“My happiness is on me; so you’re off the hook.” – Byron Katie
Over the next ten days, I’ll share my ten most important lessons-learned while writing my SOMEDAY is Not a Day in the Week book (which is based on my adventures and insights from my Year by the Water. Hope you find them intriguing, inspiring and most of all … useful.
Have you ever driven California’s spectacular Pacific Coast Highway? If so, you’re familiar with its many hairpin turns. In the day, you can see what’s ahead and adapt to the hairpin turns.
But I made a big mistake. I didn’t get there during the day, I got there at dusk.
And what happened taught me a BIG lesson about the dangers of nt “Always put other people first” default.
Twenty minutes after the sun went down, it was pitch black. I couldn’t see anything as there was no moon, no street lights, no nothing. What made it worse was the road kept switchbacking and disappearing out from underneath my headlights. I had no idea what was next.
Left. Right. Left. Left. My brain was sloshing back and forth in my skull. I completely lost my equilibrium even though I was crawling along, peering out the window with my hands in a death grip on the sterring wheel (hmm, poor word choice.)
I kept telling myself, “I can do this, I can do this. Three hours from now, I’ll be safe and sound in my Morro Bay hotel room.”
Suddenly, a truck zoomed up behind me and flashed its brights. I did what I’d been taught to do growing up in a small mountain valley. I pulled off the road to let the driver go ahead.
The problem was, the pull-out was shorter than anticipated… and gravel. I started braking … and sliding. The harder I braked, the more I slid. I finally came to a stop a few feet from the cliff’s edge.
I sat there and shook. The truck was long gone. It was just me, the deserted road, (and I know this sounds dramatic but it’s true), a realization that my lifelong default of letting other people “go first” had just about cost me my life.
Sound familiar? Is your default, “No, you go ahead. You go first.”
If you’re a parent, caregiver, business owner or leader, this may have become your norm. You may feel it’s your responsibility to put your family, your patients, your employees first.
At what cost?
Putting everyone else first and yourself last is an extreme, and any extreme is unhealthy. It causes us to lose our equilibrium. To compromise our own health. To sacrifice our own happiness. And what’s worse, it teaches the people around us that we don’t count, that our needs don’t matter.
Is that what we want to teach? Is martyrdom, self-sacrifice, the model we want to pass along?
That close call on Hwy 1 made me wonder, “Where did I learn this? How did I learn this?”
Well, as with many things, it started at home.
My mom was an example of unconditional love. She always believed in my sister, brother and I and encouraged us in everything we wanted to do.
She was also sick the last twenty years of her life, dealing with the effects of Multiple Sclerosis (which was later discovered to have been a misdiagnosed brain tumor.)
My mom was in pain almost every day. If I put my hand anywhere near her neck, I could feel the pain waves vibrating off it. Yet, she didn’t want to be “a burden” so she soldiered on. I would ask, “Can I help with dinner, Mom? Want me to do the dishes?”
“No thanks, hon, I’ve got it.”
She rarely, if ever, talked about her illness. She didn’t want to be a “complainer.” She always wanted to know what we were doing, what was going on with our lives. She never asked for anything for herself. If we offered, she usually demurred, not wanting to “put us out.”
My mom did what she thought was the right thing, at great personal cost. What we learned from her example though was probably not what she intended.
Yes, we received and learned about unconditional love, and we will always be grateful for that.
We also learned to not ask for help or accept help.
We learned to be “strong” and not share our pain.
We learned that the last thing we wanted to be was a “burden.” We learned that putting other people’s happiness first, and not thinking of our own, was the noble thing, the right thing, to do.
Serving others IS a noble thing. And it’s even more noble when we balance it with serving ourselves. That’s what we want to model – that we take care of ourselves while taking care of others.
How about you?
Are you running on empty? Are you stressed out, burned out, experiencing health challenges?
All are clear signs you’re not enforcing your boundaries – or that you don’t have any boundaries.
As Brene Brown says, “Exhaustion is not a status symbol.”
Exhaustion is an indication you are putting everyone else first – and yourself last.
Next time you’re about to say “No, you go ahead. You go first,” next time you’re about to take yourself out of your own story, ask yourself:
· Am I putting this person’s needs first and not even considering my own?
· Am I sacrificing what I want to give this person what s/he wants?
· Is my “martrydom” a one-time thing – or an ongoing pattern?
· How will this default mindset impact me in the moment and over the long term?
· Is there a way I can serve this person and myself at the same time?
· How can I take responsibility for – and speak up on behalf of – my own health and happiness?
Jack Kornfield said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
Starting today, please understand, it is not selfish to put yourself in your own story, it’s smart.
It’s not indulgent to take responsibility for doing what makes you happier and healtheir, it’s inspiring.
Every time you do, you show it’s possible to have the best of both worlds and you set a precedent that gives people around you the permission and motivation to take responsibiity for their own quality of life.
P.S. I recently re-learned this lesson. I’m supposed to be on my book tour in NYC, DC, Chicago and SF this week and next for SOMEDAY is Not a Day in the Week.
Instead, I’m in Colorado taking care of a health challenge. Seems this insight about BALANCING our public commitments with a private commitment to our health is not a “one-and-done” epiphany. The good news is, I am GETTING this lesson and putting my health first instead of giving it lip service and setting it aside for “someday.” How about you?