As a word nerd, I love to look up the definition of words, even words I know. As a therapist, the idea of happiness and trying to help people “be happy” has been mulling around in my head so I thought I would try to sort it out on paper. Webster’s defines happy as “feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.”; “pleased or glad about a particular situation, event, etc.” (emphasis added) And there, in the definition we have the answer: the circumstances of life are not always pleasurable. If we start from the distorted premise that we are supposed to be happy as the goal of life, it is easy to see how we can be led on the endless pursuit of happiness...down whatever yellow-brick road we think will get us to Oz, i.e. a relationship, beauty/body image, success, wealth, excitement, escape, etc.
What if the premise is wrong? What if life is about BEING and embracing all of the emotions of life instead of chasing after only one and avoiding or repressing the others. No one wants to experience sadness, hurt, or worry. I know it is not enjoyable; in fact, it is painful and hard. And, at the same time, it is a necessary part of life when fully embraced and fully lived...in truth, it is probably where we grow and change the most. Happiness feels good, and I hope for as much of it as possible for all of us; however, it is not the marrow of life; it is not necessarily where we grow to a new level of understanding and loving and being. It is not usually where the journey of living is done, but rather, the reward and respite along the path of life to be savored and shared with others, for us to have the energy and strength for the hard parts of the journey. If we are so busy chasing happiness, speeding down the path to where we think it is, we may miss a lot of it along the way. In life, there will be times of great happiness, times of contentment, times of worry, times of great sadness, and times when it’s all mixed up.
-Acceptance of and loving ourselves,
-Allowing ourselves to BE in this life, and
-Allowing ourselves access to all of our emotions for the purpose they were intended...to bring understanding and ability to cope with the circumstances of life...
May just be the way of happiness...maybe it isn’t a pursuit after all...maybe, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we have the answer all along and don’t know it is in every step we take.
Perhaps it’s not a destination nor something to pursue, but something to look for, cultivate, and embrace along the way. The more things we notice and allow to make us happy; the happier we will be. The simpler they are; the easier they are to find. So... where do you find happiness? I hope you notice and experience as much of it as possible while also allowing yourself to experience all of the emotions of life.
We've probably all heard the sayings about forgiveness being more for ourselves than for the other person such as, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” (Marianne Williamson) I think very few of us would disagree with such sentiment or the importance of forgiveness for our own spiritual, emotional, and relational wellbeing. The problem is that it is hard. When forgiveness is based on a feeling, it is hard to let go of the hurt or fear that is usually covered by anger or hate. That is probably why religion teaches us that forgiveness is not based on a feeling but rather a decision. If we can decide that we have forgiven, hopefully, as cognitive therapy suggests, our feelings will follow suit. But once again, the problem occurs; forgiveness is hard.
Perhaps it would be easier if we could understand why it’s so hard to do. Why do we have to fight so hard to let go of the pain? That should be easy to do...if it hurts, let it go. But that’s much easier said than done. What if I told you that unforgiveness is serving a purpose? And, until we don’t need it anymore, it will fight very hard to stay. “What,” you may ask, “could its purpose possibly be?” I would answer, “to protect you.” Until we no longer need the extra emotional energy of anger to stand up for ourselves or to protect ourselves, unforgiveness will stay to provide what we need.
This leads me to the lesson I want to share: You do not have to hold on to the hurt or the hate to remember the lesson and take care of yourself. You can stand up for and take care of yourself just because you deserve care and protection, not because you are angry. And there it is; we have to really believe it’s ok to take care of ourselves: to have boundaries, to say no, or in some cases, to cut someone who is hurting us out of our life. This is easy to do when we are angry, but without the extra emotional “oomph” from being angry, it can be very difficult for many of us: difficult to stand our ground, difficult to say no without excuses, difficult to not feel bad for protecting ourselves in relationships. So the anger stays and gives us the protection we need when we can’t trust ourself without the anger to protect us from the person or situation that has caused us pain by putting up boundaries and saying, “this is not ok.” So you can see that we actually need to stay angry as a way of self protection until we can be trusted to protect our self without it.
If this is true, it means we can actually help ourself through the process of unforgiveness when we are stuck. When we learn to love and care for ourself, we will no longer be dependent on the anger to take care of us so we could actually let it go. We could let anger do it’s job, which is simply to send our brain the message that someone has hurt us or done us wrong and for us to take appropriate measures to protect ourselves. When this is done, the emotion of anger can go back from whence it came because its mission is complete. Would it surprise you to know that the definition of “forgive” in Webster’s Dictionary is actually “to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong)?” And this is why forgiveness is hard. If the purpose of the message of anger is not being acted upon, it will keep sending the message.
Perhaps this is why it is often the kindest, gentlest ones among us, the “people pleasers,” who have so much trouble with letting go of the anger. Often times when we do, we are defenseless against the person who has wronged us, and the cycle repeats. The anger stays because it is necessary for self protection. Without the anger, we often “feel bad” or “mean” for standing up for ourselves.
