How I Found Happiness by Facing the Past I Worked So Hard to Escape

“Ten years from now, make sure you can say you chose your life, you didn’t settle for it.” ~Mandy Hale

I spent most of my youth trying to escape. From the mother who drank too much and the violent men she dated and from the kids at school who made fun of me for wearing the same clothes every week.

I felt shame and guilt because I believed that my circumstances defined who I was, which meant that I was unimportant, unworthy even.

So, I created elaborate imaginary worlds where I was smart, successful, and often saved the day. Where I could pretend to be someone else and hide from my real life. By doing this, I buried all the emotions I had relating to my past.

But these worlds faded as I grew older and needed a new escape. That’s when I decided that I’d stop pretending to be the overachieving smart girl and instead would become her. This way, I could focus on all my achievements and avoid my negative emotions .

For a time, it worked. I dove headfirst into books, studied hard, and became the overachiever I’d set out to be. This led me to college, then to law school, and finally into the “real” world where I got a high-paying job with a prestigious law firm.

I finally realized that my past experiences and circumstances didn’t define who I was. Yet I still didn’t quite know what did. So I redefined myself based on my achievements, since this made me feel important.

But several years into my law practice, my achievement-based self-worth was working against me. I was running myself ragged. On paper I seemingly had “it all,” yet I felt stressed out, exhausted, and deeply unhappy. All the feelings of unworthiness had come rushing back.

I couldn’t keep up. Lawyers are smart and successful people, and I realized that there would always be someone smarter and more successful than me—which meant I would always feel unworthy.

Although I knew that my past didn’t define who I was, I was beginning to understand that my reaction to it did. By running away from my past and refusing to deal with the pain it had caused, I’d inadvertently allowed it to have power over me.

I needed to process the feelings I’d been burying so that I could finally move on. But that terrified me. I was worried that facing my past and the emotions that came with it would change me and negatively affect my relationships (especially my marriage).

So, I convinced myself that I should keep going as I was and that I didn’t have much choice. To make myself feel better, I blamed the legal profession, my law firm, and even some of my colleagues for my misery.

Until one evening my husband, who was tired of hearing my complaints, told me to do something about it. Although I don’t remember the exact words he used, I remember clearly what I heard: it was all my fault.

Of course, he wasn’t trying to blame me. He was trying to tell me to deal with my emotions and my situation instead of continuing to live in misery.

After going to bed mad, I awoke the next morning with a new understanding. I finally appreciated what my husband was trying to tell me and knew that he was right. I had a choice. I needed to choose to heal my pain—no one could do it for me.

That’s when I discovered that doing nothing is a choice, and that choosing to ignore my past and the pain that came with it was changing me into someone I didn’t like.

I complained incessantly and was moody. My husband felt the brunt of my negativity. In fact, we were spending more time apart. If I didn’t change course, my marriage could be irreparably harmed.

It was time to take responsibility for my own happiness and renew my self-esteem, and that meant revisiting my past.

My history had obviously influenced my decisions, how I regarded myself, and how I viewed the world around me. The story I’d been telling myself about my past and how it had shaped me was a key piece to my current self-esteem issues and unhappiness. However, this was happening on a subconscious level. I needed to make an active choice.

I took time to remember the events from my childhood that I’d worked so hard to bury. When doing this, I focused on how they made me feel and why I felt that way. Then I asked myself what lessons I wanted to take from these experiences.

Processing the emotions I’d been holding in for so long was freeing. I was able to regard my life’s experiences as what they really were—things that had happened to and around me that I had no control over. I chose what I wanted to take from them and created a new story for myself based on that.

For example, for years I didn’t understand why I felt powerless anytime I sensed myself being even slightly pinned in, weighted down, or stuck. Any time that I felt this way, I rebelled in unhealthy ways. Going through this process helped me realize that, because I’d felt like a caged bird with no escape in sight as a child, I have a deep-seated need to feel unrestricted.

I identified what causes me to feel this way (including why I felt so caged within my career at that time) and how to make decisions—both personally and professionally—so that I don’t inadvertently again end up feeling trapped. Now I know that this helpless feeling is a sign to pause and assess what’s going on so that I can quickly change course.

I also learned that, because I tried to “escape” so often during my youth, I often felt disconnected from those around me. Never again will I feel that way. Connecting with others is now one of my top core values, and I strive to cultivate deep connections with family, friends, and even colleagues.

Finally, the guilt and shame I felt while watching my mother get beaten while drowning herself with alcohol made me feel weak. I now know that my experiences helped me develop mental and emotional strength and resiliency.

Instead of feeling ashamed of my past and worried about what others might think, I’m proud of who I’ve become because of what I went through. I now consider myself an emotionally strong powerhouse who stands up and fights fiercely for herself and others. I’ve re-written my story.

Contrary to what I originally believed, this process didn’t negatively affect my relationships or require me to leave my career. But it did make me a more positive and happier person. And, although it wasn’t easy, it empowered me to take responsibility for my own happiness and taught me some huge life lessons.

I now understand that I had to accept my past in order to release its hold over me and heal my pain, and that acceptance isn’t the same thing as being okay with something. I also learned that I get to create my own story about who I am and what my life’s experiences have taught me.

I also discovered what it means to be happy.

Most people think happiness is about being cheerful, positive, or laughing a lot. But positivity can be fake, and even people who are depressed laugh. And there are calm and serious folks who are happy.

I define happiness as being content and satisfied with who and where you are, regardless of your circumstances.

Because I know who I am, I’m able to make better decisions for myself and am content with my life, even when it gets messy. My perspective around happiness has helped me to get through many trying and scary times in my life, including during a year-long battle with an aggressive breast cancer.

If you take nothing else from my story, please remember the following (especially during times when you know a change is in order, but you’re scared to take the plunge):

1. You have a choice—about who you are, how you live, and whether you’re happy. Be sure you’re actively making a choice for yourself.

2. Choosing is often hard. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be much of a choice. But don’t delude yourself into believing that doing nothing isn’t a choice, because it is. And there are risks involved with doing nothing, just like there are risks with making a change.

3. You are not your past. Although your past helped shape you, you can choose how it shapes you going forward. These choices create the story you tell yourself and the world, which impacts your decisions—and ultimately shapes your life.

About Heather Moulder

Heather Moulder is an attorney and executive coach who helps successful, yet unfulfilled, professionals create success from the inside-out for a fulfilling career that’s balanced with a real life. Connect with Heather for weekly tips and resources on how to retrain your mind for resilience, overcome overwhelm and self-doubt, and confidently create a more fulfilling, balanced lifestyle that’s fun.

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