Your life doesn’t just “happen.” Whether you know it or not, it is carefully designed by you. The choices, after all, are yours. You choose happiness. You choose sadness. You choose decisiveness. You choose ambivalence. You choose success. You choose failure. You choose courage. You choose fear. Just remember that every moment, every situation, provides a new choice. And in doing so, it gives you a perfect opportunity to do things differently to produce more positive results.

I don’t remember the exact moment I flicked the switch on this lightbulb. I believe the path to it was triggered in junior high, after a friend of mine, Laura, committed suicide and I found myself in a deep reflection loop wondering “why?” She seemed happy, with a great future ahead of her, a strong circle of friends, and a great guy who’d do anything for her. Ending all of that just didn’t make sense to me. I started to wonder what made life worth living. Later on in high school, we read “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, and it resonated profoundly with me:

… And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

It stuck in my head as I matured, as I went through my own bouts with bipolar disorder (manic depression, at the time). It shivered in my brain whenever people complimented me. It scoffed at people who claimed to envy me. I knew inside that I was far from perfect, and I felt that accepting any praise was fraudulent. During my “down” times, I would try to figure out what it was that kept me from being Laura. Then in my darkest moment, I realized: It was my parents. I knew that if I took the same route that she did, they love me so much that it would devastate them; and I love them so much in return, that I would never want to hurt them like that.

So I researched ways to flip the switch in my head and turn my default setting to “look for the light,” as the beautiful Karen Walrond says. At first I kept it to myself. I didn’t want people to know what I was going through, because I didn’t want them to worry about me. It took me a while to realize that people worried even more because they *didn’t* know what was going on with me. I eventually worked up the courage to be vulnerable and opened up about it. I decided that I wanted people to know what I was going through, not only so I could be transparent with them about my personal struggles, but also so they could trust that I would never judge them if they were transparent about their own. (Which, strangely, led me to be even more wary of people who weren’t transparent about what they were going through and sought security by hiding — and hiding from — their personal truths.)

This has led to a lot of raised eyebrows as I’ve lived my life in the open, but those eyebrows eventually come down and are replaced with open arms once people “get it.” Living more openly has made me more conscious about how I see myself and how I represent my values. It has helped me hold myself accountable for my shortcomings, and enabled me to feel good about my “wins.” It has helped me cultivate an appreciation for people who thoughtfully challenge my assumptions, and a tremendous respect for people who take constructive criticism well.

As far as I’ve come, however,  I understand that all of this personal growth started by making that first step and consciously deciding to flip the switch. The only way for me to avoid going down a darker path would be to simply stop following it, to pivot, change direction and change my perspective. I made a conscious decision to stop letting my introspection lead the way, to stop reacting to what I was feeling on any given day, and, instead, guide my life according to my personal vision and values. I decided to surround myself with people who are positive and proactive, and create ways to support and collaborate with them so that we could energize and inspire each other; and I decided to say “no” to people and activities that drain my time and energy without helping replenish it. It’s a daily challenge, but life wouldn’t be as interesting if it weren’t.

Empowering myself with a proactive attitude has changed my life. I am confident in my skills, knowledge and ability; and wherever I’m ignorant, I am confident that I’m resourceful enough to find experts and/or answers to enlighten me. I am not afraid of what other people think. Instead, I take time to consider various perspectives, challenge my own assumptions, am open to respectful disagreement, and temper every decision with empathy. I reflect on the implications of my words and methods of communication before using them, and consider how they will impact the people on the receiving end.

Externally, being proactive means I take responsibility for the environments, communities, and situations I place myself in, and for the moments I choose to not “opt-out” of. Claiming you “have no choice” is a choice, too.

So: Take control. Assume responsibility for your life: You lead it. You choose what to see, say, hear, and do. You decide whether to dive in or opt out. There is no one else to blame. It’s time to stop pointing our fingers, and start using our hands to work towards solutions. Or to play. We should always make room for play.