My 7 Keys to Happiness

Loved and nurtured children naturally live in their joy

Loved and nurtured children naturally live in their joy

I am happy. Actually, I’m more than happy. I am giddy with joy. I feel at peace within myself. I feel great and abiding love for all things. I feel clear. I am happy to be me, and I have no desire whatsoever to be anyone else. I love myself, flaws and all. Instead of dwelling on my imperfections, I forgive myself for them, learn, and move on. And I find myself surprised and amazed to be here after years of what seemed like a long struggle. How did that happen?

Looking back, I can see that I have steadily applied myself to my own path. One foot in front of the other, I plodded along on easy roads and hard ones. I made mistakes, I beat myself up, I despaired, I wondered how I would ever get past my own human frailties, and yet, here I am. I’m happy.

If I could point to some keys to my happiness, I believe they would look something like this:

1. Decide That You Matter

Given my toxic upbringing, I was not allowed to matter. My narcissistic mother was the only one allowed to matter, so I was not accustomed to having any of my needs met. I was in my 30s when I finally understood that my mother was mentally ill, and then I had to defend myself and my family from her worsening behavior. It was then that I could finally separate from my parents and become a person in my own right—a person who mattered. A person who could make her own decisions. I drew boundaries. And then I redrew them. I drew a final boundary when I had to cease all contact with my parents. That was a hard thing to do, but it was the only thing I could do in a world where I (and my wife and children) mattered.

2. Forgive Yourself

After spending many years being my own worst critic—saying things to myself that were far worse than anything my mother ever said—I made the decision to forgive myself. I didn’t make the decision to try to forgive myself. No, I decided to forgive myself, even if I did it imperfectly. The simple act of making that decision was in itself a miracle. Yes, I still had days of beating myself up, but I began to catch myself doing so. When I did, I changed my thought to something more positive about myself. Over time, I began to do that more automatically. And gradually, the self-abuse began to fade, so slowly that I didn’t even notice for a long time. But today, I look back and think, “Wow! I did it! Good for you!” And I give myself a well-deserved high five.

3. Recognize and Name Your Feelings

It is astonishing how often people navigate their lives without really knowing how they feel. So often, we are told to stuff our feelings, or that our feelings aren’t welcome, or they make somebody uncomfortable. And we forget that our feelings are our messengers, and we ignore them at our peril.

When I was in my 20s, I could be in my parents’ presence for less than 10 minutes, and I would become seethingly angry. I literally had no idea why this was. Perhaps it was a character defect. My parents certainly thought so. Why couldn’t I control this? Of course, what that feeling was saying was that I was incredibly frustrated. That I was unheard. That my feelings, thoughts, and beliefs did not matter and were not considered important. It drove me nuts. Anger was the only outlet I had, because it was the only outlet I had ever been shown.

With practice, I have now come to recognize a variety of feelings that are triggered by old patterns. For example, I now know that when I feel resentful and hurt, I tend to retreat into passive-aggressive behavior that is meant to show my loved ones that I’m upset. It’s what my parents did, and I learned it well. I now understand that this feeling of resentment is saying to me, “You need to make your needs known to your loved ones so that they have the opportunity to help you out.” So I do two things:  I ask for what I need (“I’m tired; please help me with the dishes” or “I had hoped we could play a game together”) and I recognize that the resentment does not serve my own peace, so I let it go.

4. Live in the Present Moment

Memories are peculiar things. Have you ever notice that if you dive into a memory, whether good or bad, that you relive every single feeling you had in that moment? Memories are emotional, and if something upset you 20 years ago, it will upset you again if you dwell on it.

Likewise, if you are daydreaming about something, your emotions respond to whatever thought you are creating in that moment. If you are imagining telling off your mother-in-law, then your blood pressure probably goes up, and you become angry just thinking about it. Of course, in this scenario, none of it is real! It’s just a thought in your head.

