Cover photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel
I’ve had to rumble with myself lately. It’s been an uncomfortable process. One that’s required an acknowledgement of some unhealthy thoughts around identity and self-worth.
My best friend was designing a course based on Positive Psychology, and she asked me to share a time with her when I was wholly happy. What was I doing and what was happening externally and internally that led to those feelings of happiness.
I had to think about that. Wholly happy? Authentically, you mean? No platitudes or easy, filler-type answers?
2004 – 2005
I was living in Tokyo, and I had just gotten a massive promotion. With that promotion came larger payments on my students loans that allowed me to pay them off much sooner than scheduled. Not long after, I found myself with disposable income. (I know!) Credit card payments were made in full at the end of the month and, for the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t stretching ¥1,500 (~$11 USD/£9) until payday. No more onigiris for lunch and dinner!
But it wasn’t just the financial freedom and my newfound ability to save, it was the recognition. I was working hard (anyone who’s worked in Asia will attest to the normalcy of the 12-hour workday), and I was being rewarded for it. Feeling valued had a positive impact on my self-esteem. I had received—even though I didn’t realize it at the time—external validation for a job well done. That validation had skyrocketed my internal self-worth.
While there were other promotions and job assignments that came later and fed my self-esteem, none of them felt as good as the first one. However, at some point along the way, all the “additional responsibilities” began to take their toll. I started grinding my teeth when I was asleep. There were conference calls three times a week in the evenings and occasionally on Saturday mornings at 6am (Friday at 6pm EST during daylight savings). “Difficult” conversations were becoming the norm, and the accolades had started to feel superficial—platitudes offered for the promise of more work.
I wouldn’t realize it until much later, but there’s a downside to linking one’s self-worth to external validation. What happens when your job doesn’t come with a paycheck and there’s no one telling you, “Well done.”
When my eldest was born, I wasn’t consumed with feelings of self-worth or validation. For the first time, I experienced a different kind of emotion. Satisfaction. The dictionary defines satisfaction as the fulfillment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs. What made satisfaction the most powerful emotion I’d experienced was for the first time, I wanted nothing more.
Photo by Mustafa Omar
In those first moments when I held my daughter, I knew that no promotion, award, or certification would ever compare. What mattered the most to me was in my arms, and if we fell on hard times, well, we’d live under a bridge, huddled together because only death would separate us.
Fast forward to 2022 and my best friend’s question about a wholly happy memory, and I realized that right now, I’m living a wholly happy life. It looks very different than the last time I felt this way. I now have two children and am working in a new industry where tenure is rewarded—so nothing’s getting paid-off in this lifetime.
Because I’m no longer interested in ladder-climbing, I’ve had to find my sense of fulfillment and accomplishment through other means. Looking inward has been… awakening. I’ve adopted a more positive outlook on my “here and now”. As a result, I now safeguard the time I spend with my family so that I’m fully present—no more, “I’m here”, but my thoughts are on my to-do list. I’m much better at maintaining my boundaries, which means I don’t feel as stressed and pulled in many different directions anymore—it’s a superpower that comes with learning to say, “No.” and meaning it. I’ve seen the positive impact on my life (and my mind) by setting more realistic deadlines—not every free moment needs to turn into a productive one. There’s productivity in rest.
The result has been I am living a more purposeful and self-directed life.
Sometimes, an internal rumbling is necessary. It’s our internal compass attempting to let us know that it’s time to change course. It can be scary and is almost always frustrating, but in the end, it’s worth it.