I'll never forget Sabrina. She walked into my office on a cold December evening one week before Christmas. A mixture of freezing rain and snow pelted against my window. I felt weary, spent from a full day of helping people discard their problems.
I remember thinking how thin and frail Sabrina looked as she handed me her intake paper. In the section labeled “Major Problems for Which You Want Help,” she wrote: “Severely depressed and suicidal.” I knew I needed to pick up my energy.
Through sobs, Sabrina told me a tragic story. She grew up with an alcoholic father who terrorized her mother, brother, and herself. Verbal abuse when he was sober escalated into physical beatings when he stumbled home drunk. The three of them formed an impenetrable bond, one that insulated them emotionally from his onslaught. Thankfully, one day her father disappeared to never be heard from again.
Life changed for the better from that day forward, that is, until about a year before I met Sabrina. That was when her mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within six months. At about this time, Sabrina's brother lost control of his motorcycle, slammed into a tree, and languished in the hospital before himself dying in October.
I realized I had to work fast. After expressing my sympathy, I asked Sabrina if she'd be willing to trust me enough to participate in a thought experiment. When she gave the go-ahead, I began.
Dr. G: Sabrina, how many people here in Virginia do you think suffer tragedies like yours?
Dr. G: What's percentage would you think? Just take a guess.
Sabrina: Maybe twenty.
Dr. G: Okay. How about our county?
Sabrina: Again, twenty.
Dr. G: I agree. Now, how about in your neighborhood?
Sabrina: At least some.
I admired Sabrina’s courage and pluck, and pushed forward.
Dr. G: Okay. Now, what do you think I'm driving at?
Sabrina: You're trying to get me to see that I’m being selfish.
Dr. G: No. I would never think you're selfish, nor would I want you to think that it yourself. Try again.
Sabrina: That I'm thinking I'm special.
Dr. G: Tell me what you mean.
Sabrina: I'm feeling sorry for myself, thinking that this shouldn't have happened to me.
Dr. G: Yes! Look, Sabrina, you've been through an awful lot – one tragic blow on top of another. Anybody would be reeling. I know I would. But, if you let yourself rail against the universe and fall into a virulent case of self-pity—become a victim – you'll stay depressed, like you are now.
You see, dear reader, we can divide people into two categories. In category one are those who whine, complain, and feel sorry for themselves when they face adversity. Instead of accepting that it is their responsibility to make the best of trying times, they think themselves the helpless and hapless victim of their life’s challenging circumstances—“I don’t deserve this.” “Poor me.” “It’s not fair.” They think it is life's responsibility to make their lives work. And, they descend into the emotional swamp of self-pity.
In the second category, there are those who take responsibility for their lives. They assume it is their job to create the life they want, not others or fate. When they face adversity, they determine to make themselves happy, despite their difficult circumstances. They follow the philosophy of the patron saint of personal responsibility, George Bernard Shaw:
“People always blame their circumstances for what
they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people
who get on in the world are the people who get up
and look for the circumstances they want and if they
can't find them, make them.”
Sabrina embraced her therapy. Within months, she clawed her way out of depression and adopted a take-charge attitude. One day, she said: “What happened has happened. I can either buckle under and rage, or I can accept reality for what it is and do what I can to make my life better.”
Upon hearing these words, I knew Sabrina had just about completed her treatment.
For the sake of living a happy life, you would be wise to adopt the mentality Sabrina did. Think about agreeing with the following statements:
• Be special to yourself, but remember that you are not a special case in the universe. Like everyone else, you will face adversities, ones neither wanted nor requested, many small and annoying, a few large and cumbersome. You have little choice in that matter. Railing against it will only serve to emotionally distress you. Accept it and get on with the business of improving on your situation and being happy despite of it.
•Let go of the fairness myth, as in, “That’s not fair.” There is no fairness czar who keeps an eye on adversities and sees to it that they are doled out equitably. Everything, good and bad, is exactly as it is, when it is; that’s reality. Whining about what is only serves to destroy your happiness and adds an emotional problem on top of a practical one.
• Convince yourself that you can stand any adversity you face. You have stood every painful event from your past, you are standing it now, and you can stand it in the future. Whatever it is, you will, like Sabrina, outlive it and get on with life on the other side.
• Remember that you have a choice as to how you respond to your adversities. This choice will greatly affect your happiness in life. You can take the victim mentality, thinking happiness can only come when circumstances line up in your favor, feeling helpless and bitter when things do not work the way you want. Or, you can adopt the principle that your life is your responsibility and determine to do what's necessary to bring yourself happiness despite any adverse circumstances that may befall you. These are your only two choices. So, choose purposefully and consciously make your choice. Your happiness depends on which one you choose.
• With the conviction that your happiness is your responsibility, determine to do whatever is necessary – within, of course, the boundaries of ethics, morals, the law, and common sense—to bring happiness to your life, no matter what.
If these principles can work for Sabrina, they can work for you.
To prevent yourself from falling into self-pity, take on the following.
1. Make a decision, right now, which of these two responsibility principles you will adopt — the victim one or the personal responsibility one. Reflect on the costs and benefits to you in making each choice.
2. Note three circumstances in your life that undercut your happiness. What can you do to eliminate these circumstances? If you can’t eliminate them, what aspects can you change to make them better? If neither of these work, what attitudes can you take to serenely accept them and get on happily with your life? 3. List two things you will commit to do that will add to your fun, pleasure, and happiness. From a position of unconditional personal responsibility, follow through on these as if your happiness depends on it, which it does.
In my first blog, February 2, 2013, I emphasized the fact that your happiness is totally – 100% - your responsibility, not your parents, your significant other, or even the universe. Accepting that, without bitterness or whining, will give you a leg-up in your quest for happiness in general and energize you to keep on keeping on when the going gets tough.
Sabrina is someone who we can all admire. But, we too can learn to deal with life as she learned to do. All we have to do is work at it, like she did. Do it. You will fin yourself happier.
I look forward to chatting with you in the next blog. Be well, and remember: live with passion.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose; and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.