A year ago today, I came the closest I've ever been to dying. I had a misdiagnosed health issue that landed me in the emergency room- what had started out as possible irritable bowel syndrome ended up being an ectopic pregnancy. By the time I was treated, the tube had burst. I was told that 40% of my body's blood volume had traveled to my stomach and that I would've likely died if a few more hours had passed.
I alluded to this experience briefly on my About page but I want to take the opportunity to dig a bit deeper into some lessons learned. While on the surface this may not have a lot do do with the concept of The Inclusive Career, I'll hope you will see that many of these lessons also apply to navigating one's life and career as a woman more generally, and I definitely hope you won't have to go through a traumatic experience to arrive at some of these realizations yourself. It is also a way for me to come full circle in launching this blog and moving forward.
TOP 5 LESSONS
1) Sometimes you need to be the Caregetter, not the Caregiver
As women, we are conditioned from an early age to be caregivers. While caring for others is a noble and needed endeavor, it can also become a slippery slope to putting everyone else's needs ahead of your own.
This is often magnified during parenthood when the physical and time demands of being a mom can dwarf your own self care. You might start with dismissing "pampering" (hair, nails, or whatever was a priority pre-kids) as a luxury, followed by exercise- you know it's important in the long run and the mind and body benefits are proven, but how do you fit Pilates into your schedule of parenting and work and doing all the things that your boss, partner, kids, friends, etc. need?!?
I'm there with you. The problem is that this mentality can become dangerous when we forget to listen to ourselves, or even the people who care about us the most. My husband put up with my dismissal of anything being truly wrong until I fainted twice and he told me we were going to the Emergency Room whether I liked it or not. Even then, I felt like he was overreacting ("The medicine the Doctor gave me for IBS says it can cause dizziness- it's just the medicine!") but since my mom just happened to be in town, I agreed to leave her with my daughter and go get checked out. If I hadn't gone, I might not have been alive today.
While I admit I can be stubborn in my self-sufficiency, there are plenty of accounts that mirror mine. The combination of women ignoring their gut instincts, not wanting to be a bother, and manifesting different symptoms than men can lead to a deadly combination. Don't let your identity as a caregiver drown out your voice of self-care. And if that voice has become to faint due to lack of use, start by listening to the people in your life who are trying to take care of you.
2) Reset your Dig-Deep Button
While listening to the voice of others who want to take care of you is important (see Lesson 1), strengthening your own voice of self-care is imperative. In The Gifts of Imperfection, writer and research professor Brené Brown defines the "dig-deep button" as "a secret level of pushing through when we're exhausted and overwhelmed, and when there's too much to do and too little time for self-care." Well, my reliance on the dig-deep button almost killed me.
Brené Brown goes on to note that people who live "Wholeheartedly," a goal she explores in the book, have a different kind of button: The DIG Deep button. Instead of sucking it up and powering through stressful and overwhelming experiences, THEY GET:
"Deliberate in their thoughts and behaviors through prayer, meditation, or simply setting their intentions;
Inspired to make new and different choices;
Going. They take action."
This approach does not deny the stress and overwhelm that can come from facing a world where obligations can feel insurmountable, and discrimination (both overt and subtle) exists, but it challenges us to be proactive in tackling the issues by changing our perspectives, environments, and actions. Instead of feeling like a victim of circumstance, take the time to listen to what you need and what isn't working for you, and then make choices that move you in the direction of better self-care.
Right after my surgery, I decided to jump right back into work. I couldn't do much of anything, including picking up my daughter, which made me feel extremely helpless. I figured working (remotely, from my bed) would be a welcome distraction from sitting around and thinking of what could have happened. In retrospect, I am so thankful that I had a workplace that accommodated my needs and allowed me to make the choice to work remotely as long as possible, as many people are not given the flexibility to balance self-care with their careers.
Still, I wish I had been in a better place of self-care to make the harder decision: Taking the time to fully rest and recover, both physically and emotionally. Being deliberate in my choices rather than acting from a place of fear and habit. Resetting the button.
3) Find Your Voice by using Your Voice
Like a muscle, the best way to develop that voice of self-care is by exercising it. While I like the term "find your voice," it doesn't feel entirely accurate. It's true that you can find your voice by undergoing a journey of discovery; As Harvard Business Review contributor and author Whitney Johnson notes in her book, Dare, Dream, Do, "Finding your voice often comes through facing challenges."
