Okay, I’ll admit it. The title of this post is a bit provocative, and perhaps not entirely accurate. All of us, I hope, have experienced many instances in our lives when we have experienced what we would call happiness. So the feeling does exist. But the problem is, it’s fleeting, and when we experience the normal lows of life as flaws, we are bound to be constantly disappointed.
In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson describes what he calls, “the negative feedback loop from hell.” He writes,
The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience. Basically, the feedback loop comes from getting mad about being mad, or anxious about being anxious—layering criticism and judgement down from having a negative feeling (p. 4)
We’ve all heard some variation of this before. “Stay present,” people tell us. “Accept your feelings.”
The problem is, we don’t know how to accept our feelings. At any rate, speaking for myself, I didn’t know how to until very recently. I am optimistic enough to say that I’m learning how to, now, and that’s what I’d like to share with you.
The thing is, I thought I was accepting my feelings. In fact, I thought I was giving them too much acceptance. Around and around in my head those feelings went until they dominated everything else. How can I keep accepting these feelings when they never go away? I despaired.
But I started paying attention to my inner dialogue a little bit more carefully. I realized that I had awareness of my feelings, not acceptance. I noticed that I was engaging in a running argument in my mind, which became more and more obsessive the longer it lasted because I was at conflict with myself. It went like this:
Athena version 1: “I am feeling worried about X.”
Athena version 2: “Okay, but what about Y?”
Athena version 1 (more vehemently, accompanied by stomach uneasiness): “No, I’m really worried about X.”
Athena version 2: “Why on earth am I worried about X? I have so many reasons to think it’s not a problem. This is ridiculous. I’m stupid and silly for being worried.”
Athena version 1: “I’m not stupid and silly. Am I? God, now I feel so stupid. I shouldn’t be this worried. But I can’t get this thought out of my head!”
Athena version 2: “I am so tired of me driving myself crazy!”
Athena version 1: “Fine, let’s go ask somebody else.”
So then I would go to a friend, or my boyfriend, or my sister, or my mom. “Am I crazy?” I would ask. This might turn into a much larger conversation and ultimately I would drive them crazy.
Sympathy would be momentarily helpful. Anything other than sympathy would convert the stomach churning into full-out butterflies, and sometimes I would end up convincing my listener that I should be worried.
Even if I received outside validation, it wouldn’t last, because I was worried but convinced that I should not be worried. Nothing they said could help. I was at war with myself.
This negative feedback loop had been building for years. It has accounted for an impressive level of productivity on my part, because I am always looking for the problems in my life and trying to figure out how to solve them.
But while problem-solving has been helpful and effective for my career, for example, it has wreaked havoc on my relationship with myself and other people. My positive self-worth has been based on fleeting moments of happiness. Then, whenever a “negative” emotion arises, I feel like a failure.
This obsessive thought pattern came to a boiling point recently and I felt like I had reached the end of my rope. So I did what anyone would do in this situation, right? I opened Google and typed in, “Anxiety and over-thinking.”
My research eventually led me to the book, DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks, by Barry Joe McDonagh.
I started following the steps in the book. First, though, I had to sign on to a fundamental belief system which included the following points.
- Basing my life on an, “If only X, then I will be happy” philosophy is not effective.
- Feelings come and go. They don’t have to mean anything, and as painful as they may be to have, they never last forever.
- I get to decide if I need to take action on the feelings. If I want to, I will. If not, I can ride the feelings out. (See second bullet: Feelings come and go.)
There were a bunch of other points too, such as the fact that anxiety is usually just an overactive nervous system, causing icky feelings to which we decide to attach meaning even when there is none. This tends to be worse in the mornings and especially after drinking. (Holy shit, I thought. That is why I got so anxious the morning after we had had a perfectly good night out and I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. There actually wasn’t a problem!)
When I realized that those points made a ton of sense, it became a matter of making friends with my feelings. I have found it helpful to think of the “what if…” feelings and the “I’m so scared that…” thoughts as little kids, or close friends whom I can comfort while we wait to ride out the scary bits together.
Then, I implement the DARE process:
D: Diffuse with a “so what” mentality. Example: “Oh hey there, fear! You’re here for the morning? Whatever. I needed a little extra excitement today.”
A: Accept. Example: “I’ll let you sit here with me while I’m making breakfast. Oh, you’re making me get those stomach butterflies again? Gee thanks, that’s so nice of you.”
R: Run toward the feeling, drawing on the parallels between anxiety and excitement. Example: “Come on, is that all you can do? Just a few stomach butterflies and scary thoughts?! What else can you do? How about gut punches and horrifying thoughts?! Let’s get excited here!”
E: Engage in something else. Your feeling is still there by your side, but you are still focusing on cooking breakfast.
Barry McDonagh instructs us to repeat this process again and again until it starts to happen naturally (there’s a lot more to it than that, and I totally recommend reading his book if you have the time).
I still run into issues, usually with A: Acceptance. I have to pay careful attention. Humor and even sarcasm can work, but I still have to remember that the feeling is allowed to be there. So I can’t have an inner dialogue of, “Fine, you can be here, but I’m annoyed with you and hope you’ll go away.” I have to make friends with the fear and the annoyance. I really have to ride it out, and let them make me uncomfortable even if it sucks, while assuring the feelings they are allowed to be present.
But after acceptance is achieved, the magic happens. The accomplishment lies in not viewing these difficult parts of me as failings. And just like that, I have my power back; I’m no longer at war. I’m free to focus on the positive, which is always there, because the negative isn’t clamoring for my attention any more. I’m holding hands with it now and we are facing the world together. Even better, I am now tapping into a wise, compassionate part of myself that is sweet and accepting. I like that part of me, and the more I honor the feelings from which I used to run away, the more confident and whole I feel.
My conclusion? I will feel continually frustrated if I wait to be happy until all the problems in my life are gone. That state of continuous happiness doesn’t exist. But when I embrace the paradox of finding my calm voice in the face of desperation, I’m far more likely to achieve the happy state I want. In other words, happiness doesn’t exist, but accepting that fact just might make you happy. But don’t just take my word for it. Try it out yourself!