Over40.it, our new e-zine dedicated to you, a splendid over forty-years-old woman who looks at life as the best part is here and now.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Say Hello to the Real You

"Who do you think you are?" For much of my life I probably would have pulled a blank to that question. When you are a natural-born people pleaser like me, it's easy to lose touch with yourself as you focus on satisfying everyone else. Looking back, I have to wonder why I was so inattentive to my own need for happiness.

In my case, the reason is partly cultural. I was brought up in the best British tradition, where girls are raised to be modest, independent and selfless. Some of us British keep a "stiff upper lip" even in the worst of times, but I've learned that ignoring weakness is not always such a good trait. That's why I encourage my girls to recognize and feel their emotions and I teach them to deal constructively with the source of their sadness, anger or frustration.

Why is it that so many women, regardless of age and nationality, struggle so hard to hold everything together, only to lose themselves in the process? In this chapter you'll meet Weight Watchers leader Sharon Walls, whose esteem and sense of control was eroded by loneliness and the stress of raising a young family while her husband worked half a world away.

When Sharon made a conscious decision to get control of her weight she turned to Weight Watchers for help. She expected to lose weight by dieting, but the experience proved much more than that as Sharon rediscovered her needs and goals while also understanding the emotional root of her eating. We see from her story that food alone is not to blame for weight gain and that dealing with a weight problem means dealing with behavior and lifestyle issues as well.

I tell my friends that when it comes to dieting, "start with your mind and your bottom will follow." How we think really does affect who we are, which is why I'm a fan of Weight Watchers "Tools for Living," a set of wonderful techniques that help you get what you want. Sharon uses a visualization technique that lets her focus on the good feelings that she'll enjoy upon reaching a goal. This is the tool called Motivating Strategy. We've both embraced the tool we call Positive Self-Talking to better manage our "inner critic" and turn up the volume on thoughts that encourage us to succeed and feel good about ourselves.

The potential for change is in each and every one of us. Change calls for taking lessons from our past to create our future. New and better things are possible because of change, so don't let fear hold you back.

Rethinking Who I Want to Be

For most of her adult life, Sharon Walls had been about 20 pounds overweight. She wasn't happy with the extra pounds but she could live with them. After she gave birth to her first child, and added another 25 pounds to her 5-foot 11-inch frame, she decided to do something about it. Sharon joined Weight Watchers in 1990 and lost 45 pounds without a problem. Life was good until Walls gave birth to her third child, and found herself 45 pounds overweight — again. "I felt a little smug because I'd done this before," recalls Sharon, now 42, a Weight Watchers leader in southern California. "And I thought I should be able to lose the weight all by myself. But I couldn't."

Compounding matters, the family had recently moved to southern California, the land of the slim and beautiful — and Sharon felt completely out of her element. The family had spent four years in New Zealand, where Walls had built up a wonderful support network and loved the adventure of living in a new country. "When we moved to southern California, I literally felt like I was starting from scratch again," she explains. "And there were moments when I felt like I wasn't anywhere I wanted to be. I felt invisible — I was always doing everything for everybody but I was feeling so empty inside. I was being a victim; I let everything happen to me. I was living with a just-get-through-the-day mentality, and I was totally in a stuck mode. I would dwell on negative things, such as conflicts, instead of dealing with them and moving on. But I also had a sense that there was more to life than this. I started searching for something. I was really trying to redefine who I wanted to be."

In 1996, Sharon decided to take the first step — by addressing her weight issues. "I was really at rock bottom," she recalls. "I weighed 200 pounds. My husband is a runner and very fit, and I was embarrassed to be seen with him. I had the lowest self-esteem of my life. I felt dowdy and completely out of control of my life. And I just had this feeling that if I didn't start, I would be 200 pounds for the rest of my life and I didn't want to be there." She rejoined Weight Watchers, and within nine months she'd peeled off those extra 45 pounds by changing her eating habits, exercising portion control, taking up walking, and finding other outlets (instead of turning to food) to relieve emotional frustration. "It's not just a matter of knowing what to do," she says. "It's whether you're ready to do it. And I was ready to embrace this."