Post-surgery, I found myself questioning my purpose and looking to find my voice within the context of who I am today. But my voice isn't some separate being that's been hiding from me, ready to be found fully-formed if I just find the right map. Rather, it's something inside of me that grows and strengthens when given the right 'equipment' and platform.
Case in point: After my surgery, I went through the stages of grief, including anger at the doctor who had originally misdiagnosed me. Had this been caught earlier, it would've been a much less painful recovery. Instead, the doctor was arrogant in his assumption of what was wrong with me, choosing not to order any blood work and jumping to a potential diagnosis of IBS that required a 'wait-and-see' approach and some medication to deal with the discomfort. He also was clearly not familiar with the symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy, which can mimic gastrointestinal pain.
I contemplated letting it go. I contemplated suing him. I knew that if I didn't exercise my voice it would gnaw at me from the inside, but it had to be MY voice- what felt aligned to my values and who I wanted to be in the world.
In the end, I didn't sue, but I did get in touch with the doctor, so that he might understand what had happened and perhaps would be more vigilant and attuned to other possible diagnoses, the next time a woman entered his office presenting similar symptoms. I also spoke with the Ethics Board at the practice and hospital, and reached a resolution that felt fair and true to me: I would pay for the excellent post-operative care I received at the hospital, but they would dismiss the bulk of the (very costly) bills associated with the surgery and consequences of the misdiagnosis. This resolution allowed me to move on without feeling stuck in victim mode.
4) Shout loudly enough to drown out the Shame Monsters
Telling this story also allows me to combat the feeling of shame surrounding this experience. As Brené Brown (see Lesson 2) says, "Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story." Why would I experience shame? Because just as we are conditioned to be caregivers, we are also conditioned to feel shame regarding anything related to the female anatomy- from periods to 'failing' at the process of creating life with our bodies (through infertility, miscarriage, etc.).
But these experiences are part of life itself, and by giving them voice we fight the message that there is something to hide. The scar I bear is a physical manifestation of my body having changed, but also a metaphor for all the growth I've experienced over the past year. I am a fighter, not a failure.
We also experience shame in other avenues of our lives as women, which is compounded by the layers of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and more. When we encounter discrimination or harassment, the Shame Monster will tell you, "If only you had worn something different, or had played by the rules of the game, or had tried harder to fit in, then the outcome would've been different." This puts all of the burden on us as individuals, without questioning the real barriers to advancement that exist.
I believe this sense of shame is so pervasive and powerful that it must be addressed in order for us to progress in our lives and careers. Through the Inclusive Career Strategy I work with women to first drown out the internal Shame Monsters that get in the way, in order to give voice to their true desires, and then help them find a path through the external challenges to career satisfaction.
5) Life is too short to wait, but it's not too late to start
Most of us have a plan for the future predicated on "When," meaning, "When I get to this level I'll be happy," or "When my children are older/when I retire then I'll get to enjoy myself." There is certainly something to be said for having a plan, being thoughtful, and accepting delayed gratification. However, if all of your happiness is predicated on a future When, then you've struck a dangerous bargain with yourself and the universe.
Not only is there no guarantee that you'll truly be happy once you reach your When, there is no knowing if you'll be around long enough to reach it. This doesn't mean ditching all of your plans and running off to join the circus, but it does mean putting a plan in action today that gives voice to your desires and gets you closer to your circus performer/dream job scenario.
Perhaps you aren't stuck because you feel it's too soon to explore and pursue the career you truly want; rather, you think it's too late to change gears. But many people we consider successful didn't become known for their 'thing' until later in life. The advantage of being further along in your career is that you can bring together many seemingly different threads of experience to tackle an old problem from a new angle, and pivot more quickly because you know what doesn't work for you.
Looking back at life, what will you regret more- taking a while to develop your voice, or not having tried?
A year ago I decided that I couldn't wait for my When—I needed to start sharing my voice now.
My health scare was a real wake-up call in terms of understanding that life is short and can be taken away at any moment, and that I have more to contribute to the world than I am currently giving. Developing my voice led to this website and my desire to connect with you. Thank you for coming along with me on this journey.