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Happy ending syndrome

Autumn: the season of colourful, falling leaves. Growing up in Bermuda, this was merely a concept from picture books.

The Ponciana in our back yard shed it's greenery midwinter, but hardly created the effect of rustling piles to jump and frolic in.

But a few years ago, in a cottage in the English countryside, I got to really experience Autumn leaves … raking them.

A big apple tree stood like an umbrella over our garden: very picturesque, until late October. The fruit, too sour to eat, was falling to the ground and so was the foliage.

In the drizzly climate, it began rotting underfoot, like a slippery, brown carpet. Seasoned country neighbours told me to get them up before the snow, or else they'd still be there in Spring.

So I set aside a day. I worked from breakfast til sunset, scraping the fallen leaves and apples into piles, scooping and wheelbarrowing them to the compost heap.

By the time I dumped the last load, my hands were raw and blistered from the rake and cold and my back ached, but I looked about me with smug satisfaction.

I had conquered the challenge and achieved my goal. After a well-deserved night's sleep, I woke to survey my manicured yard.

To my utter dismay, it looked exactly like it had the morning before, as if I'd done nothing at all.

A storm in the night had brought down more leaves and apples and I was back to square one. “But I'm done! I never want to rake another leaf in my life!”

Looking back at my incredulous disappointment, I notice other situations and areas of life where I've held similar expectations or assumptions about the amount of effort I'd need to apply to something, and thoughts of ‘surely once is enough'.

Where did they come from? I have a theory.

I am a sucker for movies, the typical Hollywood schmaltz, where it all comes together in a neat bow in the final scene: girl gets boy, crimes get solved, the good guys win and then they're done.

It's a happy ending and everyone gets to rest. All is right in the world.

It seems I have adopted this mindset and bought-into the notion that at some point there will be a ‘happily ever after' — a moment when we can stop doing or worrying and stop trying.

I hear others say it, “when I get that job … when I graduate … when I get married / have a baby / make a million dollars / retire … I'll be happy/satisfied/complete/able to relax …”

Is this some kind of Happy Ending Syndrome taking effect? It was a harsh reality lesson, and one I'll admit I am still struggling to accept, when I realised that it doesn't end.

That while there may be many moments of joy and feelings of satisfaction, real life goes on as the credits are rolling.

New challenges appear and we must continue to keep on top of them so as not to be overwhelmed or blindsided by letting them pile up.

We may think all our problems will be solved when we get that end result we're looking for, be it the diploma, the newborn, the platinum card etc but we just transition into a new set of issues.

We've graduated but now we have to find a job, raise that child … Ask a recently rich person if their life has become trouble-free, they'll just bemoan a different set of concerns.

If we think we've ‘arrived', can stop making an effort and rest on our laurels, the leaves which keep falling can start to rot, and become harder to clear.

This relates to all areas: careers, our relationships, our health, finances, creativity etc.

We can spend great energy maintaining one area of our lives, and forget the rest need attention too.

Perhaps our career gets our focus while we assume the family at home is chugging along nicely without a look-in, or that our health will maintain itself etc. The notion that “I can stop trying now” in any area, does not serve us.

Our efforts do not have to be a marathon sessions of gruelling work (eight hours of raking leaves left me ‘over it'), rather accepting and addressing the ongoing need for expressions of willing attention and exploration towards growth and improvement.Life is a process and ‘little by little' works.

We can find practical ways to direct our efforts that are productive and fun, enhancing what we are trying to achieve as our long-term outcomes.

Ironically, one common example of where Happy Ending Syndrome can wreak havoc is in our relationships.A trap that I fell into, and many do: “We're together/married/have kids, our relationship will now take care of itself.” Really? Mine didn't.

But what does ‘working' on our marriage really look like? (And if the word work conjures images of drudgery and slog, find another name: investing in, putting time into, developing, enjoying … etc) Here are just a couple of simple tools, which can be applied to relationships (or adapted to other areas we are looking to maintain):

Create a vision together for your relationship — a series of positive ‘we' statements that you agree upon, describing what you do together and how you are with each other in your ideal partnership.

For example, we resolve our conflicts peacefully, we go out, just the two of us, once a week etc. This gives shared outcomes you are both working towards.Share with each other your wants and needs … this first takes some introspection and self-awareness to know what they truly are, and then courage to be vulnerable with each other and trust.

Be open and willing to say and hear which needs are most important, and find practical ways together for your partner to help meet them.

Learn about relationships: read books, get couples coaching or therapy before you ‘need' it, before rifts from resentments or unhappiness set in.

It's easier to be work proactively to build it and grow together, than trying to repair damage first.

Consider different approaches — explore what has worked for others in successful relationships and see if you can draw inspiration for yourselves, taking time to reflect on what's working and what's not.

(It turns out that mowing the Autumn leaves is a good way to help Mother Nature take care of the rest of the work by Spring.) Continual positive effort and intention lines the path to our ultimate happy ending.

As ‘The End' rolls up, we can hopefully reflect on a satisfying, fulfilling life, knowing we did what we could to keep our garden growing.

Julia Pitt is a trained Success Coach and certified NLP practitioner with Benedict Associates Ltd. Telephone (441) 295-2070 or visit www.juliapittcoaching.com for further information.

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Published October 29, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated October 28, 2013 at 8:40 pm)

Happy ending syndrome

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