Not only did Sharon lose the weight and become a Weight Watchers leader in 1997, but she was so committed to revamping her lifestyle that she joined a running club. As Walls increased her mileage and trained closely with a buddy, she set her sights on running the Los Angeles marathon in March of 1998. "It was something I really wanted to accomplish by the age of 40," she explains. "With this marathon and losing weight, it was about moving forward, instead of moving backward; about dwelling on what I was going to be instead of on what I wasn't. Before this, I was always putting my three children or my husband first and I wasn't taking care of me. I decided to become a person who took her needs into consideration. This taking care of myself helps me take care of my kids and my husband and everything else. It's a real choice. The conflicts, the demands, and the emotional upheaval are still there, but taking care of myself helps me stay centered so I can deal with it all."

Sharon got serious about training for the marathon and treated her running time as sacred. She learned to carve out time for her workouts and protected it fiercely, setting limits with other people and saying, "No, this is Sharon's hour" when necessary. "The marathon — running 26 miles after having three children — was pivotal," she recalls. "I was building an emotional bank account while I was doing my training. The stronger I felt about taking care of me, the more competent I felt about going out there and taking chances." Even with all the preparation and her positive mind-set, however, the marathon itself proved to be a formidable challenge. At the twenty-first-mile mark, Sharon's energy reserves were completely drained. "I sat down at the side of the road and cried and decided to quit," she confesses. While tears were streaming down her face, she looked up and saw a man with two prosthetic legs walking the marathon. "When I saw that, I just screamed at myself: You can do this — now get up!" she says. "I figured if he could do this without any legs, I could do this with two even if they hurt." Sure enough, Sharon got back on her feet, made herself get moving and finished the marathon.

But Sharon didn't rest on her laurels. Shortly after the marathon she enrolled in a class called Introduction to Counseling. She found it so stimulating that she decided to go back to school to earn a master's degree in marriage and family therapy. Her goal: to become a therapist. "I kept searching for what I wanted and I kept putting myself out there," she says. "It was like I kept drawing new things toward me. Going back to school has been a huge commitment and I have a lot of guilt because my kids are still young (they're three, eight and nine), but I just try to muscle through it. This is about who I am inside."

For Sharon, making one change sparked a desire to take another risk or try another experience and so on, until Sharon was well on her way to becoming who she wants to be. "Ever since I was a kid, I've been a striver," she explains. "I've always had a sense of wanting to accomplish something and give something of myself back to the world. It's a competitive spirit inside — to be the best I can be. I feel like I'm a totally different person than I was five years ago. Back then, I was looking to the outside world for my happiness and for feeling okay about myself. I look inward now for that voice that tells me what I need and what I need to do to get to a place where I feel okay. That voice helps me stay in the moment more and be more accepting of where I am, which I think is the most valuable gift I can give myself."

WHO ARE YOU? It's a simple enough question but it's often hard to answer. If you're like many women, you might say, "I'm a mother, a wife, a lawyer (or architect or accountant or whatever the case may be), a daughter, a friend, a short-order cook, a housekeeper, a laundry expert, a gardener." And while all of those answers might be true, they all reflects who you are in the eyes of other people, in terms of what you do for them or with them. The truth is, you are more than the sum of your roles, responsibilities and accomplishments. None of these responses reflects who you are as a unique, separate person, and none of them addresses what makes you tick, what gets your energy flowing or what you feel passionate about in life. In short, lost in these descriptions is the sense of who you are in your own eyes, which is where it counts the most.

And that's too bad, because if you lose sight of who you are, deep down in your heart and soul, how can you possibly have a pulse on what you really want out of life? How can you feel grounded in this world? How can you make sense of your experiences? And how can you make decisions for your future?

Your image of yourself (in psychological terms it's called your self-concept) has a powerful influence on how you view the world and your life. In a nutshell, your self-concept reflects how you see yourself and what you believe about yourself. Over time, this contributes to your sense of identity. Your self-concept isn't a fixed entity, though; it can shift slightly from one situation to another, from one day to the next, depending partly on how you feel physically and emotionally. For example, you might feel full of confidence at your own birthday party, where you may be surrounded by people who know and love you. But you could feel like a mass of insecurities, possibly even downright inferior, a few days later when you're asked to brief your colleagues on a subject you know little about. In the first setting, your self-concept may be primarily positive; in the second, it could veer more toward the negative.

