How Past Conflicts Help in the Happiness Department

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

All of us complain from time to time about the variety of burdensome things that can accost us at random times throughout life. You know, like that collections company that continues to send us a bill for a service we paid for over a year ago. Or maybe it was a stranger who decided it was their business to tell you what a bad job you were doing parenting your child. Perhaps it was a job layoff, a fight with a spouse, a misbehaving child etc. There are conflicts large and small and it’s our critical problem solving skills that allow us to either move on quickly, procrastinate and drag it out for a later resolution, add gasoline to the problem, or give up and leave it unsolved.

What’s key here, is having the self awareness to look back at some of life’s hurdles and appreciate that something positive came from the experience, because you learned from it. A good way to gauge if you’ve learned from it is not repeating that behavior or pattern that got you there in the first place. Could it be that this is the healthy part of having obstacles in life? Maybe we just need to be reminded to reflect on where those hurdles got us and what they taught us.

Sidenote, this article has nothing to do with COVID as an obstacle. That’s an entirely different animal in my opinion. The pandemic hurdles have much to do with stress being exacerbated due to other people making decisions on our behalf. That stress and those hurdles are a result of responsibility without control.

I recently finished reading the book, The Second Mountain, by David Brooks. The two mountains are used as an analogy for the journey of life. There are those of us who climb the first mountain of life successfully. This mountain includes what our culture endorses: career, marriage, family, making your mark in the world, and personal happiness. Some people climb this first mountain only to get there and feel unsatisfied. Those people then begin to climb a second mountain, one that is truly theirs and not what culture dictates will bring one happiness. It is that second mountain that brings them satisfaction and joy.

The other piece to this book, is that there are those of us who never had the two mountain view, there was only the one mountain. These are the people who radiate joy, are content, and have generally chosen to live an other-centered life versus a self-centered one. These folks, Brooks explains, are the ones in his research, who suffered trauma, loss, or a large setback or failure early in life. These people were the ones most fulfilled and happy with life, and did not need to climb the second mountain to experience an underlying current of happiness or satisfaction.

When reading this book, I tried to imagine myself in both scenarios, but I didn’t quite fit into either bucket per se. While I don’t necessarily agree with the two mountain analogy, it does make solid sense when thinking about looking back at life’s biggest adversaries and how those very things or people may have paved the path to fulfillment, happiness, or in certain cases, caused the greatest possible outcome.

Think About The Contrast Between Then and Now

Looking back, I had just a bit of a rocky start in life. My childhood was pretty great until I was about 7 years old. Then came my parent’s divorce, and moving 12 times thereafter. If you’ve read my backstory, you know that my teenage years went into a bit of a tailspin in terms of consistency, security, and a nurturing perspective. To save you time, here is a very boiled down version of the events. My father got custody of us when I was 14 and my sister was 12. One year later, he abandoned me in my mother’s apartment complex parking lot with a backpack to my name. A name he then asked me to change since he wasn’t truly convinced I was his. From there, Mom and I were evicted and I lived with family friends. Mom and I eventually ended up back together close to a year later. During that time, I was also separated from my sister and rarely saw her between the ages of 15-21, due to her staying with our father and later moving to Boston with her high school boyfriend when she was 18. One could argue this was not a smooth start, however, if it’s what I had to go through to be who I am as a person, filled up by the simplicities in life, maybe I’m OK with it.

If I break down the small and large difficulties that occurred within that time frame of 14 years, a line can be drawn between then and now to certain conscious decisions I’ve made and others that maybe weren’t so conscious. It may not be a straight line, but it’s there. And I say 14 years because once I graduated college, I owned my own life and decisions from there. The high drama and trauma meter in my life came to an abrupt halt after I hit 21. That IS something that gives me pause and reflection. The difference is, after 21, I was in control. It’s when we feel out of control, or when someone or something is taking the wheel, that may impact us negatively (whether they realize it or not) that problems can perpetuate, and take hold of our lives.

Appreciation Is Learned Through Experience

On that line of decisions I mention above, there are a few examples of hurdles from back then, that now bring me an elevated sense of appreciation. A large contributor to the feeling of happiness and contentment is appreciation. My mother struggled to make ends meet as a single parent. She was working on a hairdresser’s wages, and my father paid child support intermittently, if at all, for the first few years after their divorce. This meant there was no savings, of course, and money was always scarce. Money is something in life that is never guaranteed, so it must be appreciated when it’s present and providing us with both life’s necessities and extras.

Appreciation Part I

I don’t often make frivolous or luxurious purchases. It may have something to do with my upbringing or it may not. I just bought myself 6 pairs of socks after realizing all of mine had holes for crying out loud! I’m the first to admit that is ridiculous. That purchase felt damn good though …and it wasn’t luxurious.

For the first time, I bought myself a monthly massage package a few months ago. It was a gift to myself to force me out of my house where I work and dwell way too much these days. It was tough to justify, but I told myself it would provide me with a much needed relaxing physical and mental one hour break. One month later, I immediately put my account at the massage place on freeze. We had abruptly decided it was critical to put our older son in Catholic school with his brother due to the hybrid public school model not working for our son’s mental well being. So it felt strange to me to also be spending money on myself in this way.

