Pop Culture

How can women have it all — minus the guilt?

It’s a universal reality that women feel stressed even when things are going well. In "The Nine Rooms of Happiness," SELF editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger and psychiatrist Catherine Birndorf reveal how to be happy in the moment. An excerpt.

Introduction: Welcome to our house and yours
The scene: my bedroom. The alarm clock goes off at 6:35 a.m. As I reach to press the off button I think: I should have gotten up earlier.

Sunlight is streaming through the shutters as I get out of bed, being careful not to wake my husband, who is dozing next to me. I walk down the hall and peek into my daughter’s room —she’s still asleep, her stuffed dog cradled in her arms, her sweet, slender body curled up and cozy. I turn right to look in on my son, who has tossed off his covers and is snoozing with arms and legs splayed out, proving once again that sleep can be an aerobic activity. I smile and let these two snapshots set in my memory ... then I berate myself, thinking, I don’t spend enough time with my kids!

I pass through our living room, where the dozens of photos covering the bookshelves and end-tables remind me that I am blessed in many ways: a tight-knit family, wonderful friends and a great job. My eyes linger on a picture of our little, gray, shingled bayside weekend house ... and I think: Why don’t we go there more often?

Then I see my home-office desk in the corner, piled high with unanswered letters and unpaid bills and I groan. I have to catch up on those!

I enter my kitchen to start the coffee and watch the morning TV headlines. I avert my eyes from the dishes stacked up in the sink and think: I should have put them in the dishwasher last night.

An hour later, after an invigorating jog through Central Park with my dog, I’m still high on endorphins as I head to the bathroom to get ready for work. I feel strong and healthy, energized and optimistic. My husband and kids are awake now, going through their morning rituals, which assures me that all is right with the world. As I step into the shower, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and think, Oh, yeah. I still hate my hips.

Do you see a pattern here? By most people’s standards I have it all. But even so, on this beautiful morning, I am tormented by a dull ache of dissatisfaction. I sabotage my happiness, as if to tell myself, I don’t deserve all this. And whenever I do manage to feel good about myself, or my accomplishments, my next thought is: Who do you think you are?

I have a name for such thoughts — nega-speak — and I had come to regard them as my constant companions. Taken individually, they are not evil or undermining. In fact, they can serve as essential alarms, sounding off when I’m at risk of becoming a little too pleased with myself. They provide me with necessary smug-proofing.

But collectively, these glass-half-empty-isms are a menace that can shake the foundations of the life I’ve built with my husband and family. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that I am lucky and loved, these negative thoughts fill me with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and stress.

Did I say me? I meant we. All of us. All women.

We struggle every day to achieve a happy, balanced life, yet we allow the slightest misstep to throw us off balance. And it’s usually the little things that knock us sideways, not the major ones. The big problems we face down with courage, forbearance, even grace.

The poisonous mind-set I described above — the negativity, perfectionism, self-sabotage, and dissatisfaction — is the biggest happiness stealer in many women’s lives. It’s a disease, an emotional cancer that you can, and must, learn to cure. With our help, you will.

In fact, the very process of writing this book with a coauthor who is a gifted and insightful (and uniquely approachable) psychiatrist has almost completely cured me of my bad habits. I say almost because self-awareness is an ongoing process that never really ends. The morning scene above was the old me; for the most part I have learned to think differently, to be happier every day, and to live with less inner conflict. I have also learned I have to work for my daily doses of happiness, recognize them when I find them, and appreciate those moments when they arrive.

Turns out most of the time I am happier than I think I am. Perhaps you are too. We’re here to help you discover this fact for yourself.

Being happier is like being fit; You have to work at it
As an editor of women’s magazines for more than fifteen years — helping women achieve their own personal best and realize their health and well-being goals — I’ve learned that the little things can be overwhelming for many women, while those circumstances that are devastating on the face of it (illness, loss, divorce, etc.) may actually turn out to be galvanizing (as in, What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger). The events that most often manage to steal our happiness are the minute details that we allow to get under our skin. How do I know this? Because month after month, in e-mails and letters to the editor, through polls and surveys online, along with questions posed by readers to a lineup of esteemed experts, I hear what’s on the minds of 6 million monthly readers of Self. Weight issues, friend tensions, family squabbles, money problems, plus conflicts with mothers, brothers, boyfriends, bosses, and even ourselves, result in guilt, regret, longing, insecurity, and the search for perfection in all areas.