Living in the now, or the present moment is the most freeing thing you can do. It allows you to take in what is before you. If you are truly present, you will have the ability to think before you react. If you observe something upsetting, you can decide if you want to react to it with upsetness or with peace. This does take practice. Most people are not accustomed to this way of being. But practice is like exercise:  it helps you to build that muscle.

5. Learn to Relax

My old Tai Chi and Chi Gung master once told me, “Tai Chi people are the laziest people.” At the time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant, but now I do.

Take a moment to feel your body. Where are you holding tension? I’ll bet you’re holding it somewhere. In your neck, back, shoulders, hands, feet, stomach, or even your buttocks. Is your breathing shallow or full? Take a deep breath into your stomach. Feel the difference?

When I was learning Tai Chi, I thought that in order to master it, I had to be very strong, which meant being very tense. This is the opposite of what was required of me. What I needed was to be as relaxed as a rag doll, flowing slowly and easily through the forms. The only effort I needed to put forth was the barest effort to keep myself upright and my limbs flowing. I needed long, deep breaths. Keeping my muscles taut was interfering with my ability to do the forms correctly.

These days, I do yoga, but the principle is the same. Relax, relax, relax. And as your body learns how to relax, a funny thing happens:  your emotional body follows suit. Most people who are uptight are not relaxed. If they were, they would be calmer and more easygoing. Your state of mind mirrors your body, and vice versa. If you are having a hard time calming your mind, then calm your body first. The feedback from your body will help you calm your mind.

Relax, relax, relax. This, too, requires practice, but it builds upon itself.

6. Build a “Core of Care”

We wrote about the Core of Care last fall, and it really does matter. It will help your healing tremendously to be supported by close friends and loved ones, whether they are your blood family or your spirit family. I am so at home with my family and feel so loved and nourished by them, that healing and happiness just naturally flows from that.

People who have never had a true Core of Care, however, may tend to subconsciously sabotage truly nurturing relationships. If you can’t seem to attract healthy, loving people into your life, then that is something for you to examine. Are you so comfortable with discord and toxicity that “healthy” feels completely alien to you? Sometimes people opt for the devil that they do know instead of the angel that they don’t know. Give yourself a chance to get used to being loved and respected, even if it feels uncomfortable at first. Remember, to move forward, move fearward.

7. Trust the Universe and Pursue Spiritual Growth

I could never be happy because of my own lone efforts, because I am not alone. I am part of the Great I AM, the Creator, God, whatever you want to call it. I am not separate from anything, so in order to find myself, to love myself, to value myself, to be at peace with myself, and ultimately to find happiness within myself, I had to open myself to this great understanding of who I really am. I had to connect with all life. I had to see myself as One, not separate. This has been a journey in itself, and I had to learn several key lessons:

  • I am not in control. For a control freak, that’s a scary proposition. But I slowly began to internalize that the only things I did control were my thoughts, beliefs, and reactions to whatever happens.
  • Trust that my needs will always be met, and that whatever happens is meant for my highest good. This certainly took practice, but I have found that my needs are always met, and I have been given the skills and resources to deal with whatever comes my way, whether joyful or difficult.
  • Always allow for miracles. Whenever I run into a wall and think I can’t go any further, I ask for help, and the wall simply disappears.
  • Open my heart and keep it open. Unfortunately, it is a common belief that an open heart must always lead to heartbreak. This simply isn’t true. An open heart feels many different kinds of feelings, certainly, and some of them are not happy ones. But the open heart is capable of giving and—more importantly—receiving love, and Love with a capital “L.” The open heart and mindfulness of the present moment can help you to understand what is yours, and what is not. There may be people who don’t love you or even like you, but you can choose how you react to that. You can take it personally and be hurt, or you can bless them and send them on their way. You’ve had the power all along.

If you are reading this, chances are you’ve read many books about how to learn to love yourself and let go of old baggage, and you may be despairing that you’ll ever get there. Know that you can, but that it won’t occur overnight. Healing is a journey, not a destination. You can choose to be happy today. Why not practice happiness? Who cares if you do it perfectly or not? Take one step at a time and see where it takes you.

