Positive Psychology, Autonomy, and a Life Reflected in My Choices

I posted a meme yesterday.  We all post memes, and generally when we do it is an unspoken rule that the meme was shared because of a personal and individual connection with it.  The meme I posted said, “Everything in your life is a reflection of a choice you have made.  If you want a different result, make a different choice.”  I suppose I could have redone the meme to replace the yours with mys and the yous with I’s, but I didn’t consider it necessary because of the aforementioned unspoken rule.  I was wrong and I hurt someone’s feelings by causing them to feel blamed and shamed.  I triggered a series of negative emotions that created discord in an individual I care about deeply.  I certainly didn’t intend that, and I still don’t understand how that process worked within her to pull the kind of reaction I received.  So I walked away after what another friend called a “heavy but respectful disagreement” and really, thank everything good in the world that we both maintained our composure in our public interaction on Facebook, and proceeded to slam pots and pans around in my kitchen while I made dessert bars for the school carnival this weekend.  About an hour in Travis listened to me rant in an increasingly loud and forceful voice while I internally tried to work out just what exactly had gone wrong, how, and why.

There are multiple reasons, and I don’t know enough about my friend’s perspective on mental illness and mental health to make guesses about her perspective; all I clearly know is that it is very different from my own.  I have struggled with depression and mental illness since adolescence; my experiences with it are unique to me, just as her experiences are unique to her.  The only common factor here is that we are both women who live with and attempt to successfully manage the mental illnesses we have.  That just isn’t enough to make an assumption that we will approach psychological processes and ideas with the same perspective, and it gives us a unique opportunity to understand a little about the other’s perspective as it relates to our own.  So here goes my perspective, it is mine, and I do not expect it to become yours.

What is positive psychology?  It is the study of strengths and virtues that enable people and their communities to grow through the development, research, and education regarding three central concerns; positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions.  More specifically, positive emotions is the study of your past to find a way to relate it to contentment, the present related to happiness, and the future related to hope.  Positive traits entails the study of strengths and virtues including, the capacity for love, courage, compassion, resilience, and self-knowledge.  Positive institutions consist of the study of the strengths needed to foster healthy communities including, justice, responsibility, parenting, nurturance, and tolerance.

Positive psychology is a relatively new field in the arena of psychology and thus doesn’t have a whole lot of research behind it yet.  Psychology has traditionally been concerned with what goes wrong with people, and that course of study and treatment has been successful and needs to continue.  Through traditional psychology and the focus on what went wrong in an individual’s life troubled people are helped to live lives that are less troubled, and that is awesome.  In other words, traditional psychology focuses on mental illness where positive psychology focuses on mental health.  So, do positive psychologists attempt to create a constant state of euphoria?  Are we just supposed to ignore all the bad stuff in favor of the good stuff?  What is there is no good stuff?  Ignoring all negative emotions would be unhealthy and would not lead a person to happiness or contentment.  Sometimes we have to make up the good stuff, and that’s okay.  Two days ago, after a week of pretty shitty PMS symptoms I got my period; there was no good stuff.  I told myself, “it was on time this month, that is a good thing.”  That is a pretty small potatoes example, but before I give you the bigger and very personal example of the way positive psychology worked in my life, let’s talk about the surprisingly, or not considering yesterday’s debacle, controversial concept of choosing one’s emotions.

Brace yourself; you might get mad at me.

If you look hard enough you can begin to see patterns in your emotions.  When I first moved in with Travis I was caught in an emotional pattern that called up anger at the first sign of judgment, disappointment, or confusion.  Anger was safe and loud and it protected me from what I had been conditioned to expect from the relationships I had been in in the past.  Once I started paying attention to that pattern I could almost see the wall slam down as anger swelled up inside of me.  My children and I were on one side and I banished Travis to the other; we were protected because protecting myself and my children had become instinct, but my instinct was outdated.  This relationship was different; it was healthy.  I realized I was never actually feeling anger.  I was doing anger, but I was feeling fear, disappointment, confusion, or sadness.

