“Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them.” ~Anonymous
Happiness has really been on our minds. Take a look at all of the books and blogs on the topic. Amazon alone has 20, 656 books listed under the word “happiness.” Gretchen Rubin, a fellow blogger and contributor to my other blog, The Daily Brainstorm, has written a best-selling book called The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
Finding happiness can feel exhausting. It seems like an awful lot of work is involved in pinning down that elusive but highly desirable feeling. It reminds me of eating crab claws — there's a whole lot of mess before you get to the meat.
For a moment, rewind your life to its beginnings. You were born with a clean slate, full of enough genetic stuff to be quite happy every day. According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist who has spent her career researching happiness, we are genetically predisposed to a certain outlook on life. Some of us are just born with a more cheery disposition than others. Even so, that accounts for just 50% of our “happiness quota.” The rest is up for grabs. (See The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.)
If you were born with that cheery disposition, you had a healthy and loving upbringing, you had relatively few traumas in life, and you have overcome any emotional traps, then happiness is all yours. The two of you are excused from reading further. Most of us, however, have dealt with a lot of stuff between the day we were born and today. And all of that stuff has chipped away at that remaining 50% potential for happiness.
Our feelings and reactions to all of that accumulated stuff have fostered habits that can create a pattern of chronic unhappiness. But what if these habits could be broken?
What if you could rewind and erase your automatic reactions, many of which are unconscious, to the years of accumulated hurts, fears, and anger? Yes, it does sound like a lot of work. But breaking those habits can offer you more than just the tiny morsels of crab meat. It can provide the big, juicy steak of sustained happiness.
In his book, The Power of Self-Coaching: The Five Essential Steps to Creating the Life You Want, Dr. Joseph Luciani suggests that these bad habits take the form of insecurity, distrust, reflexive thinking, and controlling tendencies. He teaches five principles of self-coaching that have successfully helped people overcome old emotional habits and relearn new ones.
The first and most critical step toward changing your emotional habits is recognizing what your controlling tendencies are. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Luciani's book with the most common expressions of control.
See if you recognize yourself in any of these expressions:
“Yes, I didn't get the job finished, but I couldn't help getting sick.” A yes-but strategy allows you to sidestep responsibility by first feigning blame. “Yes, I took your money,” only to sidestep it with a rationalization, “But I wasn't stealing it, I was just borrowing it.” If you're impervious to criticism, you're in complete control.
” I have to be the best.” Or, “I have to lie; she would never be able to handle the truth.” Have-tos are compulsive strategies designed to help you control others and life. Once you become convinced that you have to do something, you can eliminate all doubt.
Worrying or what-iffing
“What if I fail?” Or, “What if he says no?” Worry is an attempt to eliminate doubt by trying to know what's coming before it arrives. In spite of the fact that no one knows the future, you keep telling yourself that if you can just figure out what's going to happen (i.e., worry), you'll be able to brace yourself and be more adequately prepared.
“I can't handle that job.” Or, “I can't relax.” When you say “I can't . . .” you're giving up in order to feel more in control. Once you conclude that you can't, you've just excused yourself from any struggle or possible failure. If you avoid failure, you're in control.
“I have to go; she'll be mad if I don't.” Guilt is a powerful emotion that tries to keep you from going against someone or something. You're trying to avoid feeling that you did something wrong. If you allow guilt to pressure you into doing what's expected, then you maintain control by avoiding conflict. If, on the other hand, you do go against someone, guilt offers repentant, often anguished reaction meant to restore control. “I'm sorry, I'll never do that to you again.”
Black-and-white thinking is “all-or-none” thinking — never is there any gray or middle ground. If you can convince yourself that something is either black or white, you're done. Case closed. Nor more discussion. In control.
“Maybe I shouldn't call her. How do I know she won't be angry?” Doubts act as a brake trying to postpone, avoid, or somehow protect you from perceived danger. You're trying to control by slowing down and not being too hasty. Inertia is safer than making a mistake.
Shoulds are similar to have-tos. Both are compulsive strategies by which you attempt to control life. Shoulds are more closely related to guilt and societal expectations.
“I'm such an idiot!” Putting yourself down is a cheap way of excusing yourself from conflict. After all, you can't really expect an “idiot” to handle life.
“I don't care if I upset her.” Not caring is a form of denial. If you can insulate yourself with callousness, you can remain in control — even if you mess up.
“As far as I'm concerned, you can go straight to hell.” Hostility repels. By pushing someone away, you create an insulation between you and that person. Insulation is control.
Why take any responsibility when you can control others by lying? If one reality doesn't suit you, create another with lies.
People are malleable — a little white lie here, a bit of coercion there, and perhaps some feigned hysterics — these are all useful tools if you're trying to twist someone to your will. If you can manipulate others, you control them and the situation.
Generalizing is an attempt to prepare for the worst. If something is catastrophic and you anticipate it, then you're not going to be unprepared. It's all about not being caught off guard and unaware. If the world is ending, you dam well better know about it so you can get ready.
Fatalistic thinking/down and gloom
With mountain-out-of-molehill thinking, you're at least trying to prepare for and defend yourself from adversity. With fatalistic thinking, you've already concluded the worst and you throw your hands up, becoming victimized, powerless, and impotent. You can feel a sense of control when you don't have to struggle any longer. (Luciani, 2004, p. 167-169)
Dr. Luciani suggests that you don't necessarily have to know the source or reason behind the behaviors. Just being able to recognize and have awareness of them is enough to begin the process of changing your habits. I don't completely agree with this. I think having some understanding of the history and roots of control tendencies is useful in seeing how they don't serve you. For me, understanding “why” is part of the process, although it doesn't need to be a life-long exploration.
What about you? Do you recognize any of these control strategies in your life? Do you feel you need to understand the root cause before you start taking action? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
In my next post, we'll begin to explore strategies for changing these control habits so you can clear the path to happiness.