Who would you say makes you happy or unhappy? Your Intimate Other? Your parents? Your children? Maybe your friends or your boss? The right answer is that you are the only person who can make yourself happy. You, in fact, are the absolute dispenser of your own happiness or unhappiness.
If you're like most people, you've been bamboozled into thinking it's the job of other people to "fill you up" or to make you happy - and you may attribute your unhappiness to others failing in their duty. Consider these examples: After an exhausting day with the kids, Lynn expects her husband (who has had an exhausting day at work) to make her happy in the evenings. She continually demands more conversation, more companionship, more cuddling. What Randy wants is less pressure, less talk, less aggravation, so typically he doesn't respond - but Lynn keeps expecting him to make her feel good. As a result, she's chronically disappointed. "Randy makes me so unhappy," she thinks.Marcy has a similar problem. Despite a good 25 years of being ignored by her mother in preference for a favored brother, Marcy still expects her mother to respond to her overtures - so she's constantly disappointed. "My mother always hurts me," she laments.
Both Lynn and Marcy are making the same mistake of setting themselves up for hurt and anger by expecting behaviors that others aren't providing. In essense, Lynn and Marcy are "unhappying" themselves and blaming others for their distress.
To check out any tendency to expect others to make you happy, consider whether you make statements similar to these:
- You hurt my feelings.
- You gave me a headache.
- You're making me sick.
- You make me feel bad.
- You kids are driving me crazy.
Assertions such as these assign the responsibility for moods or feelings (and unhappiness) to others rather than to ourselves. Most of us simply haven't been taught to say, "I hurt my feelings when you didn't call me yesterday." "I gave myself a headache while I was arguing with you." Or (to a teen), "I make myself so angry when I walk into your bedroom and see the mess."
The fact of the matter is - you are in charge of your feelings. They don't just happen to you. Says Wayne Dyer, author of "Erroneous Zones": "You have the power to think whatever you choose to allow into your head. If something just `pops' into your head, . . . you still have the power to make it go away, and therefore you still control your mental world.
"Someone can say to you, `Think of a pink antelope,' and you can turn it green, or make it an aardvark, or simply think of something else if you choose," says Dyer. "You alone control what enters your head, and if you don't believe this, just answer the question, `If you don't control your thoughts, who does?' "
Thoughts and feelings, of course, are intricately related. You can't experience a feeling without first experiencing a thought. And the way to control feelings is by working on the thoughts that precede them. "Simply put," says Dyer, "you make yourself unhappy because of the thoughts you have about the people or things in your life. Becoming a free and healthy person involves learning to think differently. Once you can change your thoughts, your new feelings will emerge."
You can think and feel differently by operating from the premise that the locus of control for your happiness resides in your head and not in other people or things.
Recognizing she causes her own feelings, Lynn might say, for example: "I continually upset myself when Randy doesn't respond to me the way I'd like. What I'm doing is blaming Randy for angry and hurt feelings I generate in myself. I need to alter my thoughts and feelings so I don't wound myself over behavior I can't change."
Likewise, Marcy might say: "I continually distress myself and leave myself vulnerable by expecting my mother to respond in positive ways she's either not able or willing to do. I need to quit expecting anything from her so I don't continually hurt myself. I have to change - my mother's not going to."
Take charge of your happiness by using new language to describe how you feel - "I (disappoint) (hurt) (anger) myself when others. . .." Keep practicing because acquiring new language and new thinking patterns may require considerable effort if you've frequently blamed others for your bad feelings.
While you're at it, notice the kinds of expectations you have of others. Do you always expect those close to you to want what you want? To "understand" you or to know what you need? To keep you from being lonely? Try releasing others from such unrealistic expectations.
If you want something from someone else, state your needs and invite changes, but remember that if you don't get those changes making yourself happy is your job in the end.
- Dr. Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.