Your Roles, Your Well-Being

Several studies have found an association between the number of roles people occupy in their lives and their psychological well-being. One body of research has found a consistent connection between having numerous social ties and good health and psychological well-being. Another body of research suggests that juggling work and family roles promotes mental well-being. And numerous studies have found that married people tend to live longer and more healthfully than single people do.

Nevertheless, other research has found that women often respond differently to these factors than men do. For example, being employed boosts a woman's sense of well-being directly or may serve as a buffer against stress experienced in other roles (such as that of wife and mother). But it also appears that women may be especially vulnerable to role conflicts (clashes that occur when fulfilling the demands of one role jeopardizes a person's performance in another) and role overload (having so many demands related to a person's roles that performing well becomes virtually impossible).

In fact, a recent study involving 296 women who simultaneously cared for aging parents and occupied the roles of mother, wife and employee found that when women attached a greater sense of personal importance to these roles, they tended to have better psychological well-being. The theory is that people gain more meaning, a greater sense of purpose, and stronger guidance in how to behave in their lives when they're carrying out a role that they perceive to be essential to their concept of who they are. It also may be that they're more attuned to the rewards of that role. But at the same time, this sense of role importance can increase the potential for distress when the pressure mounts. Specifically, when women valued the roles of wife and employee highly, they were more vulnerable to the effects of stress in these areas. (Interestingly, this wasn't true of the mother role!)

Trying to be Superwoman can be a losing proposition. Which means that it's up to you to take steps to broaden your self-definition and safeguard your emotional health. It's not just a matter of functioning well in each area of your life or warding off effects of stress. It's a matter of empowering yourself to lead a more gratifying life.

Self-Concept, Deconstructed

Your self-concept isn't completely dependent on the environment. On the contrary, it's a complex phenomenon that incorporates a variety of factors. Your self-concept includes personality traits — such as shyness or intelligence — that may have been present since birth. But your beliefs about yourself also develop in response to experiences and your understanding of the roles you play in your life. Moreover, your self-concept also encompasses your body image, your sense of your own worth as a human being (your self-esteem, in other words), your sense of how other people see you, your sense that with some effort you can control events in your life, and the level of acceptance you have of yourself. In addition, your values, goals, plans, attitudes and moods also affect your sense of self.

When it comes to a person's definition of herself, all of these elements are intricately intertwined. But research from Vanderbilt University has found that men and women tend to think of themselves primarily in terms of the roles they hold; indeed, the social roles they occupy are powerful sources of their self-concepts. And for many people, self-esteem also plays a starring role. In a series of studies, psychologist Jennifer D. Campbell, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia, found that a person's self-esteem deeply influences the clarity of her self-concept; in other words, how she feels about or evaluates herself colors what she believes about herself. What Campbell discovered is that the self-concept of people with low self-esteem is more dependent on outside influences: what other people think of them or how they handle a particular situation. People with high self-esteem, in contrast, tend to have clearer, more stable self-concepts from one situation to another.

The moral of the story: If you don't have a clear sense of who or how you are, it may be worth taking steps to bolster your self-esteem. How? By accentuating the positive — particularly, your strengths and unique qualities — rather than dwelling on your weaknesses. By increasing your comfort zone by taking on challenges that are slightly out of reach but reasonable. By reminding yourself of your successes. And by facing your fears and working through them. In the process of boosting your self-esteem, you'll also be taking steps to strengthen your self-concept.

And that's worthwhile because your self-concept helps you interpret external information that's relevant to you. It helps you frame goals to guide your behavior in the future. It helps to convey a consistent image of who you are to other people. And a clear self-concept may even protect your health: A study from the University of Washington found that people with uncertain self-concepts were more vulnerable to stress-related lapses in health than were those with a strong sense of identity.

The Hazards of an Unexamined Life

If you don't have a clear sense of who you are, it may be because you've been batted around by stress and turmoil in your life or because you've grown too accustomed to looking outward, not inward. Especially in these high-speed times, it's all too easy to get swept up in the current of life and to lose sight of yourself as a separate, distinct person. It's a common hazard of leading a busy, hectic life, especially for working mothers. And it's hardly surprising when you consider that after fulfilling work responsibilities, caring for children, and completing chores at home, employed mothers have only an hour a day of personal time during the week, according to a recent survey by the Families and Work Institute in New York City. What's more, in a survey of 3,000 executives, 55 percent reported that they work at least 60 hours a week, and 29 percent confessed to 70 hours or more. No wonder 58 percent of working mothers in another survey reported that overtime work was a frequent cause of family squabbles.

