(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)
Dr. Kenner: Here is a question I received from somebody who, I don’t know if you had parents, or had a mom who lived in the 1950s type style, where she helped everyone else besides herself? See what you think about this question. This is from Doug. “Dear Dr. Kenner, my dear friend, a young 65, recently lost her husband who was also her first boyfriend. She was a selfless mother in the traditional 50s household, and now at age 65, she is suddenly retired, alone and bitter. She says she doesn’t really know herself. What would you recommend?”
First, she is dealing with multiple complicated situations, but of course, that doesn’t mean she can’t do things about it. First, she’s going through grief. If you’ve been with someone a lifetime – and I’m assuming she loved her husband – if she didn’t love her husband, sometimes it’s actually liberating. As bad as it sounds, this is a fact. When a spouse dies it’s like, “Oh my God, I can finally breathe again. I’m not under his or her thumb all the time.” But if she really genuinely loved him or sometimes you feel guilty, I should have been with him in the last moments, people get hung up in the very last moments when a person dies, she needs to get some therapy for that. That would help her tremendously, to go through the grief, rather than giving up on herself, feeling alone and feeling bitter. The keyword bitter there.
She also hasn’t had any experience after she goes through some of the grief, she may be thinking, “I’ll never find anyone else. This is the only person I ever lived with,” and some people prefer to live alone from that point on, but if she doesn’t, if she feels lonely and is very comfortable having a partner, she doesn’t even need to get married, but she could at least entertain the idea of going out with some male companions. You may be one of them, Doug, I don’t know what type of a friend you are. If you’re already married or if you’re just a good friend and she could enjoy your company. You could bring along some other people. She could then begin to entertain breathing life back into her own life.
You mentioned she was the selfless mother in the traditional 50s household. Well, when people are selfless – without a self – they feel empty inside. They help everyone else typically, but then feel resentful when it isn’t reciprocated and they feel unlovable, they feel empty, they feel worthless. Unless they’re helping others, and then they feel bitter and they don’t get this game called life. It isn’t a game. You get one shot at it and you want to make it the best possible. So instead of throwing that self away and making yourself selfless – without a self – you want to be self-fulfilled. You want to be self-valuing. You asked me for a book and I will recommend The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand. She talks about why selfishness in the proper sense of the term is not taking advantage or manipulating or defrauding anybody. It’s valuing yourself! That’s it. And valuing yourself by building yourself into a lovable, capable person, taking your own psychology seriously. So she could certainly read that book and it may perk her up a bit and question some of her older ideas in a way that may change them. Of course I read Ayn Rand’s books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and that turned my world around beautifully.
You said she’s alone – she does have you as a friend, and if she values having more companionship, maybe joining some groups, having some hobbies and moving on. If she’s bitter because she’s looking back at her life she can flip that and look forward and allow herself to just discover herself, to be her own best friend and to take some of those desires she’s had over all of those years of being selfless in the marriage and say, “What did I dream of doing? What did I wish I could have done?” If it’s travel, maybe she could travel a little more. If it’s some hobby, something she never did, dancing? Maybe she’ll try dancing and that would be a great way to meet people too. But it’s got to be something she enjoys.
Also you said she’s retired. You need to have a purposeful life and if you have wonderful hobbies and friends and activities when you retire and build a purposeful life with your interests, then that’s fine. But if not, there’s no reason she can’t unretired and find a little job or career that she would enjoy. Maybe it’s a big one. I don’t know what she did. Breathe life back into herself that way. She wants to hang around with people who are not moping, but people who are a tad more upbeat from her and she can study them and learn how to recapture her own self assertiveness and how to value herself and if she didn’t have it to begin with, she can grow that.
I am Dr. Ellen Kenner and my show is The Rational Basis of Happiness. You want to take a close look at your own life and say, “What makes me happy? What brings joy to my life?” Is it seeing my kids play happily with one another, not fight with one another? Is it a moment with my partner – my husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend – where I just feel really connected? I feel like we’re on the same page and it feels like there isn’t a worry in the world, even though I might have many problems. Are you happy when you’re pursing a dream of your own? Maybe it’s a longer-range goal, in college or going after a dream career, or maybe it’s fixing the problem that you’ve had for a long time. Maybe you didn’t clean out the basement or the barn or whatnot, and you tackle it and feel accomplished. It doesn’t have to be on a big scale, but enduring happiness requires having the right thinking methods and valuing yourself. Really taking your own happiness seriously. That sounds funny, taking your happiness seriously, but that’s exactly right. Happiness is the achievement of your rational values, which means you need to know how to think well. If you engage in thinking that’s all over the map and you’re hoping things will happen but not taking action or you’re relying on other people when you really need to take some action yourself, or you’re pushing stuff out of awareness that you know needs to be taking care of, for example maybe you know you need to go to the dentist or doctor or take care of your car and you’re not making those phone calls or taking action, you’re not going to feel good about yourself. So you want to turn that around.