When I was about 15, my best friend and I each created a Self-Improvement Plan aimed at making ourselves better in every way. It was not the first time I attempted to change myself, and it would by no means be the last. In fact, until fairly recently, I saw myself as an entity to be fixed and repaired. If I were ever going to be happy, I would have to alter myself to be someone different than who I actually was.
As a younger person, what I perceived as “my problems” had mostly to do with how I looked, primarily in comparison to my svelte, blonde friends. They each weighed at least 20 pounds less than I did, they could actually pull off the school's dresses-only requirement without looking like they were in drag, and oh yeah, they were blonde. In comparison, I felt fat and awkward and “different.” Looking back, I’m sure they felt their own version of different, and probably compared themselves to some other super-attractive 16-year-olds, but I didn’t know that then. So I vowed to lose weight, be more outgoing, and do better in my classes. I was sure these changes would make me happy. It actually never occurred to me to look at what I did have and who I actually was. Plus, I had spent so much time wishing I were different, I didn't even realize that I was smart and funny and could see a larger world behind my high school parking lot.
The world is good and I feel fine.
After those depressing teenage years, I got a slightly better picture of myself, but I was still determined to be better—all because I was sure that was the route to total happiness. If I had more money and a bigger house, if I published a book, if I was more disciplined, if I was a faster runner, if I ate fewer carbs … all of that would serve to make me a much happier person than I currently was.
These days, of course, I realize many things I didn’t know then. First, obviously, I have learned that happiness isn’t a place one gets to. It's actually infused in lots of what we do, if we let it be. I resisted this idea for a long time because it seemed corny and like it could not possibly be true. But, on a morning when I’m tired and not feeling like exercising, and stressed because I have too much to do, sitting and holding a puppy can make me feel happy. Really, truly happy. Even when I put the puppy back to play with her brothers and sisters, I still feel it. The world is good and I feel fine.
The other, even more powerful revelation has been this: I am who I am. I can change my hair and my weight, run every day for weeks on end, be nice to everyone I know, publish a book, and dye my hair blonde, and I am still who I am. It has made me see the true power of liking this person and not trying to change her. Every time I chide myself for not being thinner or richer or wiser, I’m being unkind in a way I'd never be to a friend.
The added benefit of these discoveries is simply feeling at home with myself for the first time ever. My mother, who suffered from depression, used to push my brothers and me to do what it took to feel acceptable in the world, even if it meant betraying ourselves. This way, we would feel less "different" than she had felt. She never understood that we should all revel in the beauty of who we are. The sadness of that kills me. What if she had been able to just love herself for who she was and had let herself be happy—truly happy—holding a puppy or finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle, as she did on most days? Instead, she felt guilty spending time doing things that seemed frivolous. And, she lamented how she was different, not how great she really was.
There is so much to be happy about being me—about being all of us, really. We are loved and loving and we are rich beyond measure with views of the sky, and beautiful music, and paintings and design and other humans. This is our life. This is my life. I get why I spent all those years wishing I were somehow different. Still, I am so happy being on this side of things—on such good terms with myself after so long.