Having been raised in a materialistic society it is difficult to uncondition ourselves from believing that success equates to happiness. Some of us turned our backs on conventional success and chose to pursue our passion instead, so there’s this counter-narrative that it is pursuing our passion that will make us happy.
I think ‘passion’ is often a misused term. Only upon hindsight I realised what I believed to be my passion was simply the first thing I latched on to that offered me some semblance of agency and room for self-expression. It felt like a relief compared to the mainstream narrative of scaling corporate ladders in a 9-5 job.
We are told that in order to succeed in our passion we have to sacrifice for it. Due to the naiveness and bravado of my youth I worked countless nights till 5am in the morning for the sake of my “passion”. Being a designer was not in the list of “approved” professions back then, so apart from low pay, abusive bosses and long hours, I had to put up with disapproval, discouragement and disappointment from the people around me.
My career bore some fruit in my early 30s. For the longest time I did not have the courage to contemplate I was unhappy because of the blood, sweat and tears I had put in. I went through some traumatic times to sustain my career for that entire length of time – how could I give it all up when I had worked so hard for that respect, approval and validation? So I blamed it on my chronic depression.
I think one of the factors that cause the great unhappiness in society is the sunk cost fallacy.
It is extremely challenging to sort out which part of the chronic depression is causing the chronic unhappiness and which part of the chronic unhappiness is causing the chronic depression. I also think it is one of humanity’s greatest talents to be in denial.
Depression itself is a complex condition that may mean a thousand things. But for the sake of this context I will define it as a biological regulation disorder. Compared to the average healthy person it is more challenging for me to regulate my emotions, meaning I tend to swing from one extreme end to the other, and I am very easily stressed – whether mentally or physically. These extreme swings and stress makes it difficult for the neurotransmitters to be regulated (just the presence cortisol for prolonged periods is enough to cause a spectrum of hormone-related conditions including diabetes), therefore resulting in a chronically low mood.
I have thought of myself as a resilient person precisely I went through so much and survived it all, to finally acknowledge that I am a fragile, easily stressed person was embarrassing and disempowering in a society that prides people on being tough. Can you imagine telling a prospective employer you’re easily stressed? Can you imagine a prospective client reading my blog? Nobody would hire me.
But if I didn’t acknowledge my fragility I would only continue to put myself in situations where I continue to burn out over and over again because I wouldn’t protect myself from exposure to stress. It is like dunking a person who doesn’t know how to swim into the ocean over and over again and expecting them to thrive.
It is helpful that I am somewhat still driven to understand my condition, so reading a ton of research of chronic depression and emotional dysregulation allowed me to stop feeling so lousy about myself. We tend to blame fragility on one’s character, as though it is something that can be improved if one decides to. But do you know our nervous systems can be greatly impacted even as an unborn fetus? It can result in lifelong consequences.
I started to understand my condition as a systemic condition. Stressful societies and environments produce stressed people and they in turn produce stressed children. Then, we all go on to perpetuate the conditions of a stressful society, because that’s all we know. Because that’s all we know and all we’ve done to survive, even thrive, we celebrate and glorify being able to cope with extreme stress. Clap clap.
For me, it is so obvious on hindsight and a lot of introspection that I have been conditioned to expect happiness from all the wrong places. I thought I had everything, but I was still miserable. I think we assume the capacity to be happier is an innate human condition, but for some of us, it is something that has to be learned and developed.
What made me a lot happier – again I wouldn’t say I am happy but I would say I am a lot less unhappy – weren’t accomplishments or even love. My career achievements brought me temporary elation, then emptiness. Then it got worse because we are told that we are supposed to feel grateful with all the material privilege we have been given. But material privilege doesn’t buy you psychological stability, the inner capacity for happiness, or the self-awareness that one needs to work on oneself. However, it can buy time to try to develop them. But to take the time, effort and challenge to do so is not something money can buy too, because we tend to avoid difficult feelings and/or internal experiences, and/or admitting that something is wrong to begin with. I spent a long time trying to avoid going through wholesale changes because I just didn’t want to admit everything was just not working out and I have to start learning how to crawl again. It is also potentially a very isolating experience because everyone else is going through life status quo while I went for gatherings and even on social media supposedly expecting to feel the same but all of a sudden nothing ever feels the same again.
