The emotional rooms metaphor is illuminating, since we can use it to appreciate the aspects of our lives that are going right, even when there are some spaces that may need a little cleaning.
You don’t need to have nine tidy rooms to be happy. Nobody ever has all of her rooms neat at the same time. In fact, one key process is to be okay with conflict, which helps you learn how to be happy even when things aren’t going right in all parts of your life. This is essential, since you may need to close the door on that messy room and come back to it later, when you have the time and inclination to clean it up.
The good news: There are probably more clean rooms in your house than you realize. The bad? You are often in the wrong room and have to go to the source of the problem before returning. The best news is that once you’ve done the heavy lifting, you don’t have to do it again. Your rooms will stay neat enough so that some light dusting or tidying up will let you feel happy and stress-free for a long time to come.
Room #1 the basement
The basement is the source of so many of our behaviors: The past should inform the present, but you don’t want to get stuck in it. You can’t steer the car by looking in the rearview mirror without crashing. To go forward, focus on what’s ahead of you in the road, not what you’ve passed. A glimpse in the mirror can be helpful, but your future lies in front of you. Look ahead.
Room #2 the family room
In the family room, the people there know you the best; which means they know where you’ve come from, but they may not always know where you want to go (or even who you are today). They continue to see you as the “kid sister” or “daughter,” which will always be true, but it’s only part of the picture. You need to let them see you grow and evolve, but that doesn’t mean leaving them behind. You can still be part of the family in a new way, one that reflects your contemporary self. And happier too.
Room #3 the living room
The living room is about connecting and evolving and listening, not competing. The expression “keeping up with the Joneses” was based on Edith Wharton’s father’s family, who were wealthy and social but not necessarily happy, as her stories illustrate. It’s an expression that is still relevant now, all these decades later, because it is human nature to compare ourselves to others and see how we measure up.
Whenever I wish I had the affluence I see around me, I remind myself that I have made my own choices and I am happy with my life, my kids, husband, and job. At the end of the day I wouldn’t trade places with anyone, even those with “more.” The living room is not a place to harbor envy, or measure yourself against your friends, or “give” too much of yourself. It’s a place to enjoy the company of others, offer support, empathy, and friendship, and accept the same in return.
Room #4 the office
Whatever you’re doing, understand your purpose. If it’s to make money, bring home that paycheck, fine. If it’s to run your household and raise your kids, great. And if it’s to reach that elusive upper echelon in your field (partner, professor, judge, chair, or chief), then that is something to shoot for, but know why you’re doing it, and be authentic to you.
Not every day will be bliss. And that’s a good thing, because knowing your purpose will help you put up with the down days, the menial tasks, the politics of working your way up the ladder (or if you’re not on the right track for you, these bad days will help you discover that). Purpose is key, and if you can identify yours, then every day will feel more meaningful, even when there are boring meetings to sit through or long flights to endure, or laundry that needs folding.
Understanding the “why” of the work matters, and remembering what made you want to do it in the first place, even if it’s only for the paycheck. Remember that you can seek purpose elsewhere and find meaning in other parts of your life.
Room #5 the bathroom
Take care of yourself, inside and out, but don’t let the mirror or the scale become an obsession. Vanity is fine, to a point, since being healthy is connected to looking and feeling your best. But beyond that it can be a major time suck, using all your energy (Have to lose weight! Want to look younger!), and you can waste years, decades, being too preoccupied with these repetitive self-criticisms.
Your beauty truly resonates from within, when you’re comfortable in your own skin. To have that happen, spend less time scrutinizing yourself and more time liking yourself and connecting to your passions. The mirror can be a useful reflection, but don’t let it become your reality. Remember, it’s just a cheap piece of glass.
Room #6 the bedroom
Marriage is a choice, and you choose to stay married by sharing your life with (but not giving your entire being over to) this one special person. Sex can be loving, powerful, fun, playful, stress-relieving, hot, or just ho-hum. As with any other form of self-expression, there’s a range of styles, and it’s up to you how it plays out.
You have the power to control or change how you feel in bed—attractive, desirable, or not so much. It’s nice to hear from someone else that you look amazing, but it has an impact only if you believe it yourself, and when you do, it’s an affirmation of how you’re feeling. (If you don’t believe it, no amount of flattery will penetrate your self-critical bubble.) So the attraction that others are radiating in your direction is actually the reflection of how you feel inside. Others can compliment you and even complement you. But again, the only person who completes you is you.
Room #7 the kitchen
You may not love every errand to run, diaper to change, or dishwasher to unload. But if you ask yourself, Why is this important to me? it can give meaning to the mundane.
The reverse is true when you have to step over the toys and leave home for another activity, knowing they will be there when you return. Sometimes you have to look past the mess to see the bigger picture. If you can’t stand the heat, you’re probably in the kitchen, and that means warmth trumps cleanliness. Being present and pleasant is the goal, not perfection.
Room #8 the children
You’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to get frustrated. Your children are going to yell and scream and stomp their feet, and sometimes you’ll feel like doing it also. The only thing that matters is that you never stop loving them, and that you let them know you do, in every scenario.
It’s not that you will always be pleasant (or even get through an entire day without a fight, it sometimes seems). It’s that you love them and support their efforts to grow into the best version of themselves. After you love them and tell them so, get out of the way. They will be fine, and so will you.
Room #9 the attic
In the attic you can play around, delve into your grandmother’s trunk, try on her wedding dress, or leaf through her album. But at the end of the day those heirlooms are just dusty old things. They aren’t you, and while you may be proud of your heritage, it’s time to go out and make your own history, whatever that may be.
Your own legacy is ahead of you, not up there in the attic. Get back to the rest of the house and live the life you choose to live. You’ll be happier, and everyone who came before and after you will be proud.