There was of course the voice inside my head saying, “I told you so. You cannot have nice things for yourself, Amber.”

I appreciated the hell out of the two massages I got and that’s all that matters. When I feel comfortable doing something extravagant like that for myself again, I will re-engage. Socks and massages: two purchases that could not be more different- necessity vs luxury- but honestly, both brought me a great amount of joy.

Appreciation Part II

We were depending on food stamps while I was in junior high. Macaroni, pb & j, and spaghetti were on regular rotation. We almost never went out to dinner. With my first paycheck, I went to Woodfield Mall, sat myself in a Ruby Tuesday’s booth, and bought myself a delicious meal. I’ll never forget how fulfilling that was. Growing up with a thin menu in our kitchen, made me enjoy going out to dinner immensely. It made me welcome elaborate home-cooked meals, gatherings around a dinner table, and acknowledge anyone who has a clue in a kitchen. It also means I eat really fast, which is kind of embarrassing. Subconsciously, my brain may think food will not always be there. I have to remind myself while on business trips to mindfully, cut, chew, and swallow at what’s considered an acceptable pace. To this day, going out to eat feels exciting, even if it means going to the diner up the street.

Failed Relationships Give Us The Tools We Need For Better Ones Ahead

Conflict with people teaches us things too, of course. In one specific incidence, I credit a friend of mine from high school for having an enormous impact on my life. He has since passed away, but I was able to share this with his fiancee. This person was best friends with my high school boyfriend. He and I became close friends once my boyfriend, his best friend, moved away to college. We had stayed behind; I went to community college for a year, he move to the city to figure out his plan. I was enraptured and had wholly lost myself in my love for this boyfriend. There were some romance novel level surprises and he did many kind things that made it feel like the best relationship ever. I believed we would be married at some point and later even based my choice of college on the proximity it was to his. Looking back on that makes me cringe. I would have willfully continued staying with this boyfriend when, slowly but surely, many red flags began to present themselves after he went away to school.

After he put Visine in my water (and told everyone the joke but me), the writing was on the wall that it was time to break up. And yet, I’d drive 3.5 hours just about every weekend to be with him and drag on the relationship. And then, one night, in Chicago, after many beers on my friend’s studio rooftop with a few others I became enlightened. My friend told me that he could no longer be silent on some of the things my boyfriend had done. He unveiled some surprisingly dumb things my then sweetheart had weirdly chosen to lie about.

After hearing me talk about my future and potential marriage to this guy, likely ad nauseum, my friend decided he could not refrain from telling me.

After we did finally break up, he asked to reconcile, pleading to share our lives together and start over. It was what my friend shared, that made the decision to say “no” so easy.

I never looked back. I know that if he had not told me, I would have likely married this person. I am beyond grateful to this friend, since he honestly changed the trajectory of my life. A life I’m guaranteed would have left me unhappy, if not divorced, financially insecure, and very likely a single mother struggling just like my own did.

I look back and see that relationship taught me the importance of never completely losing myself in a person again. Being blindly in love isn’t good for anyone, and it was my own fault to have fallen so deeply. Our naiveté can be our own demise. But it’s important to have these experiences so we can do better next time. We can appreciate the relationship for the good it provided and what the bad parts taught us.

During those years, I could have been more focused on my education, as well as solid path for myself. However, had I not experienced that heart break, I would not have been wiser and more discerning when selecting my future partner. Better yet, since choosing the right partner has an enormous impact on the size of problems you’ll have down the road, I take this to be one of the greatest conflicts to have learned from.

The Absence Of A Toxic Person Is Not A Bad Thing

Earlier in this piece, I mention my father abandoning me when I was 15. To most, that causes a sympathetic response, but hold that thought. I am actually BETTER off in this case. The conflict that occurred back when I was with him, actually set me up to have a far better life ahead. After having witnessed other good, present, and unconditionally loving fathers, I came to realize I was lucky that mine was no longer in my life. I imagine all of life’s milestones and celebrations: showers, weddings, births, significant birthdays, etc. with him and his wife around, and I physically shudder at the thought. We are so much better off with the toxicity missing, than from it being a constant in the picture, hanging on the wall of life, veering at our very happiness.

This absence from my father and his wife, really opened up a space in me that was filled completely by my children and my love for them. There’s no missing piece here, and there is no longing for them to be in my life. I am at peace and thankful- quite frankly- to not have to deal with them.

I think where some people can go wrong here, is to let the toxicity back in time and time again. In doing so, the conflict remains. To learn from your conflict means not to repeat the same behavior or pattern when faced with a similar scenario again. This shift makes the path even brighter and more clear in our decision making as we walk on through our lives.With the toxic person absent, holidays are pleasant for the first time, celebrations are no longer dreaded, and you’re not in a constant state of walking on eggshells. It’s eye opening once they’re absent.

When tasked with thinking of a specific adversary who came around and then somehow made my life better in the long run, I could think of no one. However, when I ruminated about troubles that presented themselves off and on in my early life, it’s clear to me we can take mental notes from a young age and make a concerted effort not to repeat those troubles.

Think for a second about some of the hurdles you’ve had in your life up to this point, and how it made you appreciate one thing or another as a result. It’s a fascinating experiment.

Acknowledgements: Big thanks to Dan Lopez for suggesting this topic.

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