You will never find yourself until you face the truth. -Pearl Bailey
Most of us think of ourselves as honest if we don’t steal, cheat or wrong others. And yet, the ability to be honest with ourselves often gets pushed aside because (a) we’re too busy taking care of others to pay attention to our own feelings, and (b) we’ve been trained to believe that it’s selfish to do so. The results, however, can be devastating.
Take Elinor, for example. Elinor has been my friend, confidante and creative consultant for 33 years. She is a warm, caring, capable, energetic, intelligent woman (I could go on), and for years mutual friends and I regarded her and her husband as leading the list of couples we knew who modeled “ideal marriage.” But a few years ago when she agreed to write a story for one of my books about how she had survived the financial ups and downs of her marriage, including two bankruptcies, I noticed that the story was mostly about her husband. She didn’t have the energy to re-work it, so we dropped it.
It was not the first time I had witnessed a friend’s life revolving around her partner to the extent of hardly knowing who she was. Many years ago another of my closest friends visited from out of town and sat with me on my living room floor one day, catching up. My husband and I asked her how she was doing, then listened with dropping jaws as she talked non-stop for 20 minutes about her husband. We asked again, “But how are you doing, Shari?” She later told us that had been a turning point in her life, a moment she would later reflect on with the realization that her own thoughts, feelings, and dreams had become nothing but shadows, inhibited by her sole focus on her family, especially her husband and his addictions.
Elinor’s turning point came a couple of years after the story attempt. She was participating in a personal growth seminar when, during a discussion on truth, the course leader asked her: “Who are you?” She stumbled around a bit, mumbling a few words like “loving” “kind” and “compassionate” before dissolving into tears.
Elinor had been afraid of that question all her life. She had actually disdained the practice of looking deeply inside and examining one’s life in an attempt at self-knowledge. She thought it was self-centered and, from friends’ accounts of their experiences, quite painful. Why would she want to do that?
Now, she not only wanted to do it but had to. She got in her car and headed for nearby Zion National Park, a place that had always nurtured her soul and soothed her busy mind. On the banks of the Virgin River, she sat in the warm sun and began to write, willing to examine every aspect of her life from job to marriage.
It was the first time in 32 years of marriage that she had ever gone off on her own to spend time with just herself.
Many of us—especially women but men, too—have lost the ability to know what’s true and right for us because we simply don’t have time to reflect on ourselves as individuals, separate from the other important people and events in our lives. We look after partners, children, friends, employees, coworkers, clients, pets—even aging parents.
But making others the center of our lives can have devastating effects on our health and well-being. Addressing the balance issue many women face, Dr. Joyce Brothers says, “The most important advice I can give a woman when it comes to juggling career and marriage is to put herself first. Selfish? Not at all. After all, whose life is it?”
The first time this idea was put forth on “Oprah,” by guest life coach and author Cheryl Richardson, the audience booed. Oprah doesn’t allow booing on her show, and attempted damage control by pointing out that it’s the oxygen mask theory: Put your mask on first, before tending to children or helping others.
Taking time for yourself is fundamental to discovering what’s true for you. Far from selfish, it gives you the chance to reflect on your values and ask yourselves important questions about your life. Are you staying in a bad relationship because you don’t want to admit failure? Have you taken on too much? Are you not paying attention to signs from your body that you’re tired and need to rest? Is it hard to get up in the morning because you don’t like your job?
Elinor’s deep examination of her life allowed her to be honest for the first time about her job, her marriage, and their finances. She and her husband eventually divorced, but today they are friends, forging a new relationship based on acceptance and respect. She loves her new life. For the first time she is doing things that didn’t fit her husband’s idea of diet, finances, and relationship in general—like buying coffee ice cream and balancing her own checkbook. She bought her first car solo. She has an attorney and an accountant. She has moved into a place of leadership in her work. She is now free to create her life based on the simple truths of who she is, and she has come to accept those new truths with self-respect and self-love.
Jennifer Read Hawthorne is an inspirational speaker and author who has written or co-authored seven books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul and Life Lessons for Loving the Way You Live. To book Jennifer for a keynote address, visit her website at www.jenniferhawthorne.com.