We can also get stuck because we are looking for and expecting what we need to be able to forgive from the other person: the validation of our right to be hurt, the caring that we are hurt, and the assurance that we will not be hurt again. When the other person offers us these things, we are usually quick to forgive. The problem is that often times what we need never comes from the other person. Perhaps they only offer a defense or justification of themselves or blame us without caring for our hurt feelings and offer no understanding that would show us they won’t do it again. So as long as it depends on getting what we need from them, we are stuck. The lesson I have learned, is that it doesn’t depend on them. You have the power to heal all along just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz had the power to go home. You have the power to give to yourself what you need to heal from the hurt by doing exactly what you have sought from the other person. 1) You can validate your own right to be hurt. 2) You can care for your hurt by allowing yourself to feel your painful emotions and heal from them, perhaps with the help of therapy. 3) You can take the steps necessary to protect yourself from a repeat of the hurt through boundaries.
Of course, we can’t prevent every hurt. There is great pain in our world, and as human beings, we often cause each other pain, intended and unintended. However, we can handle our hurt in a better way. We can provide for ourselves the love, care and protection we need. Or we can hold on to the anger, the unforgiveness, and the bitterness that is the recipe for the very poison we drink. Remember, you do not have to hold on to the pain to hold on to the truth of what happened.
After much experience as a marriage therapist, I believe that most, if not all, problems in a relationship are because of attention. Attention is a significant need, and not just for children. When our emotional needs are met, we can look quite mature; however, when they are not, it’s often a different story. When our need for attention is not perceived to be met adequately, we can begin to feel desperate and act out.
A good friend of mine and fellow marriage therapist, Brandon Arbuckle, LMFT, used to say that to give attention to someone simply means “to attend to their need.” With this understanding of attention, it is easy to see why the lack of attention can be so damaging in relationship. The opposite of giving attention would mean to ignore the need of the other. Of course, we all want someone to attend to our needs. This mutual attending to one another is the essence of relationship. Because of this, I do not agree that needing or wanting attention is a flawed character trait or something to be ridiculed. It is the way in which we seek attention that is most often perceived as negative and problem causing. In this writing, I am not addressing the need for excessive attention, which is for another post.
With a child, it is easy to see how they call attention to their needs. What may not be so easy to see, is that as adults, we do the same. When there is a lack of attention, or attending to our needs, as adults we either throw a fit, cry, scream, have a tantrum and demand attention or we may simply withdraw and pout, hoping that the other person will understand our communication and come running to check on us. However obvious it may be that these tactics rarely get us the type of attention we desire, we continue to operate in this way unless we mature in our ability to express our needs appropriately to our partner. This can be difficult because to simply state our need for attention is vulnerable and can feel scarier than throwing a fit or hiding our need by pouting. After a long time of not having adequate attention, the final response is to give up wanting attention. This can be seen in the behaviors exhibited by children in orphanages who do not receive adequate attention to thrive. They simply no longer seek attention; they no longer cry. This is a dangerous point in relationship, and often the point of the end, even if the other partner begins to show the longed for attention. It is often too little, too late. It is at this point as well that one may begin to look for attention elsewhere. It is a self-protective factor to begin to no longer want that which one cannot have, especially if the wanting causes pain. Therefore, at this point, the relationship is in the danger zone for an affair. At this time in the relationship, couples often begin counseling. One partner has finally woken up to the need of the other; however, the other is “done.” This “being done” is ominous as it means: I’m done trying; I’m done fighting; I’m done wanting; I’m done caring.
People usually use all three ways of reacting to a lack of attention at one time or another; however, personality usually dictates a preferred way of responding: either throwing a fit, pouting, or not caring. I use these childish terms because they are easy to understand. I hope this is not offensive. I certainly have done all three in my time. I can throw a fit with the best of them; however, my go-to has been to pout. I am an introvert, and so I naturally tend to withdraw if my feelings are hurt. Even after 30 years of marriage and years of being a marriage therapist, the pout can still get me at times. The worst part about any of the three responses, is the ease with which they occur and the intentionality with which it takes to do something differently. By throwing a fit and with pouting, the unintended consequence is that we push away the very person that we want to draw close. As an experienced pouter, I can attest that there is nothing worse than being stuck in a pout and not being able to get out. Even after the pout has ended, pride keeps you stuck there. The same can be true of throwing a fit. The warning signal of the not-caring response is that it is much more significant than a pout because there is no emotional energy driving it. It has been described by clients to me as being “numb” or having no feeling at all…as being “done.”
I have seen and treated couples at every point on the spectrum so I want to paint a picture of what it looks like and to let you know that it doesn’t have to be this way. These are the very issues that marriage therapy can really help with. The saddest thing for me as a therapist, is to be asked to help too late; knowing that with earlier intervention, each partner could have had a chance to express their need for attention and possibly have been heard before the amount of hurt made it impossible.
So the take away is: Yes! you do need attention, and that’s not a bad thing. If you or your partner can recognize these patterns in your relationship, especially as a cause of pain and conflict, please try counseling from a marriage therapist. It really can help.