Their lives marked, at times, by great heartache. But even so they push on, not letting themselves remain focused on the pain, but relentlessly searching for ways to drink in whatever joy they can find in life.

This does not erase the sorrows that invariably must be faced. But for those who adopt this approach, it affords a road that more often than not leads to a much brighter future.