For the last month, I’ve been sharing the first few entries from Waking Up in Winter, my most recent book – a memoir in journal form that looks at the transition into midlife. This week I’m sharing the final excerpt. If you missed last week’s entry, you can find it here.
As you read through this entry, I hope you’ll think about your own life. What truth do you need to admit to yourself about what’s no longer working at home, in your relationships, or with your career? What are the changes that might need to be made? Will you give yourself the necessary time and space to truly evaluate your needs and desires?
Ok, here we go…
I’m in Hamburg to speak at a conference. I came into the hotel restaurant this morning hoping to find some breakfast, but the staff was already taking away the buffet. In need of sustenance for the busy day ahead, I pleaded for protein, and a sympathetic hostess went to the kitchen and returned with a bowl of hard-boiled eggs. They’ll do nicely.
She also brought a treat. When delivering my tea, she included three little pots of honey, each a different flavor: wildflower, lavender, and heather. It’s things like this—simple, delightful pleasures—that interrupt an old pattern of mine, where I look for what’s wrong when I’m traveling, instead of what’s right. The unexpected kindness of a stranger in a foreign land feels especially comforting and sweet.
I’m scheduled to give two magazine interviews and record a video in advance of a workshop I’ll be teaching here next year. I’ve given so many media interviews that talking about myself bores me, but I’ll do my best to mix things up and make them fun.
One interview down. A young woman who looked to be in her late twenties gazed at me hopefully, her face searching mine for answers. “Is it really okay to make caring for ourselves a priority?” she asked. “Won’t some people be offended by that behavior?”
It turns out that the term self-care is difficult to translate in German. It sounds selfish to the native ear, she tells me, and she’s afraid that people will think I’m suggesting they behave in ways that might appear self-absorbed or arrogant. God knows I’ve heard this before. We might be in Germany, but her fear is universal. Men, women, young, old, no matter where I travel I’m confronted with the same question: Isn’t teaching people to practice better self-care teaching them to be selfish?
Yes it is, I usually agree, and that’s a good thing.
Most of the people who read my books, attend my talks, or follow me on social media admit that they’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to manage the perceptions of others by being nice. They say yes when a quiet voice inside whispers, No, no, no. They attempt to defend the boundaries they set, and in doing so open doors that invite arguments and eventual backtracking. When they start to make their own needs a priority, it often rocks the steady boat they’ve been delicately balancing for years. As a result, the people around them get upset and start questioning the new behavior because change feels scary and unsettling to the safe and familiar tribe.
When I give people the tools they need to take better care of themselves— the language to say no, permission to gracefully disappoint others, strategies for setting firm boundaries that honor one’s time and energy, for instance—it can appear selfish at first. But here’s the thing: I’m encouraging people to honor the soul, not the ego. In reality, good soul-care fosters integrity. It means telling the truth, and making choices from love rather than guilt or obligation, thereby strengthening relationships all around.
Of course, there’s a deeper cultural dynamic at work here, one that has been set in place for centuries. We cannot be controlled if we develop a mind of our own, a desire for freedom, and health, and personal power. It is empowering to practice good self-care, and the tribes we belong to may not like it. Those tribes might take the form of our marriage, family, employers, political establishments, or religious organizations. Tribes tend to resist change, and people who are empowered don’t go along to get along.
No worries, I tell my interviewer, as we continue our discussion. At first glance self-care may appear to be selfish, but without caring for our own needs we’re incapable of experiencing true, authentic connections with ourselves and others. And ultimately that’s what we all long for. We just go about it in the wrong way, by people-pleasing and stifling our own desires.
When we finish the interview, I walk away thinking about my own self-care. I began my career by teaching what I needed to learn, and now that I’ve learned it, I need to remember it. Selfish is good. Paying attention to what my soul needs and doing something about it is the key to getting back on track. And I need to get back on track. I’m growing weary of the road, of my life, really, and I feel like I’m losing a vital connection to myself. There are signs of system overload, the beginning of a descent.
For years I’ve told my coaching clients that all positive change begins with telling the truth. Don’t worry about what you’ll do with the truth, I’d explain, just start naming it. And sure enough, once they’d talk about what wasn’t working in their lives, I’d watch the Universe line up doorways that opened at the most opportune times, making it easier to take the actions that honor their real needs and desires. They just had to align their energy with truth.
So what’s my truth? What isn’t working anymore? Where might I need an open door?
I don’t feel good in my body. Although I’ve started walking and have lost some weight, traveling makes it difficult to stay on track. I don’t sleep well in hotels, and I end up feeling exhausted more often than not. Eating is a challenge, too. I find myself using sweets for comfort while on the road and it not only leaves me feeling moody and physically sluggish, but I’m also tortured by the way I beat myself up for not being more disciplined and committed to my health. It’s a constant reminder of what I said I’d regret most when I considered my own death.
I miss the kind of connection Michael and I shared before life got so crazy. We loved being together, taking road trips, going to movies, or lying in bed talking and laughing late into the night. Now I’m constantly bracing myself against leaving and it’s created too much emotional distance between us. I also miss the comfort of cuddling with our little guy, Poupon, waking up in my own bed, and being present for the changing beauty of the land where we live.
I long for the days when I had the space in my schedule to enjoy leisurely time alone or to visit with good friends.
Instead, as soon as I’m home, I’m psychologically preparing myself for the next trip and playing catch-up with the work that’s piled up in my office. And then there’s my work. As much as I hate to admit it, I also feel bored with some of what I do now. I crave new creative outlets, deeper conversations with students, and the chance to teach from home without losing the intimate face-to-face connection that traveling affords me. These days I wake under a cloud of sadness that follows me throughout the day, and it casts a dreary shadow on everything I do.
Now there’s a truth that’s hard to admit.
As I read over the last few paragraphs, I think about all the women I’ve listened to over the years who are quick to dismiss their frustration at being so busy and overwhelmed because they compare themselves to those who are less fortunate. I, too, fear I might sound like a whining ingrate. Shouldn’t I feel blessed to live the kind of life most people dream of? Who am I to complain when I’m fortunate enough to have people read my books or pay good money to hear me speak? Isn’t this the life I said I wanted, the one I’ve worked so hard to create?
Like it or not, something has to give. Sustaining the status quo is weakening my emotional immune system, and my confidence and trust in myself is getting depleted. And without this inner strength, it’s too easy to keep giving in to what’s safe and familiar rather than make the changes I know I need to make. And then there’s the little problem of not knowing what to do. So I keep traveling and teaching in spite of the cost.
I’m a coach, for crying out loud, and I help people make positive changes in their lives all the time. But this feels different. Bigger. More about determining the direction of my life than shuffling a few priorities. How do I get myself out from under the success I’ve spent the last twenty-five years building without losing what I’ve created? And where do I go from here?
At this point, what I do know is that in order to rebuild my emotional and physical immune system, I need rest, space, silence, and, I suspect, to sit with not knowing for a while.
PS – You can purchase a copy of Waking Up in Winter from booksellers here.
PPS – Our October “Self Care by the Sea” is now sold out. To put yourself on our waitlist please visit here.
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