Find Happiness Now Instead of Chasing It in the Future


“You can only grow if you’re willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” ~Brian Tracy

I found myself at a crossroads last year. I had reached the end of my time in college, and I had no post-graduation commitments.

I was working at the time on my applications to medical school, as I have wanted to become a doctor for a long time. However, I knew that medical schools are inundated with qualified applicants every year, but only have a few seats to offer. Thus, my vision of myself as a doctor still seemed to be only a dream, and I didn’t see myself on the path toward becoming a doctor yet.

Paradoxically, during this commitment-free time, my realization that an infinite number of paths were available paralyzed me. What if I made a wrong turn?

I searched for clues as to which path might be best for me.

I first observed the doctors I had met as an example of what my life could become. Fear and anxiety manifested as a “negativity lens” that altered my field of vision. I found fault with every doctor I encountered, even the ones who were happy with their career—so many more were burnt-out, insisting that I still had time to change my mind.

I was scared of becoming like them. I decided to mentally let go of my commitment to this career path as I imagined other possibilities. Perhaps I could be a stay-at-home mom instead, or maybe a chef, as I had always loved to cook.

I looked to each of the two aforementioned types of people for inspiration again. Unsurprisingly, I hated everything I saw. My blue-tinted binoculars were in full effect as I looked ahead on the path to becoming a full-time family woman, leading a life plagued by a lack of fulfillment and resentment.

I explored the path to becoming a chef and saw myself dealing with ungrateful customers and having no freedom to be creative in what I cooked.

None of the paths had a surefire destination of happiness. As I noticed myself judging everything so harshly and reflected on why I was doing so, I realized that I had convinced myself that the path I chose could lead me to a state of mind that I didn’t already have.

My paranoia over becoming unhappy in the future had become my way of avoiding my present unhappiness.  

Once I became aware of this unhappiness, my first reaction was to judge myself. Self-judgment for me was a persistent, angry voice in my head that screamed and berated me for wallowing and being pathetic.

When I explored why I judge myself, it seemed to stem from a discomfort with who I am as a person. I didn’t like myself.

This led me to deny and change my every quality in a quest for perfection.

For instance, I tend to be introverted in nature. I recognized this in myself, called myself (and listened when others called me) words like a loner and a recluse, and alternated between pushing myself so far out of my comfort zone in social situations that I felt inauthentic and fake, and withdrawing deeply within to a place of self-loathing.

I couldn’t see that being introverted is just a personality trait that is associated both with positives and negatives, and that if I embraced it and stopped trying to twist it, I would feel natural.

Once I recognized how deeply the negative self-talk went, I was able to start changing. Since it seemed to stem from not knowing who I am, I started by identifying my core traits.  

The first time I attempted to explore this, I was so confused and uncertain that I couldn’t come up with a single trait. Self-judgment had made me fearful of being anything at all.

I talked to friends and family who know me well, and sifted through things I had written both recently and further into the past, to remind myself of who I am at my core. I wrote them down, acknowledging both the good and the bad associated with them.

Every morning, I practiced saying the things that I am to myself. It felt awkward at first, but eventually became natural as I practiced it more and more.

I also became aware of the messages I directed at myself throughout the day. Many were cruel, full of blame for how I wasn’t “enough.” Especially in the aftermath of a situation that I wished had gone differently, my inner voice yelled and put me down.

I was unsure of how to change until I thought of how I would speak to someone I love. If I had a friend who was in my position, would I have blamed her for her feelings and screamed until she “surrendered” to happiness? Absolutely not.  

I started cultivating a new voice in my mind, one that didn’t shout but was gentle and caring the way a good friend is. I feared that I would let myself go entirely and spiral into laziness if I “coddled” myself.

As I continued to develop this new voice, I began to realize the difference between coddling and being kind. I am still allowed to have expectations for myself, but instead of beating myself down when I don’t meet an expectation, I explore it by listening to my inner kind-but-firm voice.

With this practice, too, I notice that I judge others less. It seems that practicing self-compassion is allowing me to be truly empathetic toward others, instead of outwardly compassionate while silently judging as I once was.

Nonetheless, judgments about others still arise in my mind on occasion, but I am better able to notice them, examine where they might be coming from, and then dismiss them.

Through this practice of being kind to myself, I now see that happiness is available to me right now instead of waiting at the end of some path.

With this newfound positivity, I choose to continue moving toward realizing my goal of becoming a doctor. After I submitted my applications and found a few moments of stillness while I waited for responses, I reflected and questioned again if I felt right on this path.

In truth, now that I have a positive state of mind and am experiencing joy much more readily, I could choose any path and be happy. However, I still arrived at the same conclusion: I not only want, but I feel called to become a doctor.

This time, that answer is enough for me to move forward with confidence because practicing kindness is helping me develop trust in myself.

I recognize that the road to becoming an MD will present many challenges, many of which cannot be predicted from where I stand now, and that’s okay.  I feel confident in my ability to handle those challenges because now, I can recognize when fear is starting to ensnare me.

Instead of blaming myself for feeling fear, I have the strongest tools available—love and kindness—to free me from that grip, examine myself and my circumstances, and consciously move forward.

To anyone who can relate to any aspect of my story, I encourage you to hit “pause” throughout the day. Notice your actions and your feelings. Always allow yourself the opportunity to ask, “Why? Why am I acting or feeling this way?”

I invite you also to notice the tone in which you address yourself. If you find that the tone in which you ask yourself “why?” carries disgust or judgment, the way I did, do not lose hope. You can cultivate self-compassion and self-kindness.

In moments where you regress to old habits, of which I have had many, try not to dwell on how you have “failed.” Instead, allow yourself to learn from the setback, remember the progress you have made, and approach your practice of self-compassion with renewed energy.

Photo by Mustafa Khayat

About Leela Patel

Leela Patel received a B.A. in Psychology, magna cum laude, from Cornell University in 2013. She is currently serving as an Americorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) at a health department in Oregon, and is happy to report that she will be attending medical school in the fall.

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