So what exactly does doing an emotion entail?  We feel our emotions, but we choose to do them.  When I was expressing my fear or sadness as anger I was choosing to do that.  I vividly remember screaming at him once, “THIS IS WHAT I DO!  THIS IS WHAT I HAVE LEARNED TO EXPECT AND THIS IS WHAT I DO!”  Once I decided to start paying more attention to the emotions that were lying underneath the instinctual anger I was doing I was able to begin to feel safe doing the other ones.  The first time I told Travis I was afraid instead of angry my stomach had butterflies that rivaled the ones I had on my first day of school.  It was scary to give voice to the unsafe emotions I had covered in anger for so long.  But each time I chose to do it it got easier, and soon I wasn’t doing anger anymore and when I was angry for real I knew I wasn’t doing it but feeling it, and with the permission I had given myself to feel my emotions and give them the time and space they needed I found I wasn’t as angry anymore.

When I am out helping Travis shovel and my shovel sucks and my glasses are steaming up till I can’t see anything and I am frustrated and choose to complain continuously to the point where Travis gets frustrated and scolds me I have an opportunity to choose how I react.  I can choose to be angry and cover up my fear of being a disappointment to him or I can choose to stop complaining, because that is where my fear of disappointing him stems from, and get on with the thankless cold job of shoveling snow.

Choosing emotions requires self-awareness, attention, and persistence.  It isn’t impossible but some people have more trouble than others.  For some people it simply doesn’t work, and that doesn’t mean those people are defective or not as good as those of us who are able to choose our emotions.  For me, choosing my emotions gives me a sense of control when things that are out of my control happen to me.  That sense of control is what it is all about.  I can’t control my car breaking down in the middle of the road while picking up my son from school, but I can choose my emotional reaction to it and that gives me a measure of control which in turn makes me feel better and gives me the chance to change the path of my day.  I am in control because I am choosing to control something about the situation I find myself in.

So let’s get to the example then.

One night my daughter’s father sat in the living room of our small two bedroom apartment and told me how worthless and repulsive I was.  I was cleaning up vomit while I held my youngest daughter in my arms because he wouldn’t help; our oldest sat a few feet away doing homework.  The next day I chose to change the locks on our door and to move everything in the apartment that was his to his parent’s garage.  When he came home I set an egg timer and I gave him 5 minutes to decide if I was going to give him a ride to his parent’s house or if he was going to ride his bike; I told him when the egg timer went off the choice would be mine and he would be taking his bike.  He chose to get a ride.  This started the period of time where I was healthier physically and mentally than ever before.  I was successful at finding a job that provided health insurance, and I was able to get medication to treat my depression.  I was a new person.

Then I met the man who would become my son’s father; he met the “new Sarah.”  I chose to quit my job to stay at home with my daughter when I found her asleep in a pile of glass from a broken snow globe while her father, who was supposed to be watching her, slept on the couch.  I could have chosen a different daycare, but instead I chose to quit the job that provided healthcare and subsequently the medication I needed to maintain mental stability.  That choice is the one that led to so many other things.  How do I know this?  Because I have analyzed it over and over again; that was the choice that resulted in a domino effect of frightening proportions over a period of 5 years.  What happened to me and my family in the next 5 years was a direct reflection of my choice to quit my job.

Here’s the frightening thing; I knew that staying home was a bad decision, because being a stay-at-home mom was never something that I could do.  Being out in the working world was empowering and gave me the confidence I needed to remember that I was a worthwhile human being.  I chose to do it anyway.  I chose to believe it would be different this time.  I maintained my part-time job that I worked every other weekend so I was still contributing financially to the household.

At some point we decided to move to a different place, we rented a house that was more expensive and took on the extra monthly costs of utilities and garbage removal.  We were financially irresponsible, but I still had my part-time job so we figured we would be just fine, but then I resigned in the face of accusations that had the possibility of keeping stable staffing away from developmentally disabled clients who needed stable staffing in their lives.

So here we were, a new house, less money coming in, more money going out, no access to mental health care or antidepressant medication.  So we made the obvious choice to have another child.  Wait, what?  I know . . . bear with me.  I had applied and been accepted for a job before I found out I was pregnant, but because of some spotting and general fear of miscarriage because of a blood clotting disorder I made the choice to stop working.  Pregnant, mentally ill, unmedicated, stay-at-home mom.  All of this is a culmination of choices I made and acted on.

