“At any moment, you have a choice, that either leads you closer to your spirit or further away from it.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an Olympic figure skater. Or an artist for Disney. Or maybe a musician.
I wanted to be a songwriter and choreographer.
I made up roller skating routines in the driveway to Tiffany and Paula Abdul. (It was most excellent.)
I filled notebooks upon notebooks with illustrations.
And if you were to ask me to describe myself, I might have said, “happy.” Or I would have chattered on about my dreams and all the interesting things I liked.
Ask me today, and just like any other adult, my automatic response would probably be something along the lines of what I do and how hard I work, as if I’m interviewing for a job.
I’m a psychologist. I’m a hard worker. I’m dedicated.
(Adults aren’t always so good at this.)
Somewhere around junior high, my identity shifted from happy and interested in everything to being studious and serious about everything.
Until very recently, I wouldn’t have thought to describe myself as joyful, creative, or inquisitive.
Whereas I once thought about doing what fed my spirit, I started thinking about earning potential and prestige. Rather than doing things because they brought me joy, I did them because I was good at them. And things that I wasn’t didn’t make the cut.
This was the time to start getting serious. Win the awards. Get scholarships. Get recognized.
And stop wasting time.
Things got competitive, too. Friends started talking about test scores, then it was talk about college and graduate school and publications and careers.
It was during that time that I also discovered insecurity. I got caught up in not good enough thinking, and I felt like an imposter all the time.
I don’t even think I noticed that I’d forgotten about joy. I’d laugh as I said, “I’ll be happy when…” only to find that there was always another “when” lurking around the corner.
I’d forgotten what we all know as children, that joy is a part of us. It’s not a place you arrive when you finally finish all of this serious business. It’s a piece of you that needs to be nurtured.
But I didn’t nurture the joy. I let it go because I thought I could live without it. Even the things I did in the name of self-care had lost their joy.
Running, which once left me feeling as free as the wind, became about getting faster and going farther.
Yoga, which was meant to be a grounding and compassionate practice for me, became about sticking that handstand a little longer.
Setting goals isn’t the problem here. It’s just that accomplishments aren’t the same thing as thriving.
Looking back at all of this, I see that I’d made myself so small, I forgot I was in there at all.
Oh, my success more than spoke for itself, but joy? Interests? Excitement? I’d shut them down one by one because I wasn’t good enough or because they weren’t serious enough.
I stopped drawing.
I stopped making jewelry.
I stopped doing things just because they were enjoyable.
And why? Because I thought I could live without them.
I did everything you’re supposed to do, and I did everything in my power to do it just right. I got into that fancy private school on a full-ride, got the Ph.D., got the license, and got the stable job. And I became so entrenched in this serious, hard-worker identity that I forgot about me.
I’m truly grateful for the opportunities and privileges and people in my life, but as a human being it felt like something was missing. Maybe those things I’d been living without might have been more necessary than I thought.
Little pieces of that happy little girl popped up from time to time, but I’d push them away or turn them into something too perfect.
And then one of those pieces shouted at me so loudly I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I was sitting on the blue mat in my son’s room reading Pete the Cat when it happened.
You should do this. Write a children’s book.
I could almost see myself step outside of my body and look at me in disbelief.
Really? You? Write a children’s book?
I tried to brush it off, but my heart was pounding and I could hardly breathe. I tried to go about my business, thinking this would go away on its own. But it didn’t.
After a lot of back and forth with myself, I finally mumbled the words to my husband, “I think I want to write a children’s book.”
I braced myself for the same look of disbelief I gave myself, but none came.
“You should do it,” he said, apparently not at all surprised.
As much as I’d like to say this was some kind of magical transformation, it wasn’t. I didn’t quit my job and whip out a world-famous, award-winning children’s book. But that’s not the point of this story anyway.
The point is that I found joy again.
It took a while. I thought about it and analyzed it trying to make it disappear. I told myself I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have the time.
The thought stuck with me, though, growing louder and louder until, under the cover of darkness in the early morning hours, I pulled a sheet of paper from the printer, sharpened a pencil, and sat down.
Like one of those scenes from a movie when someone who’s had amnesia suddenly remembers their entire life, the memories of all the things I thought I could live without came flooding back.
Have I really been living without this all this time?
I filled pages upon pages with illustrations.
I made up rhymes and stories.
And do you know what happened? I didn’t just feel joy. I felt free.
I could probably go on living without this, but now I see that I don’t have to.
I didn’t need to quit my job.
I didn’t neglect my children.
The house didn’t crumble at my feet.
Pursuing this didn’t need to make me a cent. I didn’t even need to be very good at it.
Because it was always about joy, and that’s not something I want to live without anymore.
Living with joy doesn’t hurt anything. It doesn’t diminish your drive or ambition. It doesn’t make you less intelligent. And it sure doesn’t make you any less important.
Living with joy makes you free, and that freedom reminds of everything that is possible. Even the serious things.
On the outside, my life probably looks pretty much the same since that night I sat on my son’s blue mat, but on the inside, everything is different.
Since then, I found that little girl that I didn’t even know had gone missing.
I remembered the roller skating routines, designing t-shirt, setting up photo shoots in the living room, and sitting on the edge of my seat holding my breath watching decorating shows.
I remembered what it feels like to be happy and excited and inquisitive.
And now I get it. Just because you can live without something doesn’t mean you have to.
What piece of joy have you been telling yourself you can live without?
What do you think would happen if you said one day, “I don’t have to live without this?”
You can find that joy, even if that little piece of joy has been buried for a long time.
To begin, start by saying yes to yourself a little more. Yes to that little spark of curiosity, yes to that little smile that you shrug off, and definitely yes to that burning feeling inside your chest that screams, “Listen to this. This is joy.”
It doesn’t matter if it feels ridiculous, it doesn’t matter if it’s “wasting time,” and it sure doesn’t matter if you’re any good at it. What matters is the feeling you get when you do it. Because that feeling like you’re going to laugh and cry and sit silently and run through the halls singing all at once, that’s joy. (And you don’t need to live without it.)
Remember to pursue more than success or accomplishment. Those are important, but so are the things that bring you meaning, connection, and engagement in your life.
Feel the spontaneous moments of joy that seem to bubble up out of nowhere, and plan a few to look forward to. Fill those moments with activities that fill you up. Simply unplugging is not enough when you’re after joy. And above all else, do not cancel on yourself.
As you do this, stay alert for that voice that says you can live without this. Maybe you can, but maybe you don’t have to anymore.
About Leslie Ralph
Leslie writes at A Year of Happy where she combines her years of training and practice as a psychologist with the lessons she’s still learning as a working mom. Each month, she tackles a new topic inspired by life as a mom, positive psychology, and meditation. Stop by to download your free two-minute revitalizing meditation.