When I was 9 years old, I wanted to be a nun.
I would put on a turtleneck, then pull it off gently so that it would tightly wrap around my face. I would look in the mirror, neatly arrange “my habit,” and feel a joyous serenity come over me.
I did this every night before bed. Every night, I prayed for the wishes in my heart; the wellbeing of my family, an opportunity for fame as a singer, and food for starving children in Ethiopia.
My family isn’t religious and never went to church, spoke of God, or partook in rituals – aside from baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
And yet, everyone spoke with reverence for life, gratitude for the gifts of health, food, and home, and lived in a beautiful certainty that we were protected, loved, and guided.
I never thought much of it. It just was what it was.
As a child, I felt immensely connected to this inner knowing that I was innately safe even when my environment was stressful.
Fast forward 30 years.
I’m 39, living in Madrid with two daughters and a third on the way. My life is the picture of success. I smile, I laugh, I look happy. I’m doing what they told me would make me happy: I feel important working round-the-clock on various businesses I’ve set up. Working for myself is the reward for the breakdown I had 4 years ago that led me to quit my executive job. Still stuck in my employee mindset, I trade my time for money, work from a needs-basis instead of a calendar or process, and have difficulty managing my money, which no longer arrives every other Thursday like clockwork. Unwittingly, I’m heading into a second breakdown.
I secretly enjoy the significance I get from telling people I have my own business. I tell myself:
“Just keep hustling…it’ll get better when…”
And the love I developed for the adrenaline coming from constant busyness, small wins, and validation from people who have no idea what I’m going through drives me into full mental, physical, and emotional paralysis.
But then again, when I didn’t learn my lesson from the first breakdown, life gave me a second chance.
These lessons don’t always look like breakdowns:
- Sometimes, it’s a call to change the way we live from overwhelming stress, anxiety or panic attacks
- Sometimes, it’s a diagnosis, an inexplicably long flu, or continuous sleepless nights
- Sometimes, life gifts us an event to grow from; a cheating spouse, a broken contract, or and a valuable client suddenly leaving for the competition
Life is kind to me.
It gives me one of each.
For 6 months, I am useless. My thoughts are mush. I feel nothing. I have no desire to get up, no hunger or thirst whatsoever, no love for my children. I can’t connect with anything or anyone I value. I am empty.
Everyone keeps telling me to suck it up. I have it easy. I have it good. I should be thankful for what I have: health, food on the table, a roof over my head… my children. “Most of the world lives in war-torn poverty,” they say. “You’re complaining about first-world problems.”
Their words provide no consolation. No empathy. Nothing to lean on. No one understands how unsafe and alone I feel. I want to crawl under a rock, into the depths of a forgotten cave, never to be seen again.
Happiness isn’t possible
Many of us live in a relentless pursuit of happiness.
With our basic survival needs met, we have plenty of time to focus on giving our life meaning, exploring our feelings, and choosing happiness.
But the constant check-in on our level of happiness inevitably returns the answer: “Not happy enough”
Thanks to Pinterest-worthy images of “Happiness marketing”, we’re unknowingly being taught there’s something wrong with us if we’re not happy… we see this in the increase in stories of seemingly happy people succumbing to suicide.
It’s not easy to accept our struggles in a comparative world. We live in a world that does not want to scratch beneath the surface. Personal development gurus condition us to keep outdoing the status quo. They tell us that positivity is good, and anything less must be a symptom of mental illness, bad habits, or a poor mindset.
Fear, worry, sadness, anger, hurt, guilt, and shame are valuable human emotions. They give us information about our environment and show us where our expectations and reality are not aligned. But most of all:
These negative emotions are there because when logic and analysis could not make sense of the world: our heart archived a file, encrypted it in the language of emotion, and kept it on our emotional radar so that we could resolve once we felt strong enough.
How to give up happiness to find fulfillment
5 years of trying just about everything out there taught me that the child in me always knew what I needed. It wasn’t happiness. It was the fulfillment that comes from feeling protected, loved, and guided. It was time to connect inwards, believe in my inner voice, and unlearn what the world tried to teach me about happiness.
As a coach to entrepreneurs and business owners, almost every new client has “happiness” as their number 1 coaching goal. When I ask them how they would know if they were happy, almost no one can tell me. That’s because when we think of “happy,” we imagine ourselves laughing, smiling, feeling a surge of positive emotions… and our brain thinks: “I can give you that with a good joke, a good meal, a positive event, but it’s not sustainable through many of life’s challenges or physiological needs.”
I get my business clients to focus on feeling fulfilled, instead. We can recognise fulfillment because of the sense of wholeness within us, feeling safe and protected, acceptance for what is, gratitude for all aspects (even the ones we wouldn’t necessarily choose), a feeling of accomplishment, love, responsibility, and certainty.
We can measure fulfillment by the choices we actively step into – but most importantly, we can work towards being more fulfilled every day.
Would you like more fulfillment in your day? Here are 4 steps to going from the existential mode of overwhelm (questioning everything) to the exponential peace from deep fulfillment (secure, assured, guided):