GUEST BLOG: The Secret to Being as Happy as You Deserve to Be
I was his bodyguard.
Back in the 1980s we were frequent Kmart shoppers. A couple of times a week, my mom would take my younger brother and me there to scope out the “blue light specials.” After a few minutes of watching her browse the blouses in the ladies’ department James would beg Mom to let him go check out the toy section. Much to my dismay she’d allow it.
Terrified that someone would kidnap him, I’d go along to protect him. Even though I would have much preferred to be in the Barbie or Cabbage Patch Kids aisle, I’d stand beside him as he drooled over the GI Joe’s. At seven years old I was his older sister and it was my job to prevent the bad guys from taking him.
People thought it was cute that I was like a “little mother” to him, but the real reason for my vigilance was because I knew that if I let my guard down something bad would happen. I had to prevent that…not just for my brother, but for everyone in my family, and for me.
In addition to the kidnapping fear, I had a whole host of other worries: I was terrified of a fire starting in my house at night so I had a ritual of looking under my bed before going to sleep to make sure a flame wasn’t burning. I was nervous that my heart would suddenly stop while I slept so I’d fall asleep with my hand on my chest with the plan that if it stopped I would scream and my parents would come in and save me. I wouldn’t allow my parents to go on a date night out of fear that they would be in a car accident on the way home. I was terrified of intruders coming into my house at night so I would obsessively check and recheck the locks on the doors and windows. I was convinced that if there was even a .00001% chance that something bad could happen, it was going to happen to me or someone I cared about.
My parents had me see a child psychologist who gave me tools to use when I felt my fears start to overwhelm me, and I managed my issues very well during my teen and adult years. While there were moments of anxiety when I entered each major new phase in life (when I got married, first moved out of my parents’ home, had my first kid, etc.), it was nothing that I couldn’t get through. My life was pretty darn great. All of that changed in March 2020 when COVID-19 came into the picture. Things went downhill. Fast.
COVID took my fears, anxiety, OCD, and germophobic tendencies to a whole new level. Previously, my anxiety focused on things that were very unlikely to happen or were totally made up in my mind, but this threat was real. When health officials encouraged everyone to wash their hands more frequently, we germophobes – who already washed our hands significantly more often than the general population - did what we were told and had the bloody knuckles to prove it.
Here’s how it works: when an OCD thought enters my mind and the cycle of worrying begins, my immediate response is to do whatever I have to do in order to make that feeling of uncertainty go away. Whether that means immediately washing my hands after I touch something questionable, throwing away an item that I believe to be contaminated, circling the parking lot to make sure that bump I felt under the tires wasn’t a person, or never again entering into a place that I think may be germ-infested, the goal is simple: do whatever I have to do to eliminate that feeling of discomfort right away. I can’t focus on anything else until that feeling is gone.
Naturally, that’s what I tried to do with COVID. The thing that worried me was the fear of getting sick. The only way to alleviate that fear was to remove any activity that could possibly lead to that outcome, so I locked myself, husband and kids up in the house. Opening ourselves up to the outside world…even a little bit and in safe and responsible ways….was not an option. I saw it as an “all or nothing” scenario. We were either “safe” (completely isolated from any chance of exposure) or we weren’t. For three solid months we didn’t see anyone or go anywhere. This was how we lived until I realized that my kids needed some interaction with the outside world for their mental wellbeing. My son, who was twelve during all of this, was struggling. I noticed that he wasn’t engaging in virtual visits with his friends as much and was starting to withdraw. Being a pre-teen is tough enough. Being a pre-teen during a global pandemic, with a mom who monitors how vigorously you wash your hands or yells at you for touching the bag of potato chips because she hadn’t yet put it through her rigorous decontamination process, takes it to a whole new level.
When June rolled around and it became clear that this threat was going to continue into the foreseeable future, I knew I couldn’t go on this way and got help…. I knew I couldn’t manage this challenge alone. My therapist said it’s not uncommon for people who are already prone to anxiety like mine to become consumed with fear when faced with a threat like this. She said it all came down to my strong aversion to risk and my refusal to allow myself to feel uncertainty. Essentially, I needed to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
To do this, I needed to acknowledge that allowing my kids do low-risk activities and forcing myself to start doing them too was going to be difficult and very uncomfortable, but necessary to keep us all mentally healthy during this tough time. With her support, I started incorporating low-risk activities into my daily routine, and allowed my kids to do them too.
In the beginning I didn’t think it was going to be possible. Even though I knew logically that the risk of engaging in an activity was low, when the rubber met the road and it was time to actually act on it I felt paralyzed. For example, the first time I went into my local Target I sat in the car for twenty minutes before going in; crying, practicing my deep breathing and hyping myself up to just do it. The irony is Target had always been my happy place; nothing used to bring me more joy than to browse the jewelry and shoe sections with Starbucks vanilla latte in my hand. Now I was terrified to even enter the building. Who could have thought that this would become my new reality?
Allowing my kids to hang out with their friends was really difficult. It still made me very uncomfortable, but I was able to accept those feelings of discomfort for the greater good of giving them what they needed. It’s a lot of hard work; it would have been easier to just stay in total isolation, but that wasn’t the right choice for my family. The fact that I’m doing it, despite feeling uncomfortable every single time, reminds me that just because something makes me feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean I can’t – or shouldn’t - do it.
Why am I sharing this with you? Because I came to the life-changing realization that the key to being our best selves lies in our willingness to be uncomfortable. No matter what kind of self-improvements or life changes we want to make, the only way to achieve them is to stop running away from the discomfort that inevitably comes from facing our issues or challenges head on.
If we can tolerate the discomfort, we can experience more happiness than we ever thought possible.
Whether or not you struggle with my specific type of challenges, I’m sure there are things that you’d like to change about yourself or some aspect of your life.
Perhaps you’re unhappy with your physical health, stuck in a job that you hate, feel trapped in an unhealthy relationship, or have a fear of flying that prevents you from going anywhere that can’t be accessed by car. As unhappy as these scenarios may make you, the security of them can be more comforting than the discomfort that you’d be forced to feel in order to change them. It would likely be easier (or more comfortable) to just stay where you are, even if that’s keeping you from being as happy as you know you can be.
For example, if you finally decide to take control of your health and start eating right and working out, you know going into it that there are going to be moments of discomfort. Choosing carrot sticks over carrot cake is going to be hard. Going for a run when you’d rather be chilling on the couch will be even harder. It’s all about whether or not you’re willing to allow yourself to feel that discomfort because you believe the outcome will be worth it.
Do I like that my kids interact with others, even while practicing all safety measures? Heck no. Does it make me anxious? You bet it does. Do I want to leave my house, even to run quick errands? Nope. Those facts haven’t changed. What has changed is my willingness to do them even though I know that they’re going to cause me extreme amounts of discomfort. That realization has been life-changing for me, and can be for you, too. Give it a try….start working toward a goal or some sort of positive change and decide that you’re willing to experience some discomfort while striving for success. It takes practice, but soon you’ll realize that getting comfortable with being uncomfortable will lead you to being unstoppable!
Lisa Dimino White inspires others to seek, create, and spread more joy for themselves, their communities, and all of humankind. She does it through her #1 best-selling book and podcast (both titled Bursting with Happiness), national speaking engagements, and her coaching programs. Subscribe to her joyful mailing list at www.thejoyseeker.com/subscribe