We’ve all seen some version of this scene: the child at the playground, covered in ice cream, wearing a tiara. She’s surrounded by fun toys, fawning parents and other happily screaming kids. Yet, although her world appears to be exactly as she’d want it, she is beside herself sobbing in utter distress. My point here isn’t to illustrate the simple statement that happiness can’t be bought or that spoiling your children is bad. What I’m suggesting is that most of us are not all that different from the little girl on the playground. Many of us are going about happiness all wrong.
Despite what we may believe, quite often, we are not really seeking our own happiness at all. Many of us don’t know ourselves well enough to conceptualize what we actually want. We conform to the notions and ideals of our society, our family and other influences that can drown out our own point of view. We spend our lives repeating patterns and filling prescriptions from our past that don’t serve us in the present. To varying degrees, we fail to differentiate ourselves, to separate from limiting outside influences and realize our unique value in the world around us. When these outside forces seep in and quietly overtake us, we wind up seeking someone else’s idea of happiness.
The key to one’s happiness is buried inside the process of recognizing and differentiating from these forces. Of course, there are things that have shaped us that are positive. There are traits we’ve taken on that strengthen us and enhance our sense of self. Yet, differentiation isn’t about separating yourself from society or ridding yourself of positive social models. It is about peeling off the undesirable layers that shield us from achieving our unique destiny and living the life we desire.
There are four crucial steps to this process of differentiation developed by my father, psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone. I explain these steps in more detail in my blog, “Becoming Your Real Self,” however to summarize they involve:
1. Separating from destructive attitudes that were directed toward us that we’ve internalized
2. Differentiating from negative traits of our parents and influential caretakers
3. Breaking free of the old defenses that we built to cope with negative childhood events
4. Developing our own value system and approach to life