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Just You: Defining Happiness on your own Terms

“Making other people happy genuinely makes me happy. It’s just what I like to do,” says Ilana, and I know it to be true. Ilana is technically my cousin, but more pertinently she was my first best friend. We grew up giggling in the back seat during family car trips, selling lemonade under the aliases of “Fred and George,” and telling each other all of our secrets. Now, in our mid-twenties, we sit cross-legged on her queen-sized bed, hair half-straightened, makeup half-applied, sipping prosecco from plastic stemless glasses. We take a break from getting ready for a much-needed girls night out to do something that has come naturally to us since childhood: chat. I give Ilana her prompt—“Tell me about a time you chose to put yourself first,” and the words flow, almost nonstop, for the next half hour or so. It’s something she’s spent a great deal of time thinking about this past year, a story that’s been nudging its way out of her, begging to be told.

Ilana has always been a giver; it’s how she was raised and it makes her feel whole. She’s a preschool teacher, a babysitter, a loving daughter, the truest friend I know. Her personal goals have always revolved around caring for others. She doesn’t do this out of obligation, but because human service work and caring for her loved ones fulfills her. When she’s teaching, she forgets about life’s anxieties and enters into the world of her students. What they are feeling, thinking, and doing becomes her main priority. She forgets about her own stressors because the preschoolers she is responsible for become more important.

Ilana gets this same sense of fulfillment, joy, and inner peace from her personal relationships. Before this past summer, she was in a long-term, loving relationship. “I always put him first,” she says, “Not because he asked or because it was expected of me. That’s just how I live my life. When he had a bad day, I had a bad day.” Going grocery shopping, making meals, and cleaning the house for him made her happy. She would drop off his favorite snacks at school when he was stressed out. If he was up all night writing a paper, she wouldn’t sleep.

At some point, though, the empathy and kindness that guides her life began to drain her. When her partner was struggling, she was in pain. “As long as the people you’re with are happy, you’re happy, but the people you’re with aren’t always going to be happy,” she tells me. When the relationship ended, Ilana felt the pain of not having someone to take care of. “All of the sudden I was by myself,” she says, “Making myself happy wasn’t as fun as making other people happy. I was really sad for a long time.” She realized she didn’t know how to think about what she wanted, because for so long what she wanted had been connected to what other people wanted.

She started slowly, trying to just remind herself of what personal happiness meant. She would literally search the word “happy” on Pinterest, finding quotes that described the desired feeling. Then on her days off, she began to ask herself, “What do you want to do? Just you.” At first the answer was “nothing.” She sat in bed all day, feeling lonely. She did this for awhile, until one Sunday she sat in bed feeling lonely and then went grocery shopping. The next week she sat in bed feeling lonely, went grocery shopping, and then cooked for herself. She began to remember what activities she enjoyed, planning small outings like walks, shopping, and getting together with close friends. Sometimes she’d do these things during the day and spend the night crying. But it was a start. She was answering a question she hadn’t been able to think about in a long time.

After practicing putting herself first on a day-to-day basis, Ilana began thinking about her future in the same terms. “I used to think about the future as our future,” she says. “As much as I know he loved me, he thought of himself as an independent person. I thought of my future as shared.” The world began to open up for her, and she realized she could go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. She thought about graduate school. She considered teaching jobs. She entertained the idea of leaving behind frigid New England winters for a southern climate. “You don’t have to stay anywhere,” she realized. “You can leave at any time, you are not bound by anybody. The people who love you will still love you. Form a relationship with yourself because that’s who you’ll be living life with.”

Ilana is still working on this relationship. She continues to ask herself long-term and short-term questions, like “How do you want to spend your Saturday?” and “How do you want your life to look in 30 years?” She spends more time with friends she knows are constants and she runs because it makes her feel good and sleep better. She says putting herself first still doesn’t come naturally. It takes logical reasoning. It’s a deliberate choice she has to make. But every day she’s making more space for her own needs.

Recently, Ilana made a decision that was purely hers. It wasn’t the “right” thing to do in the eyes of her family or community. “My fear of other’s disappointment in me overwhelms every decision that I make in my life.” Even though her family and friends are generally supportive, she has always constantly worried about how they would perceive her choices. But she did it, despite her fears and hesitations. I sat with Ilana as a tattoo artist inked a hamsa with a tree inside onto her back. The hamsa has many different meanings, but the one that that resonates with her is protection, “not by God or a spirit, but that I have to protect myself from myself and the world, be my own advocate.” The tree inside represents her name, which is Hebrew for the word “tree.” It also reminds her to live day-by-day and not worry so much. “I feel like I need to know what’s going to happen next. It reminds me that life is long and no decision that I make today will change my life forever. All the leaves that come on the tree fall off and the tree stays intact. It’s still the same tree. There is nothing you can do that will ruin anything forever.” The tattoo symbolizes a new start for Ilana, one where her happiness takes the front seat. She will always be loving, caring, and giving. But she’s learned not to sacrifice herself in the process.

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Ilana Goldberg's Tattoo
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Ilana Goldberg's tattoo.
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How to cite this page

Rubin, Julia. "Just You: Defining Happiness on your own Terms." 13 May 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 15, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/just-you-defining-happiness-on-your-own-terms>.

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