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How To Be Happy: The One Action You Must Take

10/05/2012 11:42 am ET | Updated Mar 13, 2015

Human beings are remarkably adept at ignoring their own flaws and foibles, even when doing so leaves them miserable. Martha Beck explains why staring down your shortcomings (and learning to accept them) can put you on the path to lasting happiness.

The first job I ever loved was teaching college students to draw. The young artistes would show up with zippers on their boots, motorcycle parts dangling from their ears, and dark passion straining their souls. Few were pleased by their initial assignments: hours and hours of drawing straight lines and circles.

"What is this, kindergarten?" they'd grumble to me, their lowly teaching assistant. "I want to make art!"

The professor, an artist named Will Reimann who's about as brilliant as people get, would respond by examining the lines they'd drawn. "Hmm," he'd say. "Are those straight?" Then he'd point at a circle and go in for the kill. "Is that actually round?"

I mean, you try it.

After a lifetime of drawing, I still can't freehand a perfect circle. Most beginners don't even come close. This isn't a problem; it's why God gave us erasers. The problem -- and the crucial point Reimann wanted to illustrate -- is that most would-be artists overlook the ripple in their "straight" lines, the lumpy perimeter of their so-called "circles." And if you don't see it, you can't fix it.

These days my job (another one I love!) involves teaching people to design their lives -- which we all do every time we make a decision. "Hmm," I'll say, listening to a client's description of her career or relationship. "Is that really working?" Some people are taken aback, even offended by this. They've learned to look tactfully away from their own errors. They sketch out rough approximations of the life they want and call it close enough. But as a wise person once said, nothing changes until it becomes what it is. And the first step in creating your right life is acknowledging where you've gone wrong.

Knowing the Truth
Most of us can tell at a glance when a line isn't straight or a circle isn't round -- unless we're the artist. The same goes for assessing our own "performance" in life: Accurate information becomes amazingly elusive. The last thing we want when we're feeling chubby is to know our actual weight. When we're overspending, we avoid our credit card statements like bird flu. And anytime I'm procrastinating, reminding me of my to-do list turns me from a peaceful computer-solitaire addict into a snarling attack bitch.

Of course, avoiding reality doesn't keep us truly ignorant -- just vague. We try to blur the lines just enough to make our flaws effectively invisible, but on some level we're still aware that they're there. We let ourselves know just enough to know that we don't want to know. Psychologists call this denial.

While I try not to live in the land of denial myself, I am a frequent visitor. So I can tell you from experience that if you're feeling nervous about some part of your life while avoiding any hard facts related to it, you're due for a tiny intervention in your head.

Think of the binge eater saying, "I'm a hundred pounds overweight," the drunk admitting, "I'm an alcoholic," the plastic surgery junkie acknowledging, "If I get one more facelift, the sides of my mouth will meet in the back and bisect my head." Now consider an area of your own life where you feel pronounced uneasiness mixed with a desire to avoid specifics. With that area in mind, fill in the following blanks. Honestly.

Here's what I know is true, even though I wish it weren't:
_________________________________________________________.

Here's what I really feel about it, even though I don't want to:
_________________________________________________________.

Note that this information, in and of itself, is a colossal bummer. Don't panic. You've bravely begun the process of change by letting yourself know what's wrong. Now it's time for the next step.

Accepting the Truth
Many people will tell you that rejecting your present situation is the way to create positive change. You may notice that these people achieve virtually no positive change themselves. That's because, paradoxical as it seems, the best way to improve your situation is to accept it. Unconditionally. Warts and all.

Rejecting our failures is the reason that denial exists and that most of us never learn to draw. If it's unacceptable for you to be as chubby or poor or sluggish as you are, the truth is sheer horror. You become a walking version of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream," hands clapped to your ears, mouth open in a continuous shriek. Yet lots of people think this kind of self-loathing is "motivational." If you're one of them, please join me in the following thought experiment.

1. Think of something virtuous you haven't been able to make yourself do: consume only green smoothies until you lose 20 pounds, keep a strict budget, finish all your work on time, what have you.

2. Now feel the anxiety of believing you must do this undone thing. Really rev up the intolerance. Hate on your fat thighs, your weak will, your laziness. Insist on immediate, total, permanent change. Scream at yourself.

3. Notice: Do you feel more or less inclined to fall back into your bad habits? Do you feel more or less like eating, spending, or stalling? And by the way, how happy are you?

4. Designate the next ten minutes a time-out from life -- a little vacation you're going to take for the sake of this experiment. Release your anxiety, self-hatred, and nonacceptance. You can have them all back in a jiffy, but right now, as writer Anne Lamott says, just leave everything lay where Jesus flang it. Say to yourself, "For these ten minutes, it's all right to be as fat as I am," or "For these ten minutes, it's okay to be in debt." If judgment and criticism arise, tell them to take ten.

5. Next, drop your resistance to your emotions. If you're angry at yourself, tell yourself, "It's okay to be angry." If you're scared, say, "It's all right to be scared." You don't have to like these feelings. But let them be as they are.

6. While accepting your outward truth (what's really happening) and your inward truth (what you're really feeling), notice how tempted you are to indulge your bad habits.

Every person I've coached in the 14 years I've been coaching has told me they feel less compulsive and crazed while accepting themselves. Acceptance helps you feel free to make calm, thoughtful choices, whereas rejection makes you freeze or run back to your worst habits for comfort.

If you're the exception -- if hostile works for you -- feel free to recommence hating yourself. The experiment is over. But notice that the present moment instantly becomes intolerable, and denial resumes. You'll sense that all is not right with your life, but since you'll no longer see it clearly, you won't be able to fix it. And that's fine, really, because you'll be so disheartened, you won't want to do anything but eat ice cream straight from the carton using only your face. Unless...

Learning to Draw
After they got over the crying and swearing phase, most of my art students realized that I made as many mistakes as they did, and it was no big deal. I'd take a hard look at an imperfect circle I'd drawn, then erase a lump and smooth out the curve. They soon began doing the same. Before long their lines became almost perfectly straight, their circles damn close to circular.

There is an approach to life that allows you to meet every day this way, to see errors calmly and address them quickly. Buddhists, Sufis, and eaters of crunchy granola have called this approach radical acceptance. It entails dropping all self-hatred and resistance, and continuously accepting everything that happens, without cruelty or condemnation.

"But," you may be thinking, "if I accept everything as is, I'll lose my motivation." Oh, really? Have you ever totally accepted a baby or puppy? What motivated you to play with it? Have you ever fallen in love, totally accepting someone who totally accepted you? What motivated you to spend time together? The answer, my friend, is love. And nothing in the world is as energizing.

Some of my most resistant art students, like my life-coaching clients to come, learned that despite the initial sting of knowing the truth, acceptance made for quick correction and rapid progress. Just weeks after cranking out those first lame lines and circles, they could draw everything better than they'd ever thought possible. "Don't worry," the professor would assure them, "the sooner you make your first 5,000 mistakes, the sooner you can move on to the next 5,000." Then we'd all have a hearty laugh -- because taking horse tranquilizers would have been illegal -- and keep on drawing.

Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).

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