For a good year or so of my life, I wanted to be Gretchen Rubin, the bestselling author of The Happiness Project. I had coffee with her a few months before our books came out (both were published the first week of January, 2010). Hers became an instant New York Times bestseller. She appeared on Today and the rest of the morning shows and was in demand as a keynote speaker at prestigious conferences around the country. Mine, well, didn’t make the bestsellers list and getting press was rather challenging on a bleak topic.
I wanted to be Gretchen for all the obvious reasons. A graduate of Yale and Yale Law School, she is incredibly bright and ambitious. A social media genius, she has mastered the blog platform. But there was more. I wanted to swap her message—no, her everything–for mine because I was sick of being Ms. Embrace-the-Darkness, the girl to know if you want to slit your wrist. Instead I wanted to be Susie Sunshine, your guide to happily ever after. Because that’s what the world wants, not Debbie Downer.
“To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight—and never stop fighting,” wrote E. E. Cummings.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s version is this: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
I run into this conflict a few times a day.
Two weeks ago a very bright woman who was part of Group Beyond Blue, the online support group I moderate, thought that there should be someone, a mental health profession, to hold people accountable for their negative thinking on the site. The group was dangerous, in her opinion, because all of the venting was becoming toxic. She challenged everyone to not complain for a day.
I sat with this a few days and struggled.
I wanted to be Gretchen again.
But I’m not Gretchen.
I couldn’t appease her because, if I’ve succeeded at one thing in the last ten years since my breakdown, it’s being honest with myself and becoming as real as the Velveteen Rabbit. Not that The Happiness Project isn’t real. But Gretchen’s universe is radically different from my world. What I call a success is getting through an entire day without death thoughts or tears. I mark those pages of my mood journal with a fat smiley face. I’ve had four in 2014! It may seem a pathetic goal to most people—it’s definitely not material for the Today show–but it’s my reality, and, if I can pull off a Buddhist stunt, I’m okay with that.
It was like the time I was preparing a commencement address for my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College. My first draft was from the heart, about how falling on your butt is sometimes the best thing you can do, because, as Leonard Cohen writes in his lyrics for “Anthem”: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
A friend of mine read it and told me it was depressing.
“Not to hurt your feelings, but those kids need something to inspire them, and this isn’t it,” she told me.
So I wrote the Gretchen Rubin version, more happiness and less despair.
I sent it off to my former professor, the one who nominated me for this honor. In response, he quoted St. Francis de Sales: “Be you very well.” In other words, I wasn’t selected for this task so that I could compose a literary masterpiece chock full of well-researched recommendations on living a happy life. Knowing a little about my journey, he wanted my story, which he thought would speak to the students.
I went back to my first draft, and then wrote 75 versions of that until I was happy.
“Nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great, ever came out of imitations,” writes Anna Quindlen in her book, Being Perfect. “What is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the world of becoming yourself.
That means being me, not Gretchen.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.