I’ve never considered myself a particularly effusive person. On the rare occasions my heart wants to soar, my feet remain firmly planted on the ground.
Other people’s happiness is irritating. We see loving couples discreetly holding hands on the street and want to roll our eyes. An old high school classmate posts about an amazing promotion and we recount all the times they cheated off of us in calculus. Throw a room full of strangers together and ask them to break the ice with their proudest moment and it’s a given most will bond more deeply over their shared hatred of sharing. Our social interactions are so attentive to life’s annoyances we’ve lost the ability to cultivate contentedness without fear of being unrelatable.
For the longest time, I’ve operated under the assumption that when I am miserable, it will last forever, and when I’m happy, it’s fleeting. My emotional baseline has rested at “somewhat sad” for such prolonged periods it feels strained when it attempts to elevate and stay anywhere within the threshold of “OK.” I’ve gotten very good at talking about depression, about my work frustrations and dating heartaches and general sense of this is all too hard. My friends and family have created space for these conversations. They’re used to giving pep talks and sitting through the bouts of tears, and there is no judgment or confusion as to why it’s happening—life is really fucking hard. But there’s something to be said about only addressing what hurts and forgetting how to talk about what doesn’t.
Three months ago I quit my job without anything else lined up. I was told I was brave, that I was lucky to be young and have options, but the truth is I was desperate. I’d been anxiety-ridden for so long it felt impossible to hold out for another gig, and it was a moment of clarity to realize I’d rather forgo any income or security purely to give myself an opportunity for a total reset. I can’t describe the incredible euphoria of waking up that first Monday without anywhere to be, and for weeks I didn’t want to put words to it. I was so proud of myself, so beside myself with genuine self-love for making one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, I didn’t want to let any of that escape by opening it up to anyone’s scrutiny about my aimless future. I was scared of letting the outside world get too close to my joyful little bubble, all too aware how it could burst like all the others to come before it.
It hasn’t, though. Weeks later I found what I’d consider a dream job, a fairly remarkable feat for someone who had no idea what she wanted other than to stop mindlessly scrolling on Indeed. I now come home from work excited by what I accomplished that day, and I don’t dread going to sleep knowing I’ll have to get up and do it all again. It’s a surreal sensation, to the extent I’m not sure how to answer questions about how it’s going without simply saying “good.” I’m good, it’s good. Anything beyond stops me short, too akin to what I’ve always constituted as bragging to fit quite right. Forever the slave to self-deprecation, I have no idea how to talk about myself in a positive, truthful way without fear of coming off as conceited.
As someone continually worried about being there for others, this makes getting together with not-so-good individuals tricky. There’s a paranoia that if I divulge too much, let others witness this delicate hopefulness, they won’t feel comfortable telling me what’s getting them down. Dinners will come to a crashing halt as a venting round robin lands on the confession, “But I like my boss…” The DJ will scratch his record, turn on the lights, and announce over the speakers, “What do you mean you don’t want his number? You’re fine dancing alone?” In a culture where we inadvertently one-up each other with our struggles every time we get together, it seems like there’s an ironic acceptance of grumbling being more enjoyable than gaiety. Reveling in the latter is simply too rare to comprehend.
There’s also the dread that associating with those who grumble frequently will bring my own baseline back down. That this streak has gone on too long, I’m overdue for more self-doubt, did I really think this was going to last? It has taken pointed effort to not listen to this familiar voice. Building an inner confidence—one completely detached from the opinions and feelings and actions of others—is something I’ve always been at a loss for how to go about starting. And now that I’ve taken some timid steps, I’m terrified of falling. But here’s the thing: being empathetic doesn’t mean taking on someone else’s burden as my own. There’s a way to listen, to truly get someone and let them know I hear their very own critical voice, that doesn’t require feeding into mine.
Compassion doesn’t have to be a gateway to personally harboring the world’s agony as an internal fight. I’m good is not a mandate that you must also be good, just as I’m upset shouldn’t be a request for universal distress. I’ve been touchingly relieved after fumbling through these thoughts with close friends to discover they, too, want more space for joy, but don’t always know how to open themselves up to it. That embracing happiness can be a far more lonely decision than the alternatives. What a vulnerability worth commiserating.