Fast forwarding a little bit, my son is born and I am still unemployed.  His father had made the decision to leave me and take my son with him.  This hit me out of left field, there was no build-up to the situation that I had been able to see (because I was blinded by dysfunction), and I begged him to give me a chance to be better, to do better.  We decided to move to the apartment he had procured for him and Eli and abandon the house and almost all of our possessions.  I did better for a little while, but I still did not have a job, I still was not medicated, and I was not looking for a way to remedy either of those situations.  I spiraled into a state of depression that rivaled any other.

This is where things get a little more difficult for me to continue on with because of the guilt and shame I still feel regarding the whole situation, but it is the most important part so I cannot leave it out.

In addition to dealing with unmedicated chronic depression I was also dealing with post-partum depression, and in addition to that I was dealing with the fear of my son’s father leaving me and taking my son with him.  I was better for a little while but it didn’t last very long.  Here is a list of the things I didn’t do:

  • Laundry
  • Dinner
  • Lunch
  • Breakfast
  • Shopping
  • Cleaning
  • Personal hygiene

Here is a list of things I did do:

  • Sleep
  • Cry
  • Neglect my children
  • Abandon my children emotionally
  • Expect my son’s father to provide financially
  • Complain

I sat at home smoking cigarettes and expecting everybody to do everything for me.  Until the day my son’s father, who was dealing with his own mental illness issues, exacerbated greatly by the choices I was making in our relationship, couldn’t take it anymore.  He tried to tell me he didn’t want to try anymore, I begged him to reconsider.  I chose to emotionally manipulate him into staying with me because my fear of being alone and accountable for myself terrified me into a need to stay in a dysfunctional relationship that was partly my responsibility.  I would have preferred to stay in a dead and unhealthy relationship than attempt to create a better life for myself and my children.  My choice was to remain and I was going to do everything in my power to get him to want to remain as well.  That was on a Thursday.

The following Saturday we watched a movie about a man who hired someone to kill his wife.  My neck and back hurt terribly and my son’s father suggested I take muscle relaxers to help me sleep.  At his urging I took two.  That night I dreamt I was under water struggling to swim to the surface and feeling as though my lungs were going to burst.  I was shaking my head back and forth in the water and as I came to I heard someone screaming over and over again, “NO NO NO!”  I had a pillow over my face, it was wrapped in saran wrap and my son’s father was straddling my body and holding it over my face.

His choice was to kill me to get away from the trap he felt he was in.  He could have made a different choice, but he didn’t.  I am not responsible for the choice he ultimately made, but it would be wrong to declare that 5 years of dysfunctional behavior on my part had no bearing on the process of him getting to the place where that was a decision he ultimately made.

The direct aftermath of that situation, which I had ZERO control over since I am not responsible for the ultimate decision he made, was made up of nothing but choices that were designed to protect myself and my children.  The first choice I made was to convince him not to commit suicide after I escaped the pillow.  The second choice I made was to slip the one and only phone we had up my sleeve as I led him outside to smoke a cigarette.  The third choice I made was to call the police and tell them he was trying to kill himself and omit the facts about what had transpired that evening.  The fourth choice I made was to not let him into the bedroom where our son was sleeping while we waited for the police to arrive.  My fifth choice was to call the police back the next morning and tell them the truth about what happened the night before.  In less than 24 hours after a situation where I had no control, I made at least 5 concrete choices about how to proceed.  More choices followed.  I chose to leave my daughters with their grandparents while I took my son to the Twin Cities to deal with the emotional aftermath of the attempted murder, after two weeks I chose to come back because my girls needed me and I wanted them to stay in an area where a strong and supportive family presence was.  I chose to apply for financial, food, and medical assistance.  I chose to look for a job.  I chose to move to a different apartment.  I chose to be an advocate for people with mental illness no matter what, and that included the man who tried to kill me.  I chose to work with Victim’s Services and the county prosecutor and when that prosecutor applied for upward departure and wouldn’t refer to me by name to my face I fought her and forced her to use my name.