It took me a number of years to see and appreciate the slow change that was occurring within me, but now I am amazed and grateful. I am at peace, and life is just amazing. I give thanks for it every single day. And I can’t help but imagine how our world would transform if everyone else felt the same way. Don’t think that could happen? I do. I expect miracles. In my experience, they occur every day.

Life with a Narcissist

living with narcissist

Alice with the Red Queen

People who have not lived with a narcissist cannot understand what a remarkably crazy-making existence it is. People who have (knowingly or unknowingly) lived with a narcissist for any length of time can all agree that living with one is something akin to living with the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass:  “All the ways about here belong to me.”

In my years of living with one (my mother), I have learned that the primary thing is that the Narcissist is Always Right. Even if it means contradicting something they just told you two seconds ago. Even if it makes no logical sense whatsoever. Even if it leaves the narcissist lost in a mental back alley, blind drunk and looking for the keys to their imaginary Chevrolet Lucid.

Let’s start with food. If ever there was a subject more ripe for a narcissist, I don’t know what it is. Well, except for your appearance, comportment, and life choices, just for a start, but let’s keep this simple. Food is such a glorious subject because it allows the narcissist to dive into those other areas by default. If your weight is wrong, it’s the food. If your health is poor, or you just have pimples, that, too, might be your food. If you boil eggs for 6 minutes, then the narcissist can point out that you should boil them for 8. If you eat sugar, you should eat Splenda. If you eat Splenda, then you should eat sugar. Food has so many ways to make you wrong, that it can make your head spin.

As you might imagine, being raised by a narcissist meant growing up with—ta da!—food issues. If I cried as a child, or really expressed any need for emotional comfort at all from my mother, she gave me food. Food was the signal for “Stop crying, please.” So food also became comfort. But as I grew older, there were years when I apparently had a little too much comfort, because I was FAT. Looking back at the pictures, I wasn’t really so fat, but I certainly knew that I was FAT with a capital F. It really is a pleasure to be critiqued in the third person by family members who are sitting right in front of you. “She has such a pretty face, it’s such a shame…” So, Logic Lesson #1:  Comfort yourself with food, but don’t get fat.

As I described in the preface of my book, my mother found a new religion when I was about 12 years old: FOOD Religion. Out with the sugar! Out with the white flour and white rice! Whole grains, low fat, and absolutely NO sugar, which is the Devil’s Work and will kill you. Of course, this isn’t really all bad. Whole grains are great, and eating less processed food in general is what we do today. But here’s where the narcissist’s logic comes in. My mother loved pizza. Therefore, pizza was not junk food. It was never really discussed, and lord knows that Pizza Hut doesn’t exactly use whole grains, but pizza was still okay.

My mother’s big secret, however, is that she is a closet sugar addict. So while she imposed the NO SUGAR rule on my father and I, she had a secret stash of Snickers bars in the freezer. In later years, when she came to visit, we also observed that certain treats would “go missing.” Case in point:  we had a brand new jar of chocolate truffles from Costco on our counter when my parents arrived. The first evening, we each had a couple of them for dessert. The very next morning, we came out to the kitchen to discover that the entire 32-ounce jar of them had been eaten—except for one. Yes, this particular chocolate thief very thoughtfully left a single truffle after consuming the contents of a nearly full jar. Cookies, cake, and anything else that was sweet also had a tendency to disappear in the night. Ahnna and I still laugh at that. And yet, my mother will be a guest in someone’s home (mine or any relative or friend I’ve ever visited in her company) and immediately start to criticize them for serving, much less eating, a dessert of any kind. (Rudeness is never a problem to the narcissist. After all, they’re not being rude; they’re doing you a favor by setting you straight.)

