I’m actually a fairly upbeat, positive person with a lot of energy. Because of this, sometimes it surprises people to learn that I had a rough time in the past, a series of traumas, and a prolonged psychological recovery.
When people see someone who is generally cheerful, they will often assume that nothing has ever happened to that cheerful person. But in my life at least, this isn’t the case. Instead, I’ve been through a lot. One source of happiness for me is that my life is a great deal more stable these days. This took a lot of doing, a lot of struggling. Sometimes this felt like I was taking one step forward and two steps back. It wasn’t steady progress, not by a long shot. But eventually, I did make some headway. And my life got more stable.
Does this mean my moods magically followed? Not at all. It takes a really long while to sort through everything that happened to you and make some kind of sense of it that doesn’t lead towards dark dead ends. That was a lot of work, too. And none of it was easy. Sometimes it was downright harrowing.
We Become Whatever We Practice Being
However, these days I have a deep appreciation of how much more stable my life is than it used to be, and that gratitude generally lights me from within. Yes, I could be more upset that the past was so rough. And for a long time, I was — I was downright bitter about it. But feeling sorry for myself wasn’t getting me anywhere. It was easy in the moment, a comfortable way to be for years, but it didn’t help me move forward. I needed a support system, and people generally don’t like when you’re being a constant downer, so I had to cultivate cool and calm — and later contagiously positive energy — where there was none.
It’s funny, however… It felt unnatural at first, but over time, trying to be a bit more upbeat actually took hold, and I was reborn as a peppy person with a lot of energy. It’s strange, but we have a tendency to become whatever we practice being (so you need to be careful what sorts of behaviors you slip into, your brain remembers).
My grandmother is the same way. She could be cheerful during a disaster, while simultaneously taking the appropriate survivalist steps. I’m sure I learned a lot watching her. (She had a rough lot in life. Worked full time at a time and place that women generally didn’t do that while also taking care of a large family and a spouse who was wounded in the war and needed extensive caretaking.) She is my favorite person. Extremely charming. Always seeing the light in the darkness but not in a way that’s deluded or dismissive or otherwise annoying. (Indeed, when my father died, she was one of the only people I talked to that I found genuinely comforting.)
I Changed, But That Didn’t Change Other People
It’s not a toxic positivity that I foster, mind you, where you pretend everything is fine when it’s not. I can’t countenance that. Instead, this positive spark is one that acknowledges reality, warts and all, and yet stubbornly makes the most of it. I’ve been known to find inspiration and even hope in unlikely places. Not because I have rose-colored goggles on, but because I actively look for it.
And it’s a big source of strength for me. This quality that I’ve cultivated is something that’s there for me when people aren’t and luck isn’t.
I changed. That much is certain. And it changed my life for sure. But changing myself didn’t change other people. I can’t force other people in my life to see the unlikely upsides of situations — even attempting to do such a thing would only not work but annoy the everliving crap out of people. Without their active participation in that kind of reframe, that would easily come off as dismissive or deluded.
These days it’s actually quite rare that I spend much time in a dark mood. (This spring I did have a bout of depression because of a confluence of major, unavoidable stressors, some of them quite novel.) But I can’t say that of everyone I’m close to. They process emotions differently — and this often involves a lot more unhappiness in the moment and darker moods.
So I continually find myself in a positive mood at the same time that people I’m close to are not.
It Used to Bother Me When I Was in a Good Mood, But Other People Weren’t
Confession: I didn’t always deal well with this disparity. I’d have a hard time enjoying myself when people I was close to were in a bad mood. I’d feel guilty about my good mood or overly troubled by their bad one. And so I’d go on these strange quests to try to make the other person feel better somehow, whether that was by spending time with them, doing their favorite things, offering a supportive ear, etc.
And in the case when the other person said, “Meh, I think I just need time,” I’d comply — but feel miserable the entire time, until their dark mood lifted.
I essentially would make our moods match somehow. My intent would be to raise them up somehow — and I’ll admit that sometimes I was able to cheer them up — but often what would happen instead is that their dark mood would persist (as such things sometimes do) and I’d instead find my own mood sinking to meet theirs, frustrated at my failure to improve their mood (something I mysteriously thought was my responsibility; it is not) and torpedoed by guilt at feeling good when someone else wasn’t.
At my worst, this phenomenon wasn’t even limited to those closest to me. I could feel guilty if a stranger were having a bad day while I was having a good one.
I Had to Learn to Protect Positive Moods
But this is all in the past. These days, I protect my positive moods a bit better. What does this mean? Well, I let myself enjoy them. When I say I protect them, I’m not defending them against outside attacks, against other people’s moods. Not really. What I mean is that I’m protecting my positive moods from my tendency to feel guilty for having them. And my tendency to feel guilty for having anything that someone else doesn’t have.
Because here’s the thing: It’s fine to care about how other people feel. It’s fine to want others to be happy, especially those close to us. In fact, I’d argue it’s a common factor among the kindest people I know.
But you can’t make it a requirement that everyone in the world has to be happy before you’re allowed to be. That’s about the best recipe for unhappiness that I’ve ever heard.
So I enjoy the good days. The best days are those when my loved ones and I are all in a good mood at the same time.
But the days when just I am aren’t too bad either. And it’s important to embrace that. Yes, while still trying to help people who are struggling. It’s an important boundary I wish more people talked about.