On an emotional scale I chose to be honest with myself by re-evaluating my behavior in the past five years and separating the things I was responsible for from the things I wasn’t responsible for, and when I was able to get them separated I chose to move through them one by one and reconcile with myself.  I took responsibility for my depression, the way it manifested, and the choices I made to remain unmedicated and sick.  I admitted that those choices played a part in where I ended up that evening, under a saran wrapped pillow, and then I chose to teach myself how to make better choices, and then I worked really motherfucking hard.  I failed, and then I failed again.  I fell down and then I chose to stand back up.  I looked at myself in the mirror and when all I saw staring back at me was a loser who deserved what she got I told myself I wasn’t and I didn’t deserve it.  I told myself every hour, every day, every minute until I looked in the mirror and believed it.  I lied to myself for 6 months.  I found positive things in my situation; I made up positive things when I couldn’t find any.  On days when I chose to believe I was worthless I gave myself permission to feel it, and I felt the shit out of it, and I allowed those feelings their due process.  Slowly but surely I got better.

My life is indeed a reflection of my choices.  Even in situations that were completely out of my control I made choices because I will be damned if the actions of someone else are going to strip me of my autonomy and leave me choiceless and floundering.  When my choices reflected themselves in negativity I changed the choices I was making.  The actions of others that I had no control over did not affect my ability to make choices; they only affected my belief in my ability to make choices.  The hardest thing I have ever done is to maintain a belief in my ability and it is the ONLY thing that facilitated the betterment of myself, my family, and my environment.

Psychology is a discipline that is concerned with repairing weaknesses within individuals; those weaknesses are repaired by facilitating understanding of why those weaknesses exist.  Balancing that aspect of psychology with aspects of positive psychology like nurturing strengths and building the concepts and attitudes that make living worth it gives us the opportunity to create change within ourselves that promotes autonomy and positivity through choice.  People who can’t do this are not defective; they simply need to approach their situation and their treatment from a different perspective; since when has anyone with ever thought different was bad or less than?

There were times, and there still are times, when I want nothing but relief from whatever is making me feel bad, but that is not all I want out of life.  Relief from suffering is not the end all be all of psychological treatment.  An active fostering of positive emotion and character building entwined with treatment to alleviate suffering is a comprehensive approach to effective psychological practice.  Learning how to recognize and understanding how to build and maintain autonomy through choice is essential to treatment that works.  We must supplement the fix-what’s-wrong approach with the build-what’s-strong approach.  Too often the focus on what is wrong creates the erroneous idea that we are wrong and we forget to focus on ways in which we are right.  Merely relieving suffering does lead us to a sense of well-being; it only breaks down one of the barriers that stands in the way of us attaining a sense of well-being.  Relief is only half the battle, the other half consists of retraining yourself to ignore the negative that has been instinctually built into your reactionary processes based on life experiences and the effects of mental illness in your life.  As you learn to ignore that negative you simultaneously learn to build positive emotion, engagement, and meaning that works to counter the mental illness itself.  We have all experienced the downward spiral associated with mental illness, but there is such a thing as an upward spiral that comes from a conscious effort to practice positivity through autonomous choice and broadened thinking.  This practice leads to an ability to find meaning in negative events, which in turn leads to more positive emotional ability.

If you’ve made it this far you probably simply want me to shut the fuck up; I admit this got a little longer than I initially intended it to be.  In the end, my ability to make small choices in the face of negative events out of my control enabled me to make bigger choices that had a lasting and positive effect on not only my life but also the lives of my children.  It took years to repair the damage a mentally ill and self-absorbed mother inflicted upon them.  It took years to repair the damage I did to myself.  I did it by forcing myself to be aware of my choices and the effects those choices had on me and those around me.  If this is something you cannot do, for whatever reason, I don’t think less of you, I don’t think you are doing it wrong, and I don’t think you should drop what you are doing to redo it all my way.  What do I think?  I think you should remember that my choices are a reflection on my life, and not a reflection on yours.

Edited to Add:  I also think I will probably change memes that have ambiguous language to more directly say what I mean them to say, or at the very least add a note to explain.

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3 thoughts on “Positive Psychology, Autonomy, and a Life Reflected in My Choices

  1. Thank you for being so candid. Depression is such an awful thing and I hate that it has such a stigma. I’m glad you were able to start making positive and healthy choices for you and your family!

  2. I’m glad Bobby didn’t succeed. I’m glad you met Travis and have a new life. And, I’m glad that Bobby is still Eli’s father and my nephew and that I will see both of them. You’ve been through so much pain. I hope your life gets easier with more love and less trauma. I admire you.

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