When you feel pulled in multiple — and often conflicting — directions, or you're catering to the demands of too many people, it's easy to overlook your own wants and needs. Thinking about those can seem selfish or like an unaffordable luxury. Besides, when your plate is full of stress and responsibilities, sometimes it's just easier to avoid examining some of the unpleasant realities of your life — whether it's dissatisfaction with your career, your weight, your marriage or something else entirely — and simply carry on with business as usual. Indeed, many people make their way through life surrounded by a bubble of denial and self-deception. It's less painful that way. On some level, they probably figure that if they don't face the truth about a certain aspect of their lives, it won't exist. Or maybe they're secretly hoping the circumstances will magically change one day and they'll suddenly be happy. That's not likely to happen.

In all likelihood, the status quo will be maintained, and it can slowly, insidiously eat away at your sense of happiness and well-being. More often than not, continuously operating on automatic pilot eventually takes its toll, leaving you depleted of physical, emotional and spiritual energy. You could begin to suffer from depression, anxiety, stress overload, fatigue or other health conditions. Or you could wake up one day with a profound feeling of emptiness inside. None of these possibilities is good.

If there's one thing you can count on, it's this: If you don't take charge of your life, no one else will do it the way you would want him or her to. You're the director of your own show; in other words, you're accountable and responsible for your life. Of course, being passive is a choice, too, but it's one that will not serve you well in the end. After all, if you find yourself squelching your desires and simply following someone else's lead, you could wind up resenting it — and them.

Priority #1: You

The odds are, you probably already have some inkling of what you want for yourself and your life. What many people need most is permission to make themselves a priority and pursue what's really important to them. We're all works in progress. Month after month, and year after year, we're all trying — on some level, conscious or not — to figure out who we are and how we can strive to create the lives we want to live. Even so, there comes a time in many people's lives when they're ready to make significant changes, whether it's in their lifestyles, their careers or marital status, their geographical location or some other area of their lives. They might wake up one morning wondering how they arrived at the life they have. Or they may be walking around haunted by a vague sense of uneasiness. Or they may have a sudden epiphany about what they really want.

However the desire for change is sparked, the trouble is, many people don't know where or how to start to make a difference in their lives. They become so intent on moving forward that they may not be fully aware of their present circumstances or of what they really want deep down. Then they feel frustrated and disappointed when they end up with a result they hadn't quite planned on, or they don't understand why they wound up where they did.

The truth is, if you want to effectively change some aspect of your life, you have to understand what you want and why you want it. You need to chart your course toward a goal and to start altering your behavior. But before you try to change your behavior, it helps to understand why you've been doing whatever it is that you've been doing: to understand yourself, your thought patterns and habits, what motivates you, what holds you back, and so on. Without gaining this self-understanding, you'll just end up repeating the same old ways of thinking and doing and you'll feel stuck in a rut.

The journey to positive change or self-improvement has to begin in your head. Why? Because, as psychologists point out, beliefs reside in your mind, and your thoughts, ideas and attitudes, all of which originate in your mind, spur you into action and affect your perception of everything that happens. They guide your behavior. They act as a filter through which you experience situations and events. And they act as an expert commentator when it's time to analyze what has already happened. In this way, the landscape of the mind has the power to shape your entire life. For example, if you believe you can't do something — whether your goal is to lose weight, learn a new computer program or master a new sport — you probably won't be able to do it. And that's because your mind will be holding you back, discouraging you when you most need encouragement, setting up obstacles where there aren't any, or letting you give up when you need to persevere. On the other hand, if you believe your goal can be accomplished, your mind — and hence your behavior — will do nearly everything it can to help you succeed.

While research has found that women who have both a family and a career generally find their multiple roles fulfilling, conflicts inevitably arise that can cause a woman's stress level to soar. It's not a matter of perception; it's a fact. And although you can't make these conflicts go away, you can often change the way you think about them and deal with them, which can have a powerful effect in easing your burden. In a study involving married professional women with children, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin discovered that striving to meet existing role demands — by becoming more efficient and planning their time more carefully — and changing their attitudes about these work-family clashes were the most powerful coping mechanisms for handling them. Which suggests that your state of mind can be a potent ally in many aspects of your life.

