It’s official: today is my birthday. I’m no longer in my twenties, and I’ve never been happier.
I never used to be happy, though. I used to think I was broken. I used to wake up and wonder how I’d get through the day, or if today should finally be the day to kill myself.
That dude on the far right? Yeah, that was me.
But over the past seven years, I’ve worked hard on myself and my life, carving and shaping it into exactly what I want it to be.
I’ve come from the edge — fifteen years of chronic depression, growing up with an alcoholic mother, three years in an abusive relationship, several years of anorexia, followed by binge eating — to living a life I’m truly proud of, and excited to wake up every day for.
I’ve climbed up cliff faces in multiple continents, completely alone, without ropes. I’ve been a strength athlete for seven years. I’ve got a Ph.D. in Mathematics. I create cool art. I write, I coach incredible clients, and I have amazing friends.
And, yes, I still have the occasional bad day, but I have never been happier or prouder of myself, and that’s because of all the work I put in throughout my twenties.
Today I’m sharing some of the lessons I learnt over the last decade.
I hope you find something insightful that you can apply to your own life.
1. All your problems are internal
“The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” – John Milton
I’ve been in abusive relationships, but none more so than with myself.
I used to hate myself. I’d blame myself for everything. I’d ask myself questions like:
- Why am I such an idiot?
- Why am I always depressed?
- Why am I never good enough?
- How can it possibly be OK that I’m here, when other people don’t even have clean water to drink?
The fact is, these are shitty questions. If you ask, “Why can’t I do this?” then your brain will automatically say, “because you’re an idiot”.
But if you ask, “What can I learn from this?”, then your brain will focus on trying to find creative solutions to your problems.
If you want to change your happiness, your self-belief, your confidence and — by corollary — your life, you have to change your mindset.
You have to direct your focus towards things that are helpful.
You have to realise that your thoughts are not necessarily the truth (but more like opinions, old beliefs, and habitual responses).
You can work on this stuff, just like you can work on your body in the gym. You can interrupt the pattern of old, unhelpful thoughts, and you can create a new narrative for yourself.
The first step to any change is awareness.
Once you gain awareness of the automatic, habitual noise that’s in your head, you gain control. You begin to realise that your thoughts and feelings aren’t permanent. And then you get to choose what to believe, and how to act in any situation.
Here’s an example of how that might work for you:
Step 1: Become aware of the thoughts and stories you’re telling yourself. Write down whatever you’re thinking (either at a certain time of day every day, or when you feel in a rut).
Step 2: Become curious about the thought, or label it for what it is.
For example, “I’m a failure.” becomes “I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.”
Doing this creates a little bit of distance from it, so it’s not all-encompassing, so you can look at it with more clarity.
Step 3: Ask yourself: Is this thought helpful? Is this thought going to get me through this situation?
Step 4: If it’s not helpful, then tell yourself, “I hear this thought, but right now I’m going to let it go. Every time it comes up, I’m going to let it go, and focus on something else that’s going to help me move forwards.”
Do this enough, and you will have trained your mind to naturally ask better questions, to naturally become the supportive, encouraging environment that everyone should live in.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
I believe this is true, not just of other people, but also of yourself.
2. Every setback will make you stronger (but only if you let it)
The most successful and resilient people in the world know that problems and failures are just opportunities for growth. That — no matter what you go through — there is always something to learn from the experience that will make you even better.
You may not be able to see how your problems are beneficial when you’re inside them. That’s OK. Just trust that they will make you better somehow.
Trust that you will figure it out at some point.
Binge eating and depression allow me to empathise with other people, in a way I just wouldn’t have been able to understand had I not gone through them. I also wouldn’t be the strong, confident, and emotionally stable person I’m proud to be today because I wouldn’t have taken the time to work on myself, had I not gone through those things.
Did I realise that would happen at the time? No.
Most of the time, I didn’t know what I was going to learn. When I had a chronic leg injury for two years, I even kept on saying (while shaking my fist at the sky) “OK, I’ve learnt my lesson now… you can stop!”
But that fact is there is always room for more growth and less suffering.
The fact is that, no matter what you’re currently feeling, it will pass.
The fact is, whatever you’re going through will make you stronger, and better, but you have to be ready to open your heart, and let it change you.
3. Happiness is the process of becoming your ideal self
I’ll be happy when I get top grades and go to a good university.
I’ll be happy when I get a first at university, and then do a Ph.D.
I’ll be happy when I can deadlift 100kg, when I can clean and jerk my bodyweight.
Actually, it turns out you can be happy right now.
While it’s important to have goals, I realised that achieving those goals didn’t actually make me that happy. That’s because I never celebrated my achievements. I just immediately looked for the next thing to achieve.
There is always more to do, more to strive for, more to be, and more to give.
So, if you put all your happiness into achievement, you will never feel like you are achieving enough.
You will never feel like you are enough.
Happiness lies in the middle ground. It’s about figuring out what’s important in your life, and who you ideally want to be. It’s about working towards the goals that will get you there. It’s about celebrating every single one of those achievements (however small), while recognising that you simply will never be your “ideal self” (because there is always more you can do, be, and give).
It’s about appreciating the journey of ups and downs, courageous acts, and setbacks. It’s about being satisfied with yourself — yet remaining hungry for more — simply because you decided this is who you want to be, this is the life you want to lead, and this is how you’re stepping in to it.
Happiness is growth itself.
Sometimes you have to just fucking believe
“When you’ve nothing else, construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.” – Cormac McCarthy
Sometimes you just have to believe you’ll get through the day, even though you have no idea how.
Believe you’ll find the answers, even when your grief burns like a match in your throat.
When your eyes feel like they’ve been rubbed with sandpaper from all the tears you can no longer cry: believe.
Hold onto certainty as the world crumbles beneath your blistered feet.
Know that you’ll find a way out, because you will never give up.
Trust that you are stronger than all of it.
Maria Marklove helps ambitious high-performers achieve big dreams. As a strength athlete, writer, and holding a Ph.D. in Mathematics, her unique style is the ideal blend of science, creativity, and grit. Her best-selling course, Thinking Into Results, has been described as “life-changing”, and is perfect if you’re not achieving the results you want, but you know — deep down — that you are capable of so much more.
Image courtesy of Marion Michele.