Fall always brings me an intense season of introspection. I’ve never been able to pin-point why, though I have a couple theories. My birthday is at the end of October (the very end — I’m a Halloween baby!), and the end of one year of life and the onset of another seems like a reasonable time to navel-gaze. It could also just be the shift in the air, when the ripe, over-laden humidity of late summer is replaced by the sharper, invigorating sweetness of autumn. Regardless of why, when the days draw shorter and the evenings cool off, my thoughts turn inward, asking “who am I?” and “who do I want to be?”
I always grow during this season, but this year I feel just on the edge of an epiphany, a paradigm shift that could change — everything. Why? Well, partly because of the life I’ve lived over the last year: a series of events that has left me unmoored from myself in an unprecedented way. There were some big, core-shaking things this year, yes, but, more importantly, there have been a thousand small moments of clarity that have pointed to an underlying problem in how I’ve lived and how I’ve made choices in the past (thanks, therapy).
Like a lot of people, I learned from a young age to chose what others wanted for me — to want what I “should” want, rather than what I want. Comparison and shame have plagued me, always. I constantly check the temperature of the air: will I disappoint or anger with this choice? Will this be the decision that makes me unlovable? I make the decision that feels easiest, puts me the least out of my comfort zone, even if it isn’t the most life-giving, joy-making choice I could make. Over the years, I’ve lost the ability to hear what it is that I do want.
I think of it a lot like intuitive eating: we are each born with the ability to hear our body’s cues — when we’re hungry and when we’re sated — but over time we can lose confidence in our ability to know what’s best for our bodies. Well-meaning but misguided adults tell us to “clear your plate” or that “you can’t possibly be hungry; you just ate,” accidentally gas-lighting us into eating disorders. We don’t trust our intuition and our bodies anymore, and we turn to prescriptive lists of “good food” and “bad food,” the body mass index, and dieting fads to give us direction.
That’s how I feel: like I’ve lost a sense of who I am at my core, that I’ve listened to too many outside voices telling me how to live and who to be, and I no longer have an identity that’s Just Abby. Is it any real surprise that I’ve grown to dislike myself, deeply and corrosively? I’m not myself — I don’t even know her — so how could I possibly like her?
Compounding this lost sense of self is a lost ability to feel happy. When I was in my teens, I began experiencing moments of deep depression. I don’t remember exactly when this started, but I do know it was years — not until just before my 23rd birthday (see? Fall brings me growth) — that I had a name for what I was feeling and first sought help. Since then, I’ve battled with my brain, trying to unlearn the lies that have kept me hostage to myself. Over ten years on, I still have days (or weeks, or months) where the lies take over, but I’m getting better at catching myself, and I’m using healthier coping mechanisms when I do.
Then in the last couple weeks, a startling revelation: I’m not currently depressed, but I’m acting like I am. I’m quelling any joy that bubbles up, and I’m still letting frustration, anger, and melancholy be my primary inner (and outer) dialog.
And there it is: I’ve forgotten how to be happy.
I don’t know who I am, deep down, because I don’t let myself experience joy. Joy feels dangerous, too heady, and I squash it down before I can process it. A lot of people suppress unpleasant feelings, not knowing how to process them, or not wanting to feel uncomfortable. I’ve grown so accustomed to being uncomfortable, that now happiness is the foreign emotion, the feeling that I don’t know how to process, so I push it away.
This pattern of living is exhausting, because it’s unbalanced. This week I was reading The Ministry of Ordinary Places, and the author, Shannan Martin, addresses this. She says, “the best way to carry heavy things is to carry something equally heavy in the other hand. From personal experience, this applies to buckets of water, overstuffed suitcases . . . and dense emotions.” She goes on to explain, “Gratitude and sorrow aren’t, as I once believed, mutually exclusive. They pair well together, one in each hand. It can be easy to ebb into the dark seas of sadness, staring too long at grief and disunity. The trick is to keep filling the other bucket. The sadness is real, but there is so much more to the story.” That’s where I’ve been living, the unbalanced space of carrying too much sorrow without the counterbalance of joy.
So, I’ve had enough. I don’t want to be off balance any longer. I want to know who I am, independent of who other people think I should be, and I want to be happy, to know that I’ve made the right choices for me and mine because it’s who I am, not just because I should. I want to unlearn the thought habits that have kept me suppressed and cut off from my joy and relearn how to be intuitively happy. I want to learn to love myself, to be gentle and kind and gracious when I fail. To treat myself the way I want to treat others.
Which is where the idea of 12 Months of Happy came from. For 12 months, I want to commit to one act of self-love every day, an opportunity to feel happy, just for the sake of itself. They could be small things, like mindfully enjoying a cup of tea in solitude for a few minutes, or they could be bigger opportunities to try something new. The main point is to begin to unravel the web of angst I’ve woven around myself, peeling back the layers to understand who I am when I lay down the burden of “being sad” I’ve picked up.
Exactly what this project will look like is still very in-flux, and because of it’s very nature I anticipate it will stay in-flux. The more I learn about myself and help myself unlearn my unhelpful mental habits, the clearer the next steps will be.
If you’d like to follow along or create a 12 Months of Happy project for yourself, I encourage you to subscribe to my newsletter for project updates and exclusives. I’d love to have you along for the ride.