If there's one thing that's entirely within your power to change, it's your attitude. As the English poet William Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." The key, then, is to open the doors of your mind to the possibilities of life and particularly to the possibilities of change. In order to do this, you must be willing to examine life from more than one angle, to shift your point of view. But first you'll need to cultivate a sense of self-awareness, an understanding of how you see yourself now and how you view the world, then you can address how you want to develop as a person.

Putting Yourself on the List

The truth is, most women take better care of other people — their spouses, children, friends and parents — than they do themselves. It shouldn't be that way. You are just as worthy of such tender, loving care as anyone else is. Besides, why should you be continuously self-sacrificing when, chances are, no one else in your household is? As Harvard psychologist Alice Domar, Ph.D., points out in her book Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else (Viking/Penguin), "What women need is to learn how to nurture themselves. We need to shower as much loving kindness on ourselves as we habitually shower on loved ones...the only way we can have fully formed selves is by granting ourselves the same tenderness and fierce protectiveness we'd otherwise reserve for a beloved child."

Indeed, the potential benefits of self-care are enormous. Taking psychological and emotional care of yourself helps shore up your self-esteem when it might be flagging. It makes life seem more multidimensional, more manageable, and more enjoyable. It can help improve the quality of your relationships by making you less needy or stressed out. And it helps replenish energy that's been spent on everyday activities, energy you'll need to maintain motivation to make the changes in your life that you crave.

But all too often, women treat themselves as second-class citizens: We've been socialized to be sensitive to other people's needs, but many women take this to an extreme, believing, on some level, that everyone else's needs come before their own. And they figure that after everyone else has been taken care of, they'll finally be able to focus what's left of their time, energy and attention on their own concerns. The trouble is, there's not much left after everyone else's wants and needs have been catered to. As a result, many women end up giving themselves short shrift.

But the reality is, if you want to improve your life, you need to start with the way you take care of yourself. And the key is to make changes from the inside out. It's all well and good to try to lose weight to feel better about yourself. Or to find a more fulfilling career to give you more satisfaction in life. Or to pursue a promising relationship that provides you with a deep sense of connection. But often real transformation starts from within when you explore the yearnings that underlie those goals. Indeed, if you focus on taking good care of yourself, on figuring out what gives your life meaning and what your personal values are, and then find a way to get more of those good things into your life, you'll naturally gain a healthy dose of self-awareness and a clear sense of your priorities. And often feeling grounded and good about yourself can set off a cascade of subtle events that bring improvements to your life.

The Benefits of Self-Care

Let's say you embark on a regimen to eat more nutritious food and exercise regularly in an effort to improve your health: With commitment and perseverance, you may end up losing weight and feeling better about your body. This could lead to a boost in self-confidence, which could affect how you present yourself to other people and what risks — emotional and physical — you're willing to take. Because you feel stronger and more capable, you might decide to go after a job promotion or try a new sport. These pursuits might encourage you to begin networking professionally or meeting new people socially. And things might just start to happen for you in many areas of your life. At that point, it may seem magical, as though you're attracting luck. But it has less to do with simple good fortune than with taking charge of one aspect of your life and putting yourself out there. With daring to present yourself in a new way.

The good news is, self-presentation seems to take a step in a stronger, more distinctive direction as we get older. Research from Wayne State University in Detroit has found that with the passing years, adults tend to shift away from emphasizing what they have in common with others and how they conform to social conventions; instead, they increasingly present themselves as unique individuals who have a complex personal history, both psychologically and chronologically. But you don't have to wait for the hands of time to move; you can nudge your self-presentation in a more distinctive direction now.

And it's worth the effort, because when you begin to feel special and distinctive, you tend to put your best foot forward and send a confident message about yourself into the world. This can have an effect that's almost like a magnet pulling good things toward you. Have you ever noticed how "lucky" people often seem to be in the right place at the right time? How good fortune seems to smile upon them? It's not that they have any mystical secrets to their success. Indeed, psychologists have found that people who see themselves as lucky or unlucky often dwell on the aspects of their lives that support their perception, a phenomenon called selective recall. When asked to recall key moments in their history, "lucky" people reflect on the situations that made them feel fortunate, and this focus perpetuates their ability to see themselves in a positive way.

