When you share about your lifestyle change, kindred spirits emerge
When we reconnected after the several decades since graduation, I discovered my high school friend, Sue Howell, and I were kindred spirits. I recently discovered she was contemplating another lifestyle change.
“I Felt There Was No Way Out and I Was Stuck”
Two days after graduation, Sue moved an hour away from home to work for a year, saving for college. After attending Michigan State University for two years, she dropped out to get married. As it turns out, this wasn’t the smartest idea: “I wasn’t in love with my husband, I was too young, and had no clue who I was at the time, what I wanted for my life and my future.” This isn’t a particularly unusual situation for young people, who may misinterpret external “should” and “ought” as “must.” Like so many, I, too, made many early decisions based on convention.
Sue eventually separated, got back together with her husband, and then left the marriage for good. She established her own household with her two daughters. She also went back to school as a single mom, earning her degree over the course of ten years while working a full-time, high-stress job. The overwhelming messaging at this time for women was “you can have it all.” Most of us picked up on the inference that there was something wrong with us if we didn’t work ourselves to death trying to do so. And so, lots of us did. Lifestyle change as a deliberate thing you did just didn’t exist.
During the same period, Sue’s mother passed away at the extremely young age of 56. Coincidentally, my dad died around that time, too, at the same age. (See my guest post, On Second Chances). Later, my mom and her dad both died within a year of each other. These pivotal moments led to self-examination in us both. Sue entered therapy to explore and get past feeling “very unhappy, very insecure, and very angry. . . trying to figure out why. . . This took a lot of energy and courage over the course of several years.”
Falling Back on Upbringing to Deal with Tough Moments
Growing up on a farm and living in a small community both foster resilience. But paradoxically, many of us who come from these backgrounds feel inadequate out in the “real world.” I sure did, and Sue’s experience was similar:
As insecure as I was personally with who I was inside, I also knew that I could take care of things for myself and survive. I’m talking about holding down a job, working hard, paying bills, and being a responsible adult. It was instilled in me somehow that no matter what, I could figure out a way to live. I was a survivor.
I didn’t have a job there, but I knew I would get one. I knew which one I wanted and went through a couple of other jobs while still working on getting into the company I had in my sights. . .[Finally, I could afford to] buy new things for myself, travel, and also be generous with others by helping them financially. . . I took a lot of pride in the fact that I owned my own house and had painted it and decorated it like I wanted.
When we act, outcomes (pass and fail) boost our sense of resilience. Experience then prepares us (“see, you made it through that”) for the inevitable challenges ahead. For Sue, it was a daughter who struggled with mental illness and suicide attempts. Later, it was a layoff from her dreamy job.
The only positive aspects of each of these situations came from action. She found NAMI and received “understanding, empathy, support, and warmth” as she learned how to be “the Mom my daughter needed me to be.” She went on to instruct and facilitate Family to Family education for the organization. A passion developed in mental health advocacy.
And, Sue wasn’t afraid of how lifestyle change might disrupt her personal life. She acted by moving out of state temporarily and back again seeking the right professional opportunity. She’d already done it before, after all.
Action Brings Forth Experience to Deal with Fear Ahead
Any time you are faced with a lifestyle change, whether it’s one you’ve planned for or not, fears will surface. Life Coach Barrie Davenport tells us fear is not real. “The only elements of fear that are real are the uncomfortable feelings that accompany being afraid — the anxiety, tension, circular thinking, and unpleasant physical symptoms.”
Davenport goes on to advise that the only way to deal with fear is to take action. Deferring action? If so, it’s your fear. Sue agrees that there is a tipping point that leads to lifestyle change:
After years of simply “surviving”, I knew there was so much more I could do and was capable of doing. I no longer wanted to be a survivor. I wanted to live life more fully. . . I’m not sure it was an epiphany that caused me to make new plans for my life. It was, quite simply, confidence in myself and my abilities. It was the strong desire to make changes in how I was living. It was the desire to feel fulfilled and to try to finally follow my heart and live up to my favorite quote: “Enjoy life! This is not a dress rehearsal”!
So, in 2013, Sue decided to sell her house in Georgia and move back home to Michigan. She rented a little cottage on a picturesque lake just outside our hometown. Perfect lifestyle change, right? Enter the polar vortex. “Michigan had a horrendous winter with snow day after day. Therefore, I felt cooped up..almost trapped…the exact thing I was trying to avoid. This made me rethink my decision to move back.”
It’s Okay to Tweak the Lifestyle Change Plan
Lifestyle change forces you to get to know yourself. Under the many layers of your “shoulds” and “musts” is the real you. Over the long Michigan winter, Sue found herself with plenty of time to think:
I went through many years of feeling I had to have a husband or significant other in life. It was what I felt society required or me. It was what I thought I required of me. It took several years to realize that this wasn’t necessary. I could do many things I wanted to do and could make them happen. I came to the point where I wanted to be happy being with just myself and it was ok. I’ve traveled to some great places, sometimes alone and sometimes with others. I prefer to be alone a lot of the time. I prefer to be with others a lot of the time. I needed to figure out how to balance the two.
With a significant lifestyle change, be prepared to tweak or even make a new one if things aren’t right. Davenport agrees: “Fall back and let the universe catch you. Just embrace a ‘what the hell’ attitude about your fears. This is scary, but so what? I think I’ll enjoy life anyway.” If you’ve thought things through initially, and evaluate how things are going with awareness and honesty, they will work out. What’s the worst that could happen? Really? How likely is that?
Another Lifestyle Change Decision
Sue is embarking on another lifestyle change, becoming deliberately “homeless” and nomadic.
My plan is to take minimal belongings with me in my SUV and drive to places I want to visit. I’m first going to Georgia, then to Virginia, and then will be flying to Connecticut in June to do some work at a hospital. After Connecticut, I will probably come back to Michigan for a few months until it starts to get cold. Then, if I’m enjoying this lifestyle, and during Michigan’s winter months, I will be going south again (place undetermined at this point).
The logistics are sorting themselves out; she’ll be rooming with relatives, helping out by paying rent. Her job as an Instructional Designer/Technical Writer and Roaming Educator allows her to work remotely with an internet connection from anywhere. Being digitally independent has changed how she now works.
I really dislike the corporate world. . . I’m doing the same thing but independently where I do not have to go into an office. I can work in my pajamas if I want. I can pretty much set my own schedule and decide when and if I want to work. It’s not the most fulfilling work, but it pays well and I have tremendously less stress working this way. It helps me to stay financially independent where I can pursue many of my life’s dreams, or more to the point, my bucket list.
Leave Fear in the Dust
We tend to complicate the thought of lifestyle change with fear-based reasoning. Barrie Davenport believes this reasoning is flawed: “When you take bold action, [fear] can’t keep up with you.” What does my friend Sue think are the take-aways from her story? Without hesitation, she replied, “This is YOUR life and you control your destiny, so put on your courage hat and take action.” And:
- Don’t be afraid to make changes in your life. You may end up liking or disliking the choices you make for change, but you will never know if you don’t take any action.
- Figure out what you want in life and then make it happen. If you can’t figure out what that is, it’s probably because there is not only ONE thing you want.
- When you are feeling stagnant, make a change…any change… and then make more changes.
- Take risks.
- Believe in yourself.
If I could add one thing to Sue’s list, it would be: don’t wait until you are our age (not saying!) to accept this advice. Put on your courage hat and take action toward a more vivid and rewarding life!