Even as the editor in chief of one of the largest well-being lifestyle magazines on the newsstand, I struggle with the need to feel happy and healthy. It’s a discipline, like staying in shape or not spending too much money or eating healthfully. And just because you “arrive” at being fit, slim, debt free, or happy doesn’t mean you can stay that way without trying. You have to appreciate the perfect moments when they present themselves and understand that not everything has to be perfect for you to appreciate your own happiness. Meanwhile, trying to attain such moments requires a combination of focus and practice, since you can train your brain to adopt a positive mind-set, as well as learn to become a happier person.

At first, it requires you to break bad habits and replace them with good ones. But it gets easier. Like a tennis player who needs to change her grip to make sure her backhand doesn’t go into the net, after a while the muscle memory of her powerful swing becomes more natural. Practice it enough, and eventually you just swing for the ball, without having to think your way through the process — your body just knows what to do. The same is true of happier thinking: It may seem foreign at first, but after a while you’ll begin to string together more positive moments with ease.

For me, the turning point was one day realizing I needed to change the way I think, and then actually doing it. Once I got my own act (mostly) together I wanted to write a book to help other women do it also. I was eager to team up with the right mental health professional, one who is both a talented clinician and a down-to-earth person you want to tell your life story to, someone who neither passes judgment nor minces words.

I was lucky enough to find the perfect collaborator, Dr. Catherine Birndorf. She is a leading specialist in women’s mental health and can help almost anyone find happiness by showing them how to recognize their own participation in their emotional reality. I play the role of “every woman” for the sake of this book, and tell my stories in the first person as a way of illuminating common thought processes, while Catherine stays one step removed as the expert, always referred to by name. What we share is a common philosophy, that women are not victims, but architects of our own emotional destiny.

The first step is to identify patterns that may be trapping you in an unhappy dynamic. The next is to realize that you have a choice, that if something isn’t working in your life you have the power to change it. Through self-awareness and understanding how these patterns work, Catherine helps us see that each of us can live a happier life.

Suck it up, buttercup! And other useless advice
I never wanted to go to a shrink. I’m from the school of tough love, even for myself. My friends know my motto has always been “Suck it up, Buttercup.” When I say it to myself, essentially it means, Don’t whine! I can usually snap myself out of a bad mood just by telling myself, Stop complaining — look around and see how good you have it, how lucky you are! When I get stressed over being too busy, I remind myself, You’re lucky to have a job, a family, a list of “to-dos” that keep you scheduled to the hilt. I try not to act spoiled — instead to feel grateful for all that I have, and the blessings I can count daily.

Hate my butt today? I want to rail on myself for such frivolous blather and tell myself: Think about your friend battling cancer who’d love to be complaining about saddlebags rather than the chemo.

Too many bills to pay? Cut up the credit cards, freeze ’em, or just stop the mind-set that allows you your pricey “treats,” I say to myself.

Cold, wet, rainy morning? Bundle up and go running anyway! There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad planning. Or bad clothing choices.

For a long time, tough love worked for me. But then I realized it’s no way to solve problems; it’s just shoving them down, out of sight. And I was still feeling down on ... me. Oh, and I was “sucking it up” ... by stress-eating, drinking too much wine, not sleeping well, getting overly tired, getting injured, and suffering from repeat sinus infections. Plus I was carrying an extra twenty-five pounds. I appeared to be happy but I was a walking font of negative thinking. Fortunately, I finally decided to stop sabotaging myself.

Even when women manage to do the right things for their bodies — exercising regularly and eating right — they often don’t feel good about themselves. I relate, and I have always tried to edit a magazine that held as its central philosophy that being fit and healthy is only one component of well-being; the other half of the equation is how you feel inside. But everything seems to come crashing down when you don’t feel so good, or think you don’t look your best.

Self discovered another amazing fact in a survey: Of all the things that send women to the doctor (allergies, stomachaches, headaches, etc.), the number one complaint is anxiety or related symptoms. I soon realized that happiness — or what I would later understand to be contentment—was the true goal for women, not flat abs, glowing skin, an adoring partner, or a comfortable number on your bank statement (though those can help).

I decided five years ago that Self needed a happiness expert. We already had a fitness expert, a sports medicine doctor, two nutritionists, and a handful of other experts writing on topics ranging from beauty to kinesiology. The outer self was covered. I realized that emotional health was the true topic underlying most of the other physical ones, and Self needed someone to help our readers with their inner selves.

