We live in a culture with a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility: that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent, that life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to it, that wherever you are is a result of your own hard work and attitude, and that you are completely responsible for your own happiness. For the first eighteen years of my life, I bought into this. My own life was good, and it was easy enough to believe that I was responsible for my own success and happiness.
When I was at Colby College, no one accepted that my situation was causing the problem for me. Everyone loved the school so much that they just couldn’t conceive how it could be a living hell for someone who wasn’t exactly like them. All these quotes about success and determination and not giving up and not blaming other people for your troubles became personal attacks on me. There was no support out there for saying, “Hey, this situation is really bad for me and so I’m going to get out of it.” You were supposed to stick everything out and keep trying to make it work or else you were a failure.
I love to play games, and I’m very competitive when I play. One thing I’ve noticed about myself when I play games with other people is that I don’t give up easily. I never accept the fact that the other person is going to win before the game is over. Even when I’m really far behind, I’m always holding out hope that the next card I pick up will fix everything. I always feel like there must be something I can still do to win. Anyone would tell you that this is a positive trait, that people like me are successful because we don’t give up, but this is the very trait that caused me to stay in a situation that was bad for me. I kept thinking that the next thing I tried at Colby, the next card I picked from the deck would fix everything. I was a senior by the time I realized that I had seen all the cards and nothing was going to get better.
Every day of my life, I’ve been bombarded with messages that everything is all about your attitude and you just have to be positive, like nothing happening externally even matters. Some people I’ve talked to act like I was just born eighteen years old and Colby is the first real-life experience I’ve ever had. They don’t trust me when I say that my life was just fine before I went to college.
In one of my business classes, we talked about how businesses fail. Our professor said that when things are going well, people tend to attribute it to their own ability/hard work, but when things aren’t going well, people attribute it to external factors or bad luck. People want to think positively and believe that everything is going well when it’s not, which is often what leads them to make bad decisions and for their businesses to fail.
I’ve never owned a business, but I’ve seen this play out in my own life. I was NOT wrong about Colby. Colby was something external that screwed me up and the only personal responsibility I accept is the fact that I made a bad choice by going there and not leaving. But where I was wrong - really, really, wrong - was in my attitude before Colby. I used to believe that I was responsible for all the good things in my life, for my own happiness. In reality, everything that made my life wonderful was external. I think when people talk about happiness being internal and not external, they’re using “external” to refer to things like going to Disney World or getting lots of expensive presents. But really, lots of things are external. Having lots of people who love you is external. Yes, you’re responsible for your half of the relationship, but I don’t think I would have had a happy childhood if I hadn’t been born into a family of people who loved me. And even things that seem internal, like all the fun I had making up stories and living in my own imagination, only exist because of external factors, because I had the kind of childhood where I could spend all that time daydreaming and didn’t have bigger things to worry about.
Before I went through what I went through at Colby, I didn’t understand just how many external factors had played a role in my happiness before. I used to act like my own experience was a universal truth. I would tell people who had problems much bigger than mine that they should just be happy because life was awesome. One thing that made me really happy was going from my uptight Catholic K-8 school to a free-for-all public high school. But even though this was clearly an external thing that made me happy, I felt like it was my own doing. I couldn’t accept the fact that my high school was a bad environment for some people the same way that my K-8 school had been a bad environment for me. I even wrote a poem to Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul – a safe space for teenagers who are going through difficult times – about how I got so much pleasure out of the everyday things in my life and that someday my classmates would look back and wish they had enjoyed their teen years like I had. Like enjoying those years was a choice. I was a real jerk and I hope the people who received my poem burned it.
Things are going better for me now. I’m actually working on a long list of all the awesome things that happened to me in 2013, which I will be publishing here soon. The difference is that this time, I know how much of my healing comes from external factors. I don’t think for a second that I got here on my own. No matter what good things happen to me, I will never go back to thinking that my happiness is a choice or that it all comes from within. I will not encourage people to have a positive attitude about their situations. I WILL help people to figure out what they really want and how to get there.