In other words, luck has less to do with whether you're smiled upon by Fortune than with how you view your experiences. It also has to do with your approach to life — how much control you feel you have, how independent and persistent you are, whether you know when to cut your losses, and, of course, how you present yourself to the world. Lucky people capitalize on opportunities that appear for them and they do the necessary legwork to prepare for challenges. Among the key elements in luck's existence is a trait called self-efficacy — a can-do spirit and a sense of self-confidence that give you the gumption to strive for what you want. People with a strong sense of self-efficacy feel in control of their fate. They figure out what they want, set goals, work hard at achieving them, and notice promising opportunities. They're not afraid to go after what they want because they've made themselves a priority in their lives. They treat themselves as if they were special and often present themselves as lucky to other people. In other words, they create their own luck, and it has a transforming effect on them in the process.

How Body-Esteem Fits into Self-Esteem

Intimately connected with how you see and feel about yourself is your body image — how you see and feel about your physical self. Research from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, has found that body image makes up about 25 percent of a person's self-esteem. A woman's perception of her own body has a more significant impact on her feelings about herself and her sense of self-worth than it does for a man; most men aren't as emotionally invested in their physical selves. If a woman is happy with her body, her movements and expressions are likely to be confident, flowing and graceful; if she feels distressed about her appearance, on the other hand, her movements and expressions may be awkward, self-conscious and constricted.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of American women are unhappy with their bodies, regardless of where they fall on the weight charts. In large measure this is due to the pressure women feel to conform to cultural standards of beauty that are depicted on television, in movies and in magazines — standards that are completely unattainable for most women. To some extent, these treat women as sexual objects, a phenomenon that can be highly damaging. In a recent study at Duke University, researchers examined the link between being preoccupied with one's own physical appearance, body shame and eating disorders. What they found is that women who were extremely focused on their physical appearance were at increased risk for disordered eating habits. The reason: They felt ashamed of their bodies. As the researchers noted, this body shame can, in turn, have a profoundly negative impact on a woman's sense of self.

But not every woman who feels dissatisfied with her body suffers from disordered eating habits or a poor sense of self. Indeed, recent research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that women who harbor a negative view of their bodies but have normal eating habits tend to have healthier coping strategies — problem solving, seeking social support, reducing tension, emphasizing the positive — which help them cope with not feeling as well as they could about themselves physically. They're also better able to isolate their poor body image so that it doesn't affect their broader view of themselves. In other words, they're able to maintain positive beliefs about themselves, even if they don't always feel comfortable in their own skin.

Once again, these results highlight just how important it is to have an expansive view of yourself, one that allows you to feel positively about many different facets of yourself and your life.

Assessing Yourself

Before you can take steps toward enhancing your sense of yourself or improving your life, you need to get reacquainted with your strengths, your weaknesses, your hopes, your dreams. Think of it as a way of becoming intimately familiar with your inner world. This self-awareness will serve as a prelude to change. Chances are, your inner landscape has changed from what it was, say, 5, 10 or 20 years ago. So it's time to update the picture with a little self-exploration. Get out a pen and pad of paper or a journal book, and do the following exercises.

Self-Exploration Exercise #1: My Life in Review

Choose a time when you're not rushed, when you have the luxury of being alone with your own thoughts, and ask yourself these 20 questions. Write down the answers; they hold valuable lessons: They can help you frame your actions, set priorities and overcome stumbling blocks as you pursue new goals.

1. Am I doing what I want to do with my career — or am I doing what's easy or comfortable?

2. What would I consider my ideal job or vocation?

3. What's my greatest triumph in life so far?

4. What is my most precious unrealized dream?

5. Do I have a secret ambition?

6. Who in my life has had the most profound influence on me?

7. How do I want to live?

8. What's been the biggest disappointment or trauma in my life so far and how has it shaped me?

9. What do I fear most in life?

10. What would I do if my worst fear actually happened?

11. What makes me feel most competent in my life?

12. What special ingredient seems to be missing from my life?

13. Where do I pour most of my time and energy?

14. If I didn't have to work, how would I choose to spend my time?

15. What activity makes me feel happiest and most fulfilled?

16. How would I describe the ideal marriage?

17. How would I most like people to remember me after I'm gone?

18. What would I most like to change about myself?

19. How would I describe my philosophy of life? Am I following it?

20. If I could rewrite one part of my history, what would it be?

Coming to Terms with Disappointment

As you review your life and your dreams, you may feel a sense of disappointment. Even if you've achieved many of the things you thought you wanted — buying a house, getting a new job, marrying and starting a family — you may feel unfulfilled. And if you feel chronically disappointed — over the loss of your dreams or the failure of your expectations, for example — this can affect your general attitude toward life and lead to feelings of sadness, anger, or despair, according to psychologist David Brandt, Ph.D., author of Is That All There Is? Balancing Expectation and Disappointment in Your Life (Impact).