There are other loopholes in my mother’s food religion. You’d think that a woman who swallows several dozen vitamins a day (I am not exaggerating), promotes whole grain foods, and claims to avoid sugar would also eat organic produce and fresh vegetables. But my mother doesn’t like to cook, and she likes the convenience of frozen vegetables and, naturally, buying whatever is cheap. For most people, this would be a valid reason, but she has to square it with her sense of righteousness. It is not enough for the narcissist to make a simple lifestyle choice. No, it has to be the Best and Only Reasonable Lifestyle Choice in the World, one that everyone really should make if they care about anything at all. Therefore, my mother has argued, inelegantly, that frozen vegetables are actually healthier than fresh, and that conventional, pesticide-laden produce is actually better for you than organic—by virtue of the fact that it simply looks better.

Now, here is where the inexperienced person makes a mistake. Upon perceiving the faulty logic of the narcissist, most people would try to argue with them. No, no, no. It will never do. You might as well try to convince the sun to set in the east. You might as well try to convince the academy to stop giving those little statues to Meryl Streep. It just won’t happen. The narcissist thrives on argument. If you say black, they will say white. If you say gray, they will just blink at you and change the subject. The narcissist knows nothing of gray, but they will say the opposite of whatever you say until you die of old age or until you agree with them, whichever comes first.

As you wise up and realize that arguing with a narcissist is as productive as slamming your fingers in a door, you begin to back off and disengage. Nothing infuriates a narcissist more than a person who 1) cannot see that they are right, and 2) refuses to allow the narcissist the opportunity to convince you of how wrong you are. Ignoring the narcissist seems like a really good idea, but the narcissist just thinks that you have gone deaf, and they will repeat themselves to you about 50 million times until you acknowledge that they are right and that you plan to take their expert advice. For some, this may be an acceptable compromise. Others grow weary of this “ear abuse” and eventually state their feelings:  “Thanks for the advice, but I have no intention of doing that.” But wait! The narcissist will want to know why you won’t do that. And many a weary traveler has fallen into this pit of tigers by actually answering this question.

It is important to know that there is no answer in the Universe that will satisfy a narcissist if it is not the answer they want to hear. Albert Einstein, the President of the U.S., and a team of rocket scientists and M.D.s could back you up, and it wouldn’t matter. There is only one answer that they want to hear, which is, “What a wonderful suggestion! I will do everything just as you have advised, you incredibly intelligent and brilliant human being! THANK YOU for saving me the trouble of thinking for myself.” That last bit is okay to add, because narcissists are absolutely incapable of recognizing sarcasm in any form.

Sadly, there are people who have become so beaten down by the narcissist in their lives that they have, in fact, chosen to let the narcissist do their thinking for them. This seems an easier road, but much is sacrificed, and the poor Tin Man who follows these bricks loses whatever heart he had. Even for those who have seemingly given up, resentment boils beneath the surface, rusting their joints until they can barely manage to move their mouths enough to ask for the oil can.

I have watched my father give up his autonomy over the years. First, the music went. My mother found his instruments annoying and talked him into getting rid of them. Music’s only function was to be soothing in the background somewhere, largely unnoticed. Then my father’s airplanes went. They were thrown out of the house, figuratively, and landed in his workshop, out of sight and out of mind. Narcissists only want to look at what is pleasing to them. If you love something that they don’t, then that is your character defect. They will tolerate that (barely), but they will wear you down until they convince you that you no longer want it.

And then my mother took control of my father’s food… My father loves good food. He is a sensual fellow, and left to his own devices, he would be a serious foodie. Alas, this does not fit into my mother’s food paradigm. Food is meant to nourish you (but not make you fat), and really, enjoyment doesn’t enter it into it all. I can attest to that, having eaten some of her sugar-free cakes.

The last time my parents visited, we observed that she had taken control of everything that went into my father’s mouth. She would not even allow us to make him a sandwich. She did that, no doubt because she was such a superior sandwich-maker to the rest of us.

