Emotional independence

What are some effective ways we can overcome “situational happiness” and instead begin to develop our own deeper sense of “emotional independence,” despite what our current life situation may look like.

Emotional independence is a process in which we learn how to exercise greater control and will-power over our internal states.

The opposite of emotional independence is “situational happiness.” Situational happiness is when we depend on external circumstances in order to provide us with joy and well-being. We crave our “external world” to be a certain way, and if we don’t get it then we are left disappointed and unhappy. Those who learn to cultivate emotional independence (especially dedicated meditation practitioners like Buddhist monks), find out how to find happiness that is independent of these external conditions.

Some of the most common things we become dependent on for happiness include:

  • Excessive eating.
  • Alcohol and drugs.
  • Movies, TV, music, video games, the internet, and other entertainment.
  • Sex.
  • Shopping and consumerism.
  • People.
  • Pets.
  • Wealth and money.
  • Traditions and routine.
  • Etc.

These are all desires that we can develop a near-addictive personality toward. Of course, someone can develop an addictive personality toward nearly anything, but of course that doesn’t make any of these habits necessarily bad. Only when can no longer exercise these habits in moderation, and we begin to depend on them to enjoy ourselves, do these habits turn into a problem. Then, we are emotionally dependent on them in order to live a fulfilling life.

For example, if you always need to eat McDonalds, watch videos on YouTube, play videogames, or be around Person A to feel good about yourself, then what happens when you can no longer get your fix? If you’re truly addicted, you will begin to experience withdrawals. Then, the pain and suffering you feel from not being able to satisfy all these desires becomes that much worse.

Like a junkie, you may even go through desperate and unhealthy measures to reclaim that short and temporary high. But you can’t keep chasing temporary highs all your life. Happiness needs to be rooted in something deeper, not simple sensations of pleasure and pain.

The best method I know for minimizing these desires and increasing our capacity for intrinsic happiness is meditation and the development of equanimity.

Equanimity is a non-reactive acceptance of our circumstances without judging them as necessarily “good” or “bad.” It’s usually seen as synonymous with “being calm and relaxed,” but equanimity actually penetrates deeper than that.

Instead of having our strings pulled by every little thing that enters our lives, equanimity allows us to take a step back and accept things for what they are, without always feeling like we need to “react” to something or “fix” it.

Achieving complete equanimity and acceptance is something that can probably only be achieved if you meditate for years and years, but luckily there are a few things we can do to begin experiencing the benefits of equanimity in our own lives:

  • Start meditating. Even practicing something simple and easy like the 100 Breaths Meditation can do wonders for cultivating a less reactive mindset.
  • Accept things you have no control over. We cause ourselves so much unnecessary stress by worrying about things that are outside our sphere of control. The quicker we can accept them and move on, the better off we are.
  • See the bigger picture. This is a reframe I write about a lot (most recently I mentioned it in my article “Social Anxiety and CBT“). I feel that when we put things into a “big picture perspective” we often find that the things that irritate us the most aren’t such a big deal after all.
  • Stop and take a breather. When we don’t have equanimity, we become very impulsive. We react to things without ever taking a step back and thinking about them. There’s a technique in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) called STOP that provides a great buffer between our thoughts and our actions. The more “buffer” we have between our actions, the less reactive we become.
  • Practice, practice, practice. You won’t develop an impenetrable attitude overnight. This stuff takes a lot of practice and a lot of failure. Most likely, you’ll still get frustrated at that crying baby on the bus, or when you spill your drink, or when a deadline at work begins approaching. It’s near impossible to be completely non-reactive to your circumstances, but with practice you can become less reactive – and that can make a big difference over time.

Following these simple guidelines is a great way to combat situational happiness and develop some emotional independence. By doing these things, we begin to take greater control over our internal states, and that can often be a lot easier than trying to always fulfill external desires.


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