Five ways I’ve prioritized myself, become happier and created a life more aligned with who I am
A year today, on Jan 1, 2020, I wrote a message to myself on the bathroom mirror: “Be Kind to Yourself Today.” I realized that the negative thought patterns I was falling in to were sabotaging my happiness. It was one of several changes I’ve had to make at midlife as I strive to prioritize caring for myself, as much as everyone else. If you too are making yourself a priority this year, here are five ideas which have led to the greatest changes for me in the last three years that I have been on this “journey” at midlife.
I hope some of these ideas can spark change or support you as you create the midlife of your dreams. (You may want to grab a notebook to write down ideas that might come up as you are reading.)
1. I Changed How I Talk to Myself
I knew it was time to become my own best friend and that started with how I talked to myself. My critical inner voice had gotten very loud. It may sound odd that I needed to write a message on the mirror as a reminder to treat myself kindly. But I did.
With a daily reminder staring back at me I was able to begin to change my thought patterns. As soon as I noticed a negative thought I would hit the pause button, take a step back and recognize it for what it was – just a thought. This idea stems from mindfulness practices. Our thoughts are separate from us, they are not necessarily true and they will always come and go.
I would also ask myself this question: Would you speak to a friend that way? Almost always it was, no, I wouldn’t. So if I wouldn’t say it to a friend, who I want to support, why would I say it to myself, who I also want to support.
Taking Charge of my thoughts was part of making myself a priority
Sometimes that was enough, I would simply let the negative thought go and carry on. Or I might need to get curious, what had triggered it? Often I needed to reframe it. For example, one of my self-criticisms is “You never finish anything you start.” Now when I hear that, I do a mental pause and tell myself the true story regarding that statement. Sure there are some things I haven’t finished that I wish I had. And there are a lot of things I have finished and feel proud of.
It’s taken a year of practice, but I have made solid progress. Now, when I am feeling down, when I fail at something, my inner voice steps in to offer a pep talk, rather than a criticism. I might hear: you aren’t perfect but who is? You are a caring, kind-hearted person. You are hard working. You are moving in the right direction and that’s what matters (more on that in number 5, below). It’s taken practice but as I’ve gotten better at being kind to myself, it’s made me feel happier and more in control of my life.
2. I Prioritized My Physical Health
As women we are very good at caring for those we love, which is a wonderful thing. The problem is many of us seem to have forgotten that we are equally deserving of that attention and care. To make myself a priority I had to truly believe that I’m as deserving of care as my family members.
Changing self-care habits can take time and repeated effort, so starting small can help. By picking an easily attainable goal, it’s easier to get started and we’re more likely to stick to it. Once the new thing becomes a habit, we can build on it. The first step to making your health a priority could be to pick a small area to focus on.
It might be drinking more water or deciding to add in a few more nutritious foods to your day. (For me, adding healthy foods, rather than restricting what I eat, naturally leads to eating less junk. Once I am eating the healthy stuff I feel better and the cravings for sweets and empty carbs start to diminish).
For many of us, it’s moving our bodies more. I am a huge fan of dancing around my kitchen with headphones on :). I also love functional exercise – exercises using our own bodyweight which mimic things we do every day, like getting in and out of chairs. (A separate story on that coming in a few weeks – early 2021.)
The way I am prioritizing my health this year is to focus on better sleep habits. The more I learn about sleep the more I understand it is crucial to our long-term health. As women we often short-change ourselves by not getting enough sleep.
3. Making Yourself a Priority by Saying No
There will never be enough time or energy to do everything we want to do, at any stage of life. One of the best ways I know to make yourself a priority is to learn to say no. I encourage anyone who wants to make yourself a priority, to look carefully at every way you are giving your time and energy to other people, rather than yourself.
For me, that has meant letting some things go. At midlife I gave up gardening and cut back on entertaining. Yes, I enjoy entertaining but it’s very time consuming and takes a lot of my energy because I tend to want to cook everything from scratch, and so on. So I entertain less. I’ve also declined to be involved in new projects or social activities that are not my absolute priority.
Can we reclaim some of the time and energy we give away to others?
The more I say no the better I am at it. I am making myself the priority in my own life and that feels amazing. It’s empowering to say no and I find that spills over into other areas. I now try to question everything before I agree to it and am much more careful what I give away and what I keep for myself.
What are three things you would like to start saying no to this year?
4. Exploring Where to Say Yes
This is the exciting part. Once we start saying no in some areas of our life, we create the space needed to say yes to the things we want to be doing. This is an opportunity to explore the activities and projects that make us happy, the things we will choose to pour our precious energy and creativity into. I think of these things as the ones that make me feel that my life is aligned with who I am.
This is a bit tricky because it can take some time to figure out what our yeses are. These are different for everyone and aren’t always obvious. For example, I love to travel. When I travel I feel more alive, I feel more myself. And, of course I can’t travel whenever I would like. I’ve had to explore other things I can do in my everyday life, that brings me a similar feeling of joy.
I have been working on learning to speak French for many years and recently taken up lessons again. I realized that practicing French for 10 or 15 minutes in my day makes me happy. It reminds me that I am capable of learning new things and makes me feel I am making progress toward a goal. And it connects me to a dream I have – to one day spend an extended period of time in France.
Can making yourself a priority include finding something that brings you joy? Can you dive deeper into it this year? Even better if it connects you to a dream you have for your future self. If your dream is a safari in Africa maybe you want to take an online photography course. If you dream of hiking on a European vacation, maybe you can start hiking on the weekend to build stamina. If it’s exploring the art galleries of New York, would you enjoy an art history course?
If you are struggling to find things to say yes to, can you think about some of the dreams you had when you were younger? It’s ok to not know what our yeses are – this is a journey and it can take time to figure it all out.
5. Celebrate Every Step Forward
When my two boys were young and I was struggling with the challenges of parenting I read a wonderful quote by Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting: “Celebrate every step in the right direction,” she advised. I think this applies equally to midlife women. We have spent many years doing things a certain way – giving to others instead of ourselves. Like anything else, change takes time.
It’s ok to not have all the answers when you start. I have been in the process of making myself a priority for the last three years. I started out having no idea knowing what needed to change or where to start. I’ve written more about that in: My Emotional Upheaval at Midlife.
Like anything new, making yourself a priority will require effort and some trial and error. That’s ok. In fact, it’s better than ok. It’s a reason to celebrate. If you are on this journey because you’ve decided you deserve a life with you at its center, then yes, we are going to celebrate every step we take!
We can feel proud of every small thing we do that moves us closer to a life we were meant to live. We will learn as we go and forgive ourselves when things don’t go as planned. On the days we don’t exercise or practice French we will be our own best friend and say: You are fantastic anyway, and you can try again tomorrow. This midlife business is complex and it’s a journey.
Speaking of journeys, one of my favourite expressions which describes the emotional experience of midlife is “Coming Home to Yourself”. It’s the title of a chapter in The Wisdom of Menopause, a book by Dr. Christiane Northrup, who writes about midlife women and health.
For me that’s the midlife opportunity; a chance to return to the parts of ourselves we set aside or as we cared for everyone else. The chance to discover new things about ourselves as well. The midlife road can be bumpy but I think it’s worth travelling if we are on our way home to ourselves.
What do you hope to change this year as you begin making yourself a priority? I’d love to cheer you on! Please share in the comments below.
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