People who have been interacting with me for a long time expected the same behaviour from me – why wouldn’t they – but I simply wasn’t the same person anymore. I was not interested in most things people were interested in, I put up way more boundaries, said no to most things and effectively isolated myself for a long while. I couldn’t figure out how to interact with people when I didn’t even know what to expect from myself.
I probably fell into a deeper depression than the one I was already in. Losing everything familiar including my previous self was a thoroughly disturbing experience.
Maybe it took two years or more? In the recent months I have observed myself to be a lot less depressed. I still experience low moods but a lot less suicidal ideation. I definitely have more physical energy.
I can only explain this in the way I can in this very linear format, but the entire experience was nowhere linear. I think I went through a long period of detox from things that gave me short-term dopamine hits and I felt very lonely for a long while because I no longer felt connected to anything, but I walked out of it suddenly realising what used to matter so much to me no longer mattered, and now I am free to find what truly mattered.
That also meant that old triggers triggered me less since they mattered less. Being less triggered meant less emotional upheavals which meant less depressive burnouts. I took most things less seriously. Perhaps I would leave this for another essay but it is difficult to take anything seriously when one realises most things are just a story we tell ourselves. Everyone is living according to an internal script we have of our own lives and of ourselves, everyone else is fulfilling a role in that script. One day, we can just stop following that script and drop out of people’s scripts too.
There are things that are as real as reality can get, like viruses and mortality, but something like I must be a hardworking person or everyone including myself will despise me is just a story. It is a story that becomes very real and will have actual impact on someone’s life because a society’s culture can determine whether people’s opinions of you matter especially if you’re underprivileged (society just sucks) but many a time the power we assign to these stories are disproportionate to the actual impact it can have of us. For example, for the longest time I truly believed I was a nice person and wanted everyone to like me – but what the heck? It is simply a story I made up and I believed it so much that I made myself miserable living it. It felt like the end of the world if someone disliked me but in actual reality it is just one person’s story of me. Sometimes we cannot control how someone perceives us because everybody has their complex psychological histories and responses. If someone dislikes us, it may not even be about us at all. This is one of the hardest things to learn in life but also one of the most beneficial – to learn that many situations in life are people acting out their inner scripts. It is even more beneficial to understand how powerful our own inner script is, and yet how much we can change it.
I like being a not-so-nice person who knows how to say no and enjoys being a somewhat hermit, I am also more at peace with however people wish to perceive of me. At the end, I am the person who has to live my life and inhabit my own mind and body. Someone’s dislike and disapproval of me may hurt my fragile feelings but it shouldn’t cause me to detest myself and my life so much that I frequently wished a car would knock me down while I cross the road. Especially if people’s views are simply a bunch of stories told to them too.
What I learned is that while my chronic depression is still very much a biological condition, lessening the factors that worsened it gave me the opportunity to develop some psychological stability and awareness – including the awareness that a huge chunk of my misery is caused by the thoughts I have of myself and the world, which comes from what I imagine people to think of me as well as past experiences of people hurting me consciously and/or unconsciously (and I blame evolution and the system for a lot of this shit). Everyone’s mileage may vary, but in short a huge chunk of my unhappy feelings come from other people (and/or my projections of them). Just developing the capacity to live in a world slightly apart from most people and construct a life where I am capable of amusing myself is making me a lot less unhappy.
I think most people including myself crave for a sense of belonging and appreciation, which is probably wired into us for evolutionary survival. That is probably why we are so susceptible to peer and societal pressure. I guess I just want to clarify that my point is not that being around people is bad, but it shouldn’t make one feel bad about themselves. Sometimes it could be our own projections – we imagine their feelings of us – but other times some people are just not aware of the hurt they are causing other people. Sometimes I am the one making people feel bad about themselves which I only realise upon hindsight which in turn makes me feel bad about myself, and taking time to be with myself gives me an opportunity to reflect and become a more aware and resilient person.
It is not easy to become a person who doesn’t hurt another. For me, being a hermit is one of the easier ways to take myself out of everybody’s complex psychological histories and responses. I get to give my own hyper-responsive nervous system a break too. I don’t recommend this to anyone because loneliness is triggering for some people but for me, learning to co-exist with existential loneliness has gifted me a profound sense of peace and freedom.
TLDR: believing in the wrong stories can cause great misery.
Note: I’ve been writing less because now I’m posting more videos on instagram, so pop by there if you want to know what I’ve been up to.