It’s clear that many of us avoid the so-called “difficult” emotions, such as sadness, fear, or anger, but in so doing, we also inadvertently avoid the gifts and strengths these emotion bring us. Though it is very unfortunate, it makes sense that we avoid these emotions, because they’ve gotten such terrible press. It is almost blasphemous in some circles to suggest that difficult emotions have a place in our intelligence and a purpose in our lives.
However, I’ve been interested to see that many of us also avoid the so-called “positive” emotions as well. We denigrate happy people by calling them slaphappy, or blissful idiots, and sadly, we lose touch with the gifts of the happiness-based emotions (which I simplify into happiness, contentment, and joy, but you can also add laughter, bliss, gaiety, exuberance, and so on).
Let’s look at the gifts and skills contentment brings us.
The Gifts of Contentment
Satisfaction ~ Self Esteem ~ Enjoyment ~ Renewal ~ Fulfillment
Contentment is an emotion that you feel when it’s time to celebrate your behavior, your achievements, and your willingness to challenge yourself. Many of us don’t welcome contentment because we’ve been told that it’s vain or pompous to think well of ourselves. This is a problem, because contentment actually gives us the permission and courage to strive for difficult goals. If we don’t welcome our contentment, it’s very hard to appreciate ourselves, which means it’s hard to gather the courage we need to move forward in our lives.
Contentment is related to happiness, but the two emotions are different from one another. Happiness tends to anticipate a bright future, while contentment tends to arise after an inner achievement. Contentment arises when you’re living up to your own expectations and your internal moral code, and when you’ve accomplished an important goal or done your work well and properly. Contentment comes forward in response to your tangible actions and your mastery of clear-cut challenges.
Contentment also arises when you’ve successfully navigated through your difficult emotions especially your angers, hatreds, and shames (these emotions help you create and restore boundaries — if you know how to work with them properly). When you’ve restored your boundaries, honored the boundaries of others, and corrected your actions or made amends, your contentment will come forward to confirm and validate your excellent behavior. Authentic contentment arises reliably when you respect yourself and others, and when you respect your emotions and allow them to inform your behavior.
Social structures often interfere with your authentic contentment by trying to replace or usurp your internal confirmations with prizes and praise that come from the external world. While it’s very nice to receive gold stars, awards, extra privileges, and special attention, these fabricated confirmations can actually short-circuit your own ability to feel honest pride or self-worth unless someone throws a party every time you accomplish something.
External praise also contains a troublesome aspect that’s not a part of internal contentment and that’s competition. All external praise and awards come with built-in comparisons that place you in a rivalry with others. Though the awards and praise may have their own value, they tend to isolate you from your peers and identify you as a competitor or a pleaser, which will often bring your natural shame forward to question the fun of winning. In healthy contentment, there is no shame, because your achievements aren’t about doing better than others, but about honoring your own good judgment, good work, and personal values.
If you cannot connect with your natural contentment, you may have a short-circuit that was created by authoritarian, scholastic, or parental structures. This short-circuit can take two forms: the first form may lead you to seek praise and awards instead of your own internal confirmations. This often means you’ll tend toward pleasing and perfectionism instead of wholeness and emotional agility. You’ll tend toward following this rule, chasing that award, and constantly measuring yourself against external expectations instead of allowing your honest emotional reactions to guide you.
The second form of short-circuit may lead you to avoid contentment because you don’t want to be in competition with anyone; you dont want to play. You just want to work unheralded, and yet you may quietly long for praise or confirmation (or watch dumbfounded as less talented people are promoted or lauded). In either case, reintroducing yourself to your healthy, authentic contentment will help you guide, correct, and validate yourself in self-respecting ways rather than relying on (or totally avoiding) external validation.
The Practice for Contentment
The practice for all of the happiness-based emotions is extremely simple and infinitely hard (at first): You acknowledge them, thank them, and then let them go completely. If you try to force your contentment to be your leading emotional state (or if you try to live without it completely) you’ll lose your way in a split-second. Real, honest contentment arises naturally when you work with all of your emotions in healing and honorable ways. Welcome your contentment with open arms when it arises, thank it, and congratulate yourself (The internal statement for contentment is Thank you for renewing my faith in myself!) then let it go and know it will come back the next time you honor yourself and behave in ways that make you feel proud.
When your contentment arises, your job is to celebrate your excellent fortune and skills and then let it go so that you can move on to your next challenge. From The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You by Karla McLaren (Sounds True, 2010).