But there are valuable lessons in disappointment, which is basically nothing more than unmet expectations or the loss of an anticipated outcome. If you examine your disappointments and your pattern of becoming disappointed and express your feelings about them (individually or collectively), you can often uncover your true desires in life. The key is to first reveal your underlying expectation and then to ask yourself why it's important to you. For example, if you recently felt disappointed by the squabbling that went on at a family reunion and you examine how and why you feel let down, you might realize that what you really want is to have a family that gets along; on a deeper level, you might discover that what you truly crave is a sense of peace in your life. Then, if you examine this desire objectively, you might realize how unrealistic it is to expect an extended family to get along famously all the time. Once you accept that, you can let go of your dashed hopes and the downward emotional pull they can exert.

After you've moved away from the feeling, you might also start to think about ways to modify your expectations so that they are more realistic in the future. Or you might consider how you can take steps to attain your underlying desire on your own. If a sense of peace is what you crave, for instance, you might pursue avenues that lead to developing inner peace — learning to meditate or do yoga, taking nature walks or keeping a journal — instead of expecting a sense of calm to prevail in the external world. The bottom line is: If handled the right way, disappointment can actually inspire you to take steps toward improving your life.

Self-Exploration Exercise #2: Where Your Energy Goes
Versus Where You Want It to Go

To figure out how you currently divide your time and energy into different aspects of your life, draw a pie chart like the one below. Draw lines wherever you see fit to indicate how much of your life — and yourself — is devoted to your career, your marriage (or romance, if you're single), your children, your parents, your friends, home management, physical activity, other leisure activities, self-care, volunteer or civic duties, spirituality, and other pursuits.

Next, draw another circle and divide it to indicate how much of yourself, your time and energy, you'd like to spend in the 8 to 10 aspects of your life that you value most. These can include your career, romance, family, friends, hobbies, fitness or other health activities, spiritual pursuits, community involvement, or something else altogether (but be specific about what it is).

Now, compare your two circles. Note the discrepancies in how you spend your precious time and energy. For each area where there's a considerable difference, write down two things that you can start doing now to improve that area of your life. In the area of romance, this might include making a weekly lunch date with your honey or spending 20 minutes catching up on each other's lives after the kids go to bed. In the area of spiritual pursuits, this could include spending 15 minutes a day in solitude, thinking about your values and beliefs or meditating, or taking a class in religious studies. In the area of fitness, you might choose to take a walk twice a week during your lunch hour or sign up for a spinning or yoga class one night a week. By mapping out things you can do to improve various aspects of your life now, you'll see that you do have the power to make small but effective changes that will add up to significant improvements over time.

Self-Exploration Exercise #3: Facing the Mirror

If you were to look at yourself as a friend might look at you, who would you see? Read through all the qualities that are listed below and next to each indicate how well they describe you as you are today. Rate them on a scale from 1 to 3 — with 1 indicating "very descriptive of me," 2 meaning "somewhat descriptive of me," and 3 being "not at all descriptive of me." This will help you create an honest but uncritical profile of what you believe about yourself today.

Note: Save your answers because you will refer to this self-evaluation again later.

Caring Patient Friendly Gentle

Energetic Creative Articulate Cooperative

Clever Resilient Likable Independent

Resourceful Intelligent Assertive Spontaneous

Passionate Considerate Lighthearted Ambitious

Funny Reliable Organized Thoughtful

Playful Tactful Warm Competent

Self-Exploration Exercise #4: Rating Your Perceptions of Yourself

Now that you have a clearer sense of how you see yourself, it's time to evaluate what you see. Based on your perceptions of yourself, take a look at your traits and honestly assess those you like and those you don't by answering the following questions:

1. Write down the three qualities you most like about yourself.

2. Why do you like each of them?

3. How do you use these qualities in your life?

4. How could you put them to further use in your life, to improve yourself or gain new opportunities for personal growth?