One evening, on our anniversary, we served filet mignon, perfectly cooked at medium rare. For my mother, this was the equivalent of serving her live rattlesnake wrapped in a mantle of poisonous bacon. Always knowing how to make a cook feel appreciated, she put hers in the microwave and then reached for my father’s plate to do the same. My father leaned over his plate and wrapped it protectively in his arms. Had he been a German Shepherd, he would have growled. As it was, he stood up for himself for the first time in many years. He must have paid for it later, though. Sooner or later, the narcissist always makes you pay for standing up for yourself.

A few weeks later, my mother declared that since no one appreciated the granola cereal she had brought with her, she wasn’t going to leave it for us ingrates. Therefore, she and my father would eat it for the next three days of breakfast, before they returned home. She never asked my father if he wanted to eat this for the next three days. It was implied imperial command, however, and he did not argue the point. So I did something that could be considered devious in some quarters. In others, it could be considered wicked. But I did it anyway. For the next three days, I made my father his favorite breakfasts. First up:  waffles. My father cannot resist waffles. So I was curious to know if he still had a backbone in there somewhere. Would he stand up for himself? Or would he grudgingly eat the granola that Her Majesty had commanded that he eat?

Sadly, he ate the granola. Oh, he looked longingly at the waffles, the biscuits and gravy, and the blueberry pancakes. But he ate the granola. I’ll bet it tasted like cardboard. Mom is naturally attracted to that kind of food.

The primary thing to understand about the narcissist is that there are two kinds of people in their world:  GOOD people who cater to the narcissist’s every whim and need, and who implicitly agree with everything the narcissist says; and BAD people, who don’t listen to the narcissist and who disagree with them. Basically, if you don’t validate the narcissist’s fantasy views of themselves, then you’re shit.

So, if you often feel that you are walking on eggshells around a certain person, or that nothing ever seems to make them happy, or that the more you make yourself happy, the unhappier they become with you, then you might be dealing with a narcissist. If you are, then you have my sympathies. But realize also that you aren’t the one with the problem. Oh, they have tried to make it all about you being the one with the problem. Because they are Perfection Made Flesh. But really, it’s not you. It never was you.

The main thing is to find your own happiness, which is probably going to make the narcissist unhappy. So what else is new? Whose life are you living? Live for yourself. Do not live like the White Queen:  “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.” The narcissist won’t mind if you live in a state of self-deprivation, but you should. Eat your jam to-day. Eat it every day. With relish.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Take Their Power

Cyndi Lauper at the 2008 Gay Parade San Francisco, CA

Photo of Cyndi Lauper courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I was a teenager, I idolized Cyndi Lauper when she came on the scene. She was SO OUT THERE. She had crazy, chopped-up and wildly colored hair, she wore what she darn well pleased, and her makeup declared, “Here I am! Like it or not!” In my teenage fantasies, I longed to dress just as outrageously and daringly. My spirit longed to be as zany and colorful as Cyndi’s dared to be. It didn’t happen.

I wore boring, conservative shirts, blue jeans, and—it being rural Texas and all—conservative yet heavy makeup and hair plastered securely with hairspray. Not much wild going on. Of course, there were reasons for the mismatch between my outward appearance and my inner desires. One was my conservative parents, who expected me to look, think, and behave in a certain way. Failure to do so would result in a withdrawal of love, I knew, so I dutifully attempted to conform. The second reason was the narrow societal box in which I found myself. When my parents moved to a rural Texas town, I was already out of my element and was widely considered an oddball at best, and a hell-bound sinner with Very Bad Ideas at worst. So I climbed willingly into a box circumscribed by Rejection; if I stayed in, I might not get rejected, but if I poked my nose outside of it, I surely would be. And I often was.

While my outward appearance gave solid lip service to the box, my inner world was my own, and as I grew older, I became increasingly aware of the widening gulf between who I was and who I was pretending to be. Still, the “safe thing” to do was to hide my true self as much as possible and keep on pretending. I became very good at pretending, but the more I pretended, the more unhappy I was.

