About 9 years ago, for around 3 months every Friday afternoon I spent 1 hour in a little wooden cabin chatting to a guidance counsellor, who was helping me overcome a problem that was very close to ending my relationship.
He fixed me. The girlfriend is now the wife and we’ve had an amazing life together so far.
I’ll never forget the final session.
He told me when we met for the first time, after I’d explained the problem and we’d chatted for a while, that he believed I could pretty much (if not entirely) overcome the issue. But it was impossible to know how many sessions it would take. Only that we would both know when we were done.
He was blunt, but warm and I immediately liked him and I trusted his judgement.
At every session after that, he just asked the occasional question and let me do all the talking.
It’s strange to have someone really listen to you. I think just having someone sit and listen to you, without judging you or trying to think of a smart reply, is a big part of the therapy process.
The simple, selfless act of just listening to each other is something we should all do a lot more.
He never made notes (at least not during the session) and it baffled me how he always remembered the finest detail of what I’d talked about, even bringing things up from several weeks before that I’d never have remembered.
It was maybe session 9 or 10, only around 20 minutes in. I was chatting to him and when I finished my sentence, where he’d usually pause and think for a while before asking the next question, instead quite abruptly he said “I think we’re done, do you?”
It jolted me as I realised what he meant. He was right and I agreed.
In those moments, as how far I’d come sank in, a weight literally felt like it lifted from me, something I’ve never experienced before. I sat back in the chair I’d sat in for so many weeks, and felt like I’d never relaxed in it until then.
After explaining to me what I should expect over the coming weeks and months, he asked me if there anything I wanted to ask him for a change.
The first thing that jumped into my head was “is there a common problem people come to you with or is every problem unique?”
“Yes there is” he nodded thoughtfully. I was really just trying to ask an intelligent question and it caught me by surprise that I’d poked him in an area that he clearly felt quite strongly about.
He confided in me:
“There are some exceptions, but often, people come to me from all walks of life and on the face of it they have everything that’s supposed to make you happy. But they are very unhappy and feel helpless.
An example is a guy who has a really good job, right at the top of his company. He lives round here and has a lovely house and he’s married with a couple of kids. What anyone would describe as doing really well for himself. No reason to feel down.
But he comes to me, tells me about all the good things in his life and then says…
‘…but I’m miserable. I feel so unhappy, so depressed all the time and I just don’t know why or what to do about it.’
…and in my experience I believe that many people live that way; with a level of unhappiness or dissatisfaction with their lives. And I know it’s completely unnecessary.”
“You mean you could fix them?” I asked
“In most cases, yes.”
I’ve thought about that conversation a lot over the years.
There’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of people live with a degree of feeling unhappy, or dissatisfied, or unfulfilled with life.
I know some of them; some battling to fix it, some masking it superficially with binging and addiction, and some just accepting ‘that’s life’ and complaining. A lot.
But I’ve also met and know people who are content with their lives. Who seem to have more time than anyone else, are interested in what you have to say and always leave you thinking ‘I need to me more like that’.
Although I’ve noticed these types of people over the 9 years since that conversation, it’s only in the last few months I’ve started to understand what makes one type and what makes the other.
Think about this:
If you play the part of the annoying kid and keep asking yourself “why?” about anything you do, you will always end up with the same answer.
There is only one reason we do anything – because of how it makes us feel.
And usually there is a choice involved. Do this or do that, do it this way or that way.
We make our choices based on what feelings are most important to us right there and then.
But this is the fork in the road.
Making your choices based on what feelings are most important right there and then, is how the people who are dissatisfied with life make their choices.
The people who are content with life, make their choices based on a bigger picture – of what they believe is right and fair, what is most important to them, what they value most.
Making your choices because of what you feel is important right there and then, will probably make you feel good for a short time. But it’s unlikely to make you feel good in the long term, or in other words, short term decisions are unlikely to give you any long term satisfaction.
More often than not, these types of short-term choices are based on false beliefs, programmed into us from the day we were born, that external things and people are what make you feel satisfied with you life:
‘I need to have a career to make my parents happy’
‘I need to earn this much money, own this house, own this car, to feel successful’
‘I need to wear these clothes to impress these people’
‘I need to lose this weight, look this thin, to make someone love me’
Like a human ping pong ball, getting batted around by whatever belief is strongest in our minds at the time, we are emotionally drained and never feeling like we’re getting anywhere.
People who are dissatisfied with life may constantly be making choices to try to feel better, but the way they make choices is the cause of their dissatisfaction. Time to make choices differently.
When you make choices based on what you believe is right and fair and important, it gives you confidence and satisfaction. Those 2 feelings combined add up to feeling content with your life.
Like a moral compass, your values will only ever point you towards the choices that give you real satisfaction.
How can you decide what is right and fair and important? How do you discover what you value most?
I’m sure there are many ways, but for me personally what worked is imagining the best funeral I could ever have. Gathered around are all the people that are most important to you in your life.
The exercise (which is well worth doing with pen and paper if you’re feeling a bit lost) is to write down something that each of those people would say about you. Not what they would say right now, but what you wish they could say about you, if you lived your life in the best way you could for them.
What you end up with is a list of the things that are most important to you, the things you value more than anything else.
I really had my eyes opened by this. A lot of the things I was chasing, spending most of my time on, would have been ridiculous for anyone who I cared about to say at my funeral.
BUT (and this is a big old BUT) it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change what you’re already doing.
For me, the major focus of my time was building my business – making more money. What this exercise changed were my reasons.
Whereas before, my reasons were to prove to myself that I could be a success on my own, prove others wrong, impress certain people etc. my reasons became to give my family security and to be able to be able to spend more time with them than I could ever do if I was working for someone else.
That’s just one of many things from the list I made, but getting real clarity on what mattered to me has changed how I make decisions about my work and my time.
The result since doing this exercise, ironically, is that my business has grown faster than ever before, I’ve spent more time with my family than ever before and I’ve only taken on new projects that lead me directly towards more security and free time.
You don’t realise how much power you have to feel good about life right now, with what you have.
Only when you take the time to understand what’s most important to you, then use those values as your compass, will you see that the real satisfaction with life comes from the small choices you make all day long.