That same week, I got excited as I watched an interview with a young psychiatrist on the TODAY show talking about women’s mental health issues. Dr. Catherine Birndorf was fresh, intelligent, perceptive, and nonjudgmental as she talked about the connection between our physical selves and our emotional selves, and how mental health is a vital component of physical health. I realized that she was talking about me — and every woman I know.

I decided right then that Self needed Dr. Birndorf. Pronto! I tracked her down at Weill Cornell Medical Center, where she founded the Payne Whitney Women’s Program, and invited her to write a Q&A page on happiness for the magazine. I also started talking to her regularly about why a woman’s moments of jubilation or even just self-satisfaction tend to be fleeting, and why the extended periods between those joyful moments are plagued by our inability to appreciate all the good around us.

Not your typical shrink
Catherine and I have always been eager to help people, but we do it in different ways. My close friends tell me I’m “the lifestyle police,” always telling everyone what to do! (They’re smiling when they say that. Usually.) Catherine is the type of person a tourist might stop on the street to ask directions. She gets asked for advice while in stores, on the bus, on the chairlift. If I’m the editor who shares common complaints but also has access to the experts who can help us, Catherine is the psychiatrist we call for consultation — but an approachable doctor who isn’t scary or distant. She is the thoughtful listener, the one who you want to tell you what to do; but she won’t, because her job, she says, is to help you figure that out for yourself.

She is not your typical shrink, though she hates to hear that, since it seems not only to put down her entire profession, but also to set her apart in a way that makes her feel less serious. However, “despite” her warm personality, she is also an experienced and well-respected expert on women’s mental health who has the knowledge, clinical skills, and practical touch that makes her great at her job.

So I’m the tough-love women’s magazine editor who wants to empower women to help themselves, and Catherine is the professional who says that first they need to have a little help in order to do that. Our people skills complement each other’s.

At the end of the day, our opinions don’t matter; what matters is we both want to help women have their own opinions, follow their own inner compass. We come to the same goal from different ends of the spectrum. My approach has been to tell myself, “Get over it,” and Catherine’s is that first “you have to work through it.” This book will help you do both.

Individual stories, universal emotions
We have not, for ethical reasons, used the personal stories from any of Catherine’s patients, or the stories that appear in Self, but those two platforms inform our expertise. Our nearly thirty years of combined experience addressing issues important to women inform every page of this book, since we recognize universal emotions in the individual anecdotes.

No two women are alike, but we guarantee that you will relate to something in these pages. You’ll recognize the emotional quandaries and happiness pitfalls we have illuminated in these stories, each one drawn from hundreds of women across the country we interviewed over nearly two years. For obvious reasons (they talk about sex, money, in-laws, siblings, friendships, and their own body hang-ups) we have disguised some identifying (but insignificant) details of their lives. No one is properly named unless we say so specifically, and you shouldn’t try to figure out who these women are. They are generous women willing to share; they could be any of us, and we thank them for telling their stories. If you think you recognize yourself or a patient or pal of the authors’, understand that each of them could be anyone — yourself included.

Your life is like a house full of rooms
Knowing how good she was at helping the readers of Self solve their problems each month, I asked Catherine to write a book with me about how it’s the little things that bring us down, and how we internalize conflict rather than deal with it in a healthy way. She got as excited as I was, and together we came up with a model that works.

The idea is to see your life through the metaphor of a house, in which every room corresponds to a different emotional area: The bedroom represents sex and love, the living room is for friendships and your social life, the office represents your career, money, and work life. Being happy in a room is often tricky, since you can physically be in one room and emotionally ruminating about another. One messy room can bring you down, even if the others are neat and tidy. Conversely, one neat room can help bring you up, if you know how to use it.

We are here to teach you how to clean messy rooms and shut doors on others so you can be happier in your entire house, every day. With this metaphor you’ll learn not only how to be happier in every emotional room, but also how to live in the moment and enjoy the room you’re in, no matter what messes exist elsewhere.

By evaluating the problems that came up in the interviews in the following chapters, we will show you how to solve your problems. The process we have developed works, and I am living proof of that. Now it’s your turn.

From “The Nine Rooms of Happiness” by Lucy Danziger and Catherine Birndorf, M.D. Copyright © 2010 Lucy Danziger and Catherine Birndorf, M.D. Published by Voice. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.

TOP