As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, September 8, 2005

We all yearn for happiness.  We want to feel emotionally fulfilled, mentally engaged, physically strong, and spiritually uplifted.  Although a lot of factors are necessary to create such strong feelings of well being, accepting yourself with compassion is essential.  The more critical you are of yourself, the more situations will trigger you to be unhappy. Your happiness becomes an accident of circumstance.

So, if happiness is eluding you, begin by getting to know yourself.  When you are distressed, pay attention to your experience.  At first, you will probably hear inner voices urgently addressing you with commands, criticisms, or diversions.  Be aware of negative messages like “you’re such a loser.” These are the voices of your fears and anxieties.  Learn to recognize and identify them.

Next, question the negative voices. They may speak with such authority that you will believe them. Often, they are just plain wrong. They tend to generalize small problems as large personality flaws, present things in black-and-white, turn small difficulties into catastrophes, and find fault in you when there is none. For example, they might say, “You are no good with people.” Are you really no good with all people? Or, is the voice conveniently forgetting your good relationship with your sister, friend, or co-worker? If the statement is untrue, it is undermining. So, pick apart what the voice is saying.  Realizing its inaccuracies is by itself a way to begin feeling stronger and happier.

If there is an element of truth and a problem really does exist, state it to yourself more precisely. In the above example, it might be more accurate to say you have difficulty talking in groups; or with new people. Decide if that requires action. Maybe you are okay meeting socially one-on-one with others and avoiding social groups. There’s nothing wrong with that if it works for you.  If you do want to change the situation, acknowledge the difficulty as presenting you with an opportunity to grow. Decide on the steps you need to take to change your problem and get to work.  Whether you decide to change or not, this process transforms your self-criticism into nonjudgmental observation

Self-defeating thoughts sap your energy and enthusiasm in life. So, work to reduce them. As they loosen their grip, excuse these uninvited intruders.  Re-focus on other, more positive, aspects of your experience.

Eventually, with time and effort, the healthier part of you will become stronger. This more positive self has been with you all your life, though it might have been overpowered by your own criticism (perhaps encouraged by the criticism of others).  It knows your genuine feelings and is sympathetic to your struggles.  As this part of you becomes a more prominent part of your experience, you will begin to respond directly to various circumstances rather than to the inaccurate, critical voices. You will also develop the faith that you can handle those situations. Practice listening to this healthier self, and you will become more empowered and happier.

Perhaps you can relate to a client I treated a few years ago. When a boyfriend she loved left her, she was extremely distraught. She had always lacked self-confidence, but now she struggled with an inner critic who accused her of driving off the boyfriend. It also tormented her with the accusation that she could never have a lasting relationship because she would always ruin it in some way.  She coped with her thoughts and feelings by keeping her emotional distance from men. Her unconscious plan was to stay safe by not allowing herself to be vulnerable. While this allowed her to avoid sadness, she needed to stay disconnected to keep the sadness at bay.  Over the years, her life became empty – of both sadness and happiness. She sensed something was very wrong, but she felt stuck with no way out. Only by learning to recognize the critical voices, confront them and learn to listen to the healthier parts of herself could she find her way to a happier life.

True acceptance of yourself is key to finding happiness. Compassionate introspection is often necessary to achieve this acceptance. Such introspection requires commitment, persistence, and openness.  However, by knowing and accepting yourself, you can find happiness in even the most challenging of circumstances.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