In college, I started to break out a bit and put more of myself outside of the box. A toe here, an elbow there. I wore tie-dye bell bottoms to school. I grew my hair out and stopped using makeup and hairspray of any kind. I decided to follow my heart and my own spirituality, wherever it would lead me. When I married my ex-husband, who was an atheist, I temporarily put my spirituality back in the closet, since it made him uncomfortable. Alas, this only made me uncomfortable, so after a few years of this, I took it back out again and began to do my own thing. He adapted, and I adapted. No big rejection occurred.

Still, there were some things that made my spouse extremely uncomfortable. I had always wanted to get a tattoo, and when I mentioned this, I got the nonresponse that meant, I’m really not comfortable with that. So back in the closet it went.

As I have written in my the prologue to my book and elsewhere, I was able to more fully express myself once I married my wife, Ahnna, ten years ago. I told her I wanted a tattoo one day, and she was supportive. I had hoped to do it on my 40th birthday, but money was tight, and there were genuine needs to spend it on, so I put it back on the shelf. Each year, it went on the shelf. This year, however, Ahnna said she wanted me to get it as her birthday present to me. And I agreed.

We informed the other member of our family of the plan, who was more than a little surprised, and, bless him, he couldn’t keep the unhappiness out of his voice. So I wavered. Maybe I should spend the money on other things we needed. Ahnna called me on the carpet about that, rightfully. This is something you have long wanted to do, she said, so do it. He’ll come along. I agreed, but my inner child had taken note.

Asha's Tattoo

Raven and I

I had the tattoo done a week ago, and it is beautiful. It is certainly striking:  a raven flying among the stars. Raven is my power animal, and the stars signify shamanic journeying, so this tattoo is a spiritual bond with my totem, and very meaningful for me. I was very happy with the work, but I have to say I never expected my inner child’s reaction to it.

The first night after getting it, I woke up about 1:30 and began to have a panic attack. You know how your lizard brain awakens in the middle of the night and begins to worry over things that wouldn’t bother you in the light of day? That was me. I began to sob. My inner child was deeply afraid that this new, “out there” statement of my spiritual self would result in being rejected and unloved by my family member. Worse, my inner child now felt that with this statement, she had lost the capacity to “hide” and “pretend,” which had long been her primary means of defense against rejection and her only means of blending in with everyone else. In short, she was screaming at me, “ARE YOU CRAZY?” This fear was deep and primal and completely unexpected by me, Asha the grown-up. Wow.

Fortunately, my wife woke up and talked me down off the ledge, so to speak. This is why a good relationship is so incredibly important in healing:  you need to have someone who has your back, and who can love you unconditionally. You need that core of care. I am very blessed.

And the truth is that our other family member had some initial feelings about the tattoo, but he was able to work through them. He loves me anyway. He has my back anyway. He understood that this was something I really wanted to do. Asha can present herself boldly to the world, and it’s okay. The roof didn’t cave in. I can be as daring—as “me”—as I want to be, and I am still loved.

Although it was a difficult few days with my new tattoo, it was all good. A healing crisis is no fun in the moment, but it’s so much better once the wave has passed and the old pain is resolved. I am stepping into my power, very visibly, and it is now safe for me to do so. And it was a growth experience for the entire family. I cannot imagine a happier outcome for any situation.

The aftereffects were not all negative, either. After I had the tattoo, my spirit father (an old Native American spirit), came to me in a vision. He was sitting by a fire smoking a pipe. He beckoned to me, and I sat with him. He said, “You have chosen the old path.” And so I have. My power animal and I are more integrated than ever, and Raven is teaching me a great deal about healing and taking me to new places, within myself and in the Universe at large. Combine that with a strong, loving family unit, and there is simply no more need for my inner child to fear our Power. Our Power is freedom, healing, and love. It is ours to keep and nourish. And so it is for everyone. Do not fear it; celebrate it!