After struggling with depression and anxiety most of my life, I'm now dedicated to becoming a stronger person who lives life to the fullest.
A Midlife Crisis Led Me to a New Goal: Leading a Life of Intention
I was 49 years old and had just quit my teaching job. I was 40 pounds overweight—sleeping too much and isolating from friends. I was feeling lost, depressed, and perpetually tired. My son with autism was a teenager, thriving socially and academically and not needing my help like he once did. For the first time in my life, I actually had time to think, reflect, and ponder, and I inevitably came upon the question so many of us ask in midlife: Why am I unhappy?
I was too old to believe that happiness came from outside myself—from having money and possessions, from having the ideal partner, from landing the dream job, or from buying a bigger house. I knew it had to come from within but just didn't know how to make that happen. All my life I heard that it came from helping others, but I had done that for decades while teaching kindergarten at an inner city school. I was burned out with nothing left to give.
So I started reading what experts had to say about becoming a happier person. What I landed on again and again were the curious words: lead a life of intention. It sounded nebulous, and I wanted something concrete. But I kept reading and soon realized it was well within my grasp. To turn my goal of leading a life of intention into something achievable, I decided to break it down into 10 key steps and post them on my refrigerator so I'd remember to integrate them in my daily life:
1. Make Time for Yourself
For too many years as a teacher and a mother, I had no time for me. I didn't even do simple things to care for myself such as flossing my teeth and taking my vitamins or bigger things like going to the doctor, taking vacations, and exercising. Everything I did was for others. If you want to lead a life of intention, you must make yourself a priority and give yourself the gift of time. If you're too busy running on the treadmill of life to get off like I once was, then you're not ready to lead a life of intention...yet (but you will later when you get burned out like I did)!
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2. Erase the Negative Tapes That Run in Your Head
Living a life of intention means loving yourself and rejecting caustic self-talk. When you slow down and become more aware, you may be shocked and disheartened by the self-destructive thoughts that enter your mind throughout the day. I sure was. I would never think those things about someone else—you're so stupid...you blew it again...you look fat and ugly—but I did it to myself multiple times every day. Once I became conscious of it and stopped, I experienced more serenity and developed an intense determination to treat myself better. Once I started giving myself more love and respect, other people started treating me better as well.
When I read the book, “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics,” the author convinced me that making time for meditation each day was key to gaining clarity and leading a life of intention. There's so much noise in our lives from the news, social media, politicians, and our day-to-day contacts at work and home. Meditation gives us a chance to shut that all out, focus our minds, and relieve stress. It's not just a pie-in-the-sky ritual advocated by gurus; it's a scientifically-validated way to re-wire parts of our brains and make us calmer. Plus, it just takes five minutes a day—getting silent and feeling our breath—to enjoy the benefits.
4. Keep a Gratitude Journal
Following the advice of Oprah Winfrey, I started a gratitude journal. I kept it at my bedside and each night before going to sleep I'd write down five things that I'm thankful for that day. It quickly became one of my favorite rituals and changed the way I looked at my life. It kept me razor focused on what brings me joy and, surprisingly, it was the simple pleasures that got mentioned most often: talking to my son before he left for school, rubbing my dog's tummy, and playing Scrabble with my husband.
5. Check In With Yourself a Few Times Each Day
Throughout my hectic days as a wife and a mother, I'd ask friends, colleagues, and even strangers the obligatory question, “How are you?” But, during that busy time in my life, I neglected to ask that of myself with dire consequences. If I had, I would have heard these words: “I'm tired... I'm miserable...I'm frustrated...I'm going crazy...I don't want to go on living.” Now I take the time to check in with myself a few times each day and ask, "McKenna, how are you doing?". It's a way to show concern for myself, take control of my life, and make sure my precious days aren't slipping away from me. To the best of my ability, I try to respond in a loving way to myself. If I'm tired, I slow down and rest. If I'm frustrated, I take a break and walk around the block or meditate. If I'm overwhelmed, I make a list of things to do and cross them out when I accomplish each one.
6. Have an Afternoon Tea Time
Afternoons were the time of day when everything started to unravel. I was exhausted after work but then had to rev up for mom duties: transporting my boys to sports teams, helping with homework, and getting dinner on the table. Because I was beyond tired at this point, I'd make impulsive decisions such as finishing the carton of ice cream or zooming through the drive-thru for a hamburger and fries. I knew my afternoons had to change so I instituted a tea time just like the British. Now I slow down every afternoon around three o'clock and sip some tea, relaxing for about 15 minutes. I love this daily ritual so much and my entire family knows it's my precious time when I can't be disturbed.
7. Live for Today
This is the hardest goal for me to achieve because my mind is always wandering to the hurts of yesterday and the possible hardships of tomorrow. But now I catch myself and chase those thoughts away, choosing to live in the here and now. I can't change yesterday and I can't predict tomorrow, but I can enjoy today. Thinking about the past and the future is just a diversionary tactic that kept me from taking on new challenges. With my mind clear of those thoughts, I have more Time and inspiration for creative and intellectual endeavors.
8. Make a List of What Brings You Peace and Joy
For too many years, I used food as a reward when I had something I didn't want to do. I used it to accomplish any unenviable task whether it was filling out report cards, shampooing the carpets, or attending a boring meeting. Becoming conscious of this, I decided to stop and discover new ways to reward myself. I wrote down a list of 50 things that brought me peace and joy such as reading a novel, sitting in the hot tub, going for a walk in nature, writing in my journal, taking a bubble bath, listening to music, and gardening. I posted it at my desk, and whenever I wanted to fall back into my habit of rewarding myself with food, I did something on this list.
9. Aim for Deeper Relationships
One of my favorite quotes for leading a life of intention comes from the author, Wes Moore, who said, “Don't let people that don't matter much, matter much.” When I first heard him utter those words, they spoke directly to me in an accusing sort of way. I was so guilty of that. When I was leading a frantic life, it was weighted down with superficial relationships. I put way too much stock in what parents and teachers at my sons' school thought of me. I worried way too much that the neighbors didn't like me or that my work colleagues didn't respect my opinions. Other relationships—with my husband, kids, and close friends—got sacrificed because I was spreading myself too thin. Living a life of intention means giving time and attention to what matters most and who matters most. You let the rest fade into the background where it belongs.
Mitch Albom, the author of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” says we should “forgive everybody everything.” This includes ourselves. In my journey to leading a life of intention, I found this advice to be incredibly useful. Old hurts