5. Write down the three qualities you least like about yourself.

6. Why don't you like each of them?

7. How has each of these qualities influenced your life, for better or worse?

8. What, if anything, could you do to change or improve them?

Hopefully, you've gained some insights into yourself with this exercise. But it's also important to put these insights into practice by taking steps to use your positive qualities more effectively or to improve upon the less desirable ones. Make a conscious effort to take small steps in these directions daily.

Self-Exploration Exercise #5: How Do You Operate?

Now you've got a pulse on your values and your personality traits. But a key question is: How are you putting these insights to use? Use this questionnaire to assess how you generally conduct yourself in your life. For this exercise, ask two close friends or loved ones to answer these questions about you, too.

  • Do you generally act in accordance with a strong sense of purpose or a philosophy of life?
  • How well do you prepare mentally and emotionally for challenges that lie ahead?
  • Are you effective at managing your time — or does it manage you?
  • How well do you deal with adversity or unforeseen crises?
  • Is your attitude generally positive and constructive, or negative and critical?
  • How well do you bounce back from disappointment or setbacks?
  • Do you take time for yourself — for mental or emotional refreshment — each day?
  • How do you manage stress?
  • Does your life have a healthy balance between work and pleasure, between social involvement and introspection?
  • Generally speaking, do you feel that you have the power to control your life or do you see yourself more as a victim of circumstances, constantly reacting to whatever life throws your way?

After answering all these questions, go back through this list and look at your patterns. Use your friends' evaluations as a reality check: If there's a discrepancy between your response and theirs, take a closer look at your own behavior. If you feel comfortable doing so, it may even be helpful to discuss their perceptions of your behavior with them. They may see you doing things that you're not aware of.

Next, jot down at least two things you could do to improve upon what you've been doing in each area. For example, if you don't usually prepare well for challenges that lie ahead, think of what you could start doing — whether it's developing contingency plans in case something goes wrong, or mentally rehearsing how you might deal with potential obstacles. Similarly, if your attitude tends to gravitate toward the negative, critical end of the spectrum, think about how you could steer it back toward the middle or positive end — by making an effort to look for the silver lining in distressing situations or by using more encouraging thoughts to refute negative ones, for instance. If you practice taking these steps on a regular basis, soon enough they'll become second nature. And you'll be on your way to achieving a better you.

Putting Yourself on the Agenda

Why spend time doing all these exercises? Because they'll help you begin to see yourself in a clearer light. They'll help you rediscover what makes you tick, what gets your creative or intellectual juices flowing, what once-treasured aspects of yourself you may have lost touch with. Hopefully, these exercises will also give you a clearer picture of your values and of what's truly important to you in your life. You might just realize that it isn't what you thought it was.

When you take a step back from your day-to-day existence and reflect on all these different aspects of yourself and your life, you'll begin to see that you're greater than the sum of your parts. That there's more to you than being a wife, a mother, a working woman; that there are valuable traits and cherished dreams inside you that deserve to be nurtured. And that you deserve to carve out time and devote resources to allowing yourself to become the best you that you can possibly be.

After all, this is your life — and it's the only one you're going to get. So why not give yourself permission to make taking care of yourself and pursuing your dreams a top priority? Remind yourself that it sure beats the alternative — feeling exhausted or unhappy, or flirting with burnout, in which case you won't be much use to yourself or to those who depend on you. But if you do make self-care a priority — and learn to set limits with other people in order to do so — you'll be setting up a win-win proposition for everybody. Chances are, you'll feel happier, stronger, and more grounded in the world; you might even gain a sense of peace within yourself. And as a result, you'll probably have more energy, patience, attention, tolerance and goodwill to give your loved ones and friends. What could be better than that?

Assignment Write a blatantly honest obituary for yourself as you are today. Put in as much detail as possible about your accomplishments, your strengths and weaknesses, your values, the qualities that make you unique, how you've lived your life, and how friends and loved ones are likely to remember you. Then take some time to reflect on how you feel about the person you've just described. Do you like her? What would you want to change about her if you could?

Excerpted from
Reinventing Yourself with the Duchess of York

Copyright © 2001 by The Duchess of York and Weight Watchers International Inc.
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