“At any moment, you have a choice, that either leads you closer to your spirit or further away from it.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
As a child, my dream was to become an Olympic figure skater. Perhaps an artist at Disney. Or maybe a musician.
I was a choreographer, songwriter, and singer.
Roller skating was something I tried out in my driveway, thanks to Paula Abdul and Tiffany. It was amazing.
My notebooks were stuffed with drawings.
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.)
My identity changed around the time I was in junior high. It went from being happy and curious about everything to being serious and studious about everything.
Until very recently, I wouldn’t have thought to describe myself as joyful, creative, or inquisitive.
Instead of thinking that I could do what was good for me, I began to focus on my ability and potential to earn fame and money. Instead of doing them for the joy they brought, I started to do them because I enjoyed them. And things that I wasn’t didn’t make the cut.
It was time to take things seriously. Earn the prizes. Get scholarships. Be recognized
Stop wasting your time.
It became more competitive. Friends began to talk about their test scores. Then it became a discussion about college, graduate school, publications, and career options.
That was when I realized insecurity. It was then that I became enslaved in my not-good enough thinking and felt like an imposter.
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. It was too much for me. Even self-care actions I took had no joy.
Once I felt as free running as the wind blows, it became all about speeding up and getting farther.
Yoga used to be about grounding, compassionate practices for me. But yoga became more about doing the handstand just a bit longer.
Setting goals isn’t the problem here. It’s just that accomplishments aren’t the same thing as A healthy lifestyle
Looking back at all of this, I see that I’d made myself so small, I forgot I was in there at all.
Ah, success speaks for itself. But joy? What are your 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.
Because they were fun, I gave up on doing them.
Why? They were so important to me that I believed I could survive without them.
I did everything you’re supposed to do, and I did everything in my power to do it just right. The full-ride allowed me to get into the fancy school, complete the Ph.D. and obtain the license. I then got the job. The hard-working identity of a serious worker became my second nature.Me
I’m truly grateful for the opportunities and privileges and people in my life, but as a human beingI felt that 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 CatWhen it was.
Do this. Write a children’s book
I was able to almost imagine myself stepping outside my body, and looking at me with disbelief.
Is it really true? It is possible toWhat is your idea of a children’s book? Write a children’s book?
It was so bad that I couldn’t breathe and my heart beat was racing. This would disappear by itself, I thought. 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.”
But, I was not in disbelief.
“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 important thing is that I discovered joy again.
It took some time. It took me a while to think about and analyze it, trying to make it go away. I told myself I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have the time.
This thought stayed with me and became louder as it grew louder. Finally, in the darkness of the early hours of the morning, I took a piece of paper out of the printer and sharpened my pencil before sitting 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.
Are you sure I haven’t lived without it all the time?
Pages upon pages were filled with illustrations.
My stories and rhymes were made up.
Do you want to know the outcome? I didn’t just feel joy. I felt No cost
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.
Joy is a way to live life with happiness. It reminds you of all that’s possible. Even the more serious.
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.
It was the time I remember the skating and designing t-shirts, as well as setting up photo shoots in my living room. And the moments when I sat on my stomach, holding my breath, while watching decorating TV.
What it felt like to feel happy, excited, curious and content was what I remembered.
Now I understand. Just because you can live without something doesn’t mean you have to.
Have you ever told yourself that you cannot live without joy?
What do you think would happen if you said one day, “I don’t have to live without this?”
It is possible to CanFind that joy even if it has been hidden for so long.
Begin by saying “Yes” to yourself more often. You can say yes to the little spark of curiosity and that smile you try to ignore, but also to that feeling in your chest that burns. “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. The most important thing is how you feel 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.)
Always strive for more than achievement or success. While those are certainly important, so is the pursuit of meaning and connection that brings you joy, engagement, and purpose in your daily life.
Enjoy the spontaneous moments of joy that appear out of nowhere. Plan a few for later. You can fill those moments up with things that will make you feel full. It’s as easy to unplug. It is not enough when you’re after joy. Do not let yourself go.
Keep an ear out for the voice telling you that you cannot live without it. Maybe you can, but maybe you don’t have to anymore.
About Leslie Ralph
Leslie is an artist, psychologist and writer on a mission for a better world. People who are looking to love and have unconditional self-love, as well as bring back the light in their lives, can find her work. She’s the author of How to Have Your Back: Simple Instructions for Loving Yourself Through the Ups and Downs of LifeGet her ritual to release and receive and make space in your life for clarity, courage and compassion.
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