Twice this week, I watched people I care about struggle as they changed location or environment in hopes of “feeling better” only to find themselves feeling pretty much exactly the same in the new location as the old one. Which is to say, not very good.
My father-in-law passed away about two months ago after a long illness, and my mother-in-law has struggled as one might expect of anyone who was married for more than 50 years, was his primary caregiver for nearly four years and suddenly finds herself without her partner and full-time job. My husband and I took her down to Florida to stay with my brother-in-law; I think she felt perhaps the change of scenery would be helpful. Yet, over lunch the other day, she confessed to me, “I feel just as out of place here as back home. I just thought it would feel different here.”
Similarly, my daughter Daisy Mae, who has struggled with an eating disorder, related addictions, and frighteningly unresolved anger issues from her early childhood, has changed her living arrangement four times over the last year – most recently a week ago. Some of these relocations were voluntary; others were at the request/insistence of others. And the refrain at each and every change has been the same, “I’m so frustrated with all this bullshit.” She simply doesn’t see the one constant in all this.
Sometimes, it’s human nature to believe that our circumstance or feelings are dictated largely by forces outside ourselves. “This place…these people…this job…the way you hog the bathroom…I can’t handle it. That’s why I’m sad/angry/failing/drinking/getting fired. I just need to change it/you/them and then it’ll be okay.”
But here’s the thing: when your discomfort and your sadness and your loneliness and your anger are inside you, it doesn’t matter where you are or who is around you, because it all goes with you. They’re always present. Same thing with depression: if you’re depressed at home or at the library or at work, and you go to the beach, guess what goes with you?
One of my favorite short films is called “Demons on the Boat”. You can see it here. It’s about Radical Acceptance and Commitment and it’s a corollary to a piece I wrote right after Kiersten died called “Leaning into the Pain”. It’s worth watching. (The one immediately after, called "Passengers on the Bus" is also pretty awesome.)
Most people don’t realize…until they’ve had the “I’m still struggling” conversation more than once…or a dozen times for some people…that feeling better and finding happiness needs to start from the inside. That takes a lot of work, and usually a lot of pain. Because sometimes the things that make us struggle inside are pretty damned overwhelming and sometimes they can feel tremendously unfair and we’d really rather pretend they’re not there. And often, getting through all that junk means finding a therapist and oh it's such a pain in the ass to break in a new therapist and tell that story AGAIN, and...I get it. Believe me. Even if it doesn't take a lot of therapy (like when a loved one dies) it just takes a really long time. And sometimes, even with all the work and all the pain, the discomfort and sadness and loneliness and self-loathing don’t completely go away. So it can feel pretty daunting. Changing the external can feel easier. It rarely helps, though… at least not for very long.
It’s not that you can’t help to improve your situation through a change in environment or company, especially if you are making those changes in a planful way with an understanding of what and who you are seeking. The old proverb “lie down with dogs; get up with fleas” is a truth, to be certain, and choosing to surround yourself with healthy people if you are fighting addiction is always better than to keep re-infesting yourself by hanging around with a bunch of drunks and addicts. But that external change only helps if you are ready/willing/able to work on the inside stuff.
And the payoff is enormous. Because if you can find peace inside, it doesn’t matter WHAT is going on outside, it’s not going to damage your success or happiness. (This is within reason, of course – if you’re being abused, all bets are off). If you can teach yourself to accept the Demons on your own boat, give them a place to hang out and see with clarity the options and future that lay before you, you can make those mindful, planful decisions about where you want to be and who you want to be with.
In time...who knows? "Right here, with myself" might even look like a good option.