I have always felt like I learned a lot of lessons early in life, and one of those lessons was that my number one priority was myself. But, this came with a catch. Without a solid foundation, my parents told me, I would not be able to care for others.
In Pre-K it was, if I couldn’t tie my own shoes, how would I help someone else tie theirs? In kindergarten I was terrified of finger painting because it was “messy.” But if I sat out, my grandmother’s fridge would be bare of my childhood masterpieces.
I have always felt that my sense of purpose was built and defined on my ability to help or save others. I try to never impose my will on others, but when I see an area where I could help, I do help—no questions asked, no judgements. When asked, I am more than happy to offer a helping hand because I know that I will ultimately feel better about myself.
With this in mind, it really does take a lot of work to maintain my self-care schedule, which I unfortunately learned the hard way after college. The death of three of my grandparents within four months, the end of a six-year romantic relationship, as well as the end of a life-long friendship, sent me spiraling. To add to all this crazy, my thesis was proving to be far more daunting than I had ever imagined, and I was struggling to stay relevant at my job after budget cuts during the Global Financial Crisis.
Before I even realized it, my life had been thrown into chaos and I completely stopped taking care of myself. My weekends that had once been filled with philanthropy and hobbies were crammed full just trying to deal with all the fallout and subsequent drama from my grandparents’ deaths. On top of that, I had been casted as “The Villain” in both the end of my friendship and relationship. Because of this, there was quite a bit of early-to-mid-20s social circle intrigue that seemed to haunt nearly every evening. I had an insane schedule that was empty and lonely, and had practically no time for myself. I struggled to get back on track to my previous schedule but failed over and over again. I was physically exhausted, too mentally fatigued, and straight up stopped caring.
As all of this was unfolding, my mother was then made redundant at work. I found out that she didn’t even want to tell me when it first happened because she feared that it would further upset me. To top it all off, I also had a friend that was quietly struggling with addiction, and another that was struggling with his business. The worst part of everything was that I felt horrible that I wasn’t able to help anyone. I was absent. One night, a friend telephoned me asking if he could crash with me since he was drunk and didn’t want to drive home. He landed in the hospital—nothing serious, thank God.
I went to see him the next day, and stayed as long as visiting hours permitted. He had a subtle way of making me talk so I unloaded. He asked me to repeat his famous last words—an inside joke in our friend circle. “What got you here… won’t get you there,” I said with a smile knowing that this usually referred to bar-hopping directions.
Then it hit me. I had failed to change my life strategy for different circumstances—what he had described as “failing to recalibrate my matrices and expecting unique outputs.” He also asked me, “what do they tell you on an airplane?” I had no idea. He joined, “Put your oxygen mask on before assisting other passengers”—essentially something I knew, but not in so many words.
From our talk, I realized that I had never actually had a recipe for success because there is no such thing. We are continually forced to grow and change based on conditions. “What got you here, won’t get you there.” All we can do is be flexible and grow. As we get older, we change, our problems change, and so therefore we must, too, change. I knew after that conversation that I needed to re-focus on my emotional well-being. I was decidedly not looking forward to this at all, but I knew it was an important step.
The first part was the most difficult—I had to do a fair amount of decluttering before even beginning to get my own house in order. I had to play Meg Ryan’s forgotten character in the sadly unpopular turn-of-the-millennium movie, Hanging Up—a movie I never even understood until I had to actually live it. Essentially, this meant I had to tell a lot of people that I just couldn’t be that person for them. This was extremely difficult for me at first, but it got easier and easier. I was encouraged by the fact that no one gave me pushback, and I was able to bow out gracefully.
I was putting my own oxygen mask on before assisting anyone else.
With so much baggage purged from my life, it was easier to see what was actually important. Compared to even starting the first task of the very first step, the rest was a breeze. And in no time at all, I was back to volunteering and doing hobbies that made me happy. With my spirits doubly lifted, I surged forward repairing broken things in my own life here and there, which only added to the euphoria. I was absolutely shocked how quickly everything fell back into place. It took about a week to unwind myself and then another week after that to repair. By the third weekend, everything was looking strangely normal, and I loved it!
My goal though, was not to get back to normal. I didn’t want to simply survive: I needed a system that would allow me to thrive. Like I said before, what use would I be to those in need if I let myself slide back? We each have the opportunity to impact thousands of lives as we move about our own lives. Everyone has unique talents and gifts to share with the world—and we only have a short time to do it!
The task ahead of me was really to figure out exactly who I was which may sound silly, but it had been quite some time since I had checked in with myself. What were my dreams? What did I believe in? Who was I?
The thing that made the most sense to me was starting with a healthy body, so I re-focussed my efforts to eat better. I tried a couple of lifestyle diet choices like Paleo, Keto, Whole Thirty (and personally settled on Keto). I also changed up my workout routines and tried new things, and while I mostly continued to do basic cardio, I also peppered in SoulCycle or Barry’s to mix it up as my budget allowed. These two particular classes also gave me small jolts of joy.
The biggest (and most challenging) change I made was giving myself smaller, more frequent doses of joy instead of doing a few big-ticket items. This meant I had to learn to stop saying I was “busy” and putting off things to “maybe next week”. When I stopped being “busy,” I learned to adjust my schedule around these moments that created real joy, and I found that I was less stressed. I had more time and felt I could easily accommodate dinner with a friend on a week night or spend an extra hour reading at night.
And finally, I stuck with one aspect that my mother taught me at an early age: count your blessings. Spending a few minutes here and there reflecting on gratitude can put things in perspective, and it can also make you feel more accomplished.
No matter what changes you feel compelled to make in your life—if any—make sure you set measurable, attainable goals that have a clear roadmap. I created goals on a weekly and monthly basis—nothing crazy, just a few minutes reflecting on what is working and what is not working. With this solid foundation, adding on more layers was much easier, and my focus helped me help others.