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The pursuit of happiness: How chasing the American dream can become a nightmare

FARGO — There was a time not long ago when Danie Remmick couldn’t even bring herself to shower more than once a week.

“It was just one more thing to do on top of everything else,” said the 30-year-old Fargo mom, who works in the nonprofit sector.

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From the outside, she says it seemed she had it all — a fantastic husband, a beautiful daughter, a dream home and a successful career.

But she wasn’t happy.

“I had everything everybody ever wants, the American dream, I had it,” she said. “But still, inside I was so empty and so lost.”

And she felt guilty, selfish and greedy for not being satisfied with what she had. She compared herself to others, focused on what she didn’t have and expected everything to be perfect.

For Remmick, chasing the American dream had become a nightmare.

“I just wasn’t happy and I didn’t know why,” she said.

Remmick’s experience is something that’s become increasingly common. An article in Psychology Today says Americans have grown continuously more depressed over the past half-century, and behavioral researchers say it has to do with unrealistic expectations of the American dream — the perfect house, spouse, kids and career.

Part of the problem is people are so busy trying to live a life they think they need to lead that they forget who they are, said Fargo empowerment coach Marilyn McMurray and Tara Argall, a licensed professional counselor who uses nontraditional methods, like working with energy, to help people.

“Most people live their lives trying to please others,” Argall said, adding that they lose themselves in their jobs, their kids and making others happy.

They might follow a career path to please their parents or a spouse and they become wrapped up in the big house and big income.

“We’re too other-people focused,” Argall said. “People, especially women, need to realize that if you don’t fill yourself up, you’re not going to have the juice to do what you need to do for your family, your kids. We’re taught backwards – give until it hurts and then give some more until you’re depleted and you have nothing to give.”

People also don’t give themselves permission to cry or take the time to feel their emotions, McMurray said.

“Kids laugh 400 times a day,” she said. “For adults, it’s four.”

Argall said she works a lot with women and around age 40, some of them start to feel that something might be missing in their lives. They just don’t know what it is. When she asks them to list 20 things that bring them joy, she says they often can’t list more than five.

And Argall says when women dedicate their whole lives to being mothers and then the kids grow up and leave the nest, those women can experience a real crisis, not knowing who they are or what their purpose is in life.

McMurray and Argall both work to help people find what brings them joy in life. They are offering a class, “Rewrite Your Story,” on Feb. 15 and 16, to help people who aren’t happy with the way their lives are going.

Both women helped Remmick stop the negative thought patterns she says were destroying her life.

Remmick grew up in a very supportive family, but says she still never felt as good as other people.

“My success had to be measured by and compared to other people,” she said, adding that growing up in middle-class America, there was always something else to strive for.

After graduating from college, she found a job, married her husband and they bought a twin home. Over the years they moved into bigger and bigger homes until they realized they were working all the time to pay for the home and spending all of their free time maintaining the home and yard.

They didn’t have time to enjoy their lives or the home they’d worked so hard for, Remmick said.

“This last house was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “It was over 3,000 or 4,000 square feet and we only used probably 800 square feet of this house. My husband and I were constantly fighting about money and we were working to pay all of our bills to have this house that we couldn’t even enjoy.”

She also felt guilty for not being the mom who did amazing Pinterest-worthy projects for her daughter.

“I was so angry at not being able to do everything perfectly,” Remmick said.

But with McMurray and Argall’s help, she learned to redefine what success meant to her and she stopped comparing herself to others.

It wasn’t an easy process.

She had to change her thoughts, her habits and some of her friends.

She wrote out positive affirmations and hung them on her mirror and in her office. She created vision boards that depicted all of the things she wanted to do in her life.

She stopped focusing on what she didn’t have and focused on how she wanted to feel. Instead of focusing on being overweight, she says she started thinking of herself as the perfect size 10 and the weight started coming off.

“When I look in the mirror, I think that even if I was the size 18 that I was, my head is in such a different place now, that I can still look at myself and say I am worthy,” she said.

Remmick stopped letting her job define her as a person, and she learned to leave work at the office.

She also learned to look at people, especially her husband, with love instead of judgment.

“I’ve started looking at him as the amazing person God made him and stopped focusing on the things he didn’t do,” she said. “I stopped focusing on what he isn’t and started focusing on what he is.”

She and her husband have also moved into a smaller home.

“We have downsized to a home that we absolutely love and that we are living in and making a home instead of paying for,” she said. “We have time for each other. We do fun things together. You can hear laughter in our home because we got rid of the extra stress.”

Remmick takes time for herself to go to the gym and she starts her day in prayer, filled with gratitude and asking for her greater purpose.

“I couldn’t do that before because I thought I was so selfish,” she said. “I thought a mom was supposed to focus on her husband and kids before herself.”

But in taking care of herself, Remmick finds she is less stressed, she has a better relationship with her husband, and her 4-year-old daughter, who used to be ornery, has completely changed, Remmick said.

“The energy we were putting out there, she was picking up on and giving back to us,” she said. “It’s not peachy keen every day, that’s not reality, but it’s a heck of a lot better and we can definitely rebound from an off day much better.”

Remmick says she used to diminish her successes, partly because she never liked people who were arrogant and she didn’t want to be seen that way. Now, she thinks differently.

“I don’t think I’m better than everybody else, I am me and that’s all that matters,” she said. “Honoring and respecting myself and my journey and being present in the moment rather than living for tomorrow totally changed things around for me.”