If You Want a Happier Life, Empty Your Trunk

Ever notice how easy it is to solve a friend’s problem? For example, maybe a buddy wants your advice about a career change. He has a great job but thinks he can make it as a rock singer.

Sadly, you know that when he sings, the neighborhood cats think it’s a mating call. So you find a way, gently, to tell him the truth.

Maybe a friend of yours thinks she found Mr. Wonderful. However, you’ve met him twice. He’s unemployed, doesn’t wear deodorant, and has two ex-wives.

“Yes, but those dreamy eyes,” she tells you. “And he writes lovely poetry.” So, you take her to dinner. You look in her eyes and say what she (deep down) already knows. The guy is no good for her.

It’s flattering when a friend seeks your advice. It means she trusts you and values your counsel. So you listen, and in short order the answer to her problem is blindingly obvious.

To you.

Unfortunately, she can’t see things with the same clarity. Why? Because of the junk in her trunk.

The statute of limitations

We’ve all got some junk in our trunk. Wounds from the past. Stuff that hurt us. Things we never forgot, or never got over.

Take a closer look at your buddy who wants to dump his great job to be a rock star. Deep down, he might know he doesn’t sing well. But his father never really believed in him. His father told him to get a real job and give up on all those silly, teenage dreams.

So your buddy has a blind spot now. You can tell him he can’t sing, but he thinks you’re just like his dad. So he pushes back and just might throw away that great job on a pipe dream.

All because of the junk in his trunk.

How about your friend with the dreamy new boyfriend. You point out to her the guy’s ex-wives and beer cans littering his apartment. And the fact he doesn’t have a job.

He’s no good for her. It’s painfully obvious. But all she see can talk about is his poetry and devotion to her. Too many failed relationships, or maybe a childhood belief that she’s just not good enough. That’s the junk in her trunk.

Author and psychiatrist Gordon Livingston wrote a splendid little book entitled, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now.” In one chapter Dr. Livingston wrote:

“The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas.”

Dr. Livingston follows up with the excellent question:

“So what do we owe our personal histories?”

There’s no question we are shaped by the experiences of our past. Things happen in life, and people find different ways to deal with it. Often, the solution is to bury it. Toss it into our emotional trunk and lock the lid.

For some, there may have been serious abuse that must be dealt with. Dr. Livingston does not mean to gloss over this reality. Some wounds require professional help.

However, many people remain imprisoned by their personal histories. They don’t want to face the hard work of unlocking and unloading all the junk in their trunk.

This is unfortunate, because the path to happiness requires positive action. No more running. No more hiding.

Dr. Livingston’s favorite therapeutic question is “What’s next?” He likes to ask this because it invites a willingness and ability to change. A path forward.

Learned helplessness

Our past experiences shape us but they do not dictate what our future will be. We have the power to decide. Sometimes therapy can help. Eventually, we have to develop the ability to see past our blind spots. We have to remove the junk in our trunk, so it can’t slow us down anymore.

As Dr. Livingston found, people with an entrenched sort of “learned helplessness” are the most difficult to work with.

In my police career, I often encountered such personalities. Always the victims. Always blaming someone else. Never able to get out of their own way. Which is sad, because so many of their personal decisions are tainted by the junk in their trunk.

Difficult things happen to us that are beyond our control. But as we closely examine the many trials and tribulations in our lives, a difficult reality emerges. As Dr. Livingston noted:

“We are responsible for most of what happens to us.”

The key word in the above quote is “most.” Certainly, child abuse and crime victims are not responsible for what happened to them. But much of what happens to us in life is the result of our actions, reactions and decisions.

“I am responsible. Although I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life. Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have — life itself.” — Walter Anderson

Tools for healing

People who have suffered abuse and trauma develop coping mechanisms. Some become withdrawn, view the world as a scary place, and trust no one. They rely on themselves, and keep others at a distance.

Some become needy, and lean on people too much. They fail to develop sufficient self confidence. Others cope by erupting in anger, which causes work and relationship problems.

These various coping mechanisms may work in childhood, but become ineffective in adulthood.

So how do we empty the junk in our trunk? Here are a few tools for healing and lightening your load.

Healthy lifestyle

Plenty of sleep, exercise and a healthy diet pay huge dividends on our emotional health. Exercise has been proven to combat depression. Getting outdoors and scheduling downtime for relaxation will help reduce stress.

It’s not uncommon for some survivors of abuse and trauma to rely on alcohol and drugs to cope. This usually results in new problems. Avoid these substances or seek professional help if you are addicted.

Friendships

Isolating yourself and avoiding people may feel safe, but building quality friendships is healthier. Good friends complement our lives by providing companionship, support and helpful feedback.

Outside your comfort zone

It takes courage to step outside your comfort zone, but that’s how we improve our self-confidence and grow.

Think about all the people who are terrified to speak in public, but force themselves to join Toastmasters. By stepping outside their comfort zone and learning the skill of public speaking, they build their self confidence.

Trying new things can be hard. There may be moments of embarrassment or uncomfortable vulnerability. But if you can push through it, you’ll see that you’re stronger than before.

Lassie, get help

I saw the funniest cartoon. It showed the dog Lassie next to someone sinking in quick sand. The person yells, “Lassie, get help!” The next several frames of the cartoon show Lassie bounding across country, to get help. In the last cartoon frame, Lassie is laying down on a psychiatrist’s couch, talking to the psychiatrist. Getting help.

Sometimes we need professionals to help us unload the junk in our trunk. But it’s worth it in order to find a healthier, happier life.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers — 
That perches in the soul — 
And sings the tune without the words — 
And never stops — at all-
— Emily Dickinson

The junk in your trunk will complicate your life, because so many of your decisions get filtered through it. Why carry that burden?

Don’t be the guy that dumps a good job to be a frustrated rock singer. Or the woman who shacks up with Mr. Wrong.

If you want a happier life, unload the junk in your trunk. You need to unload it if you expect to get back in that car and drive anywhere worthwhile.

Join me

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes, and write about life. Click on the cartoon above to get eight, free pages of cartoons and notes on creativity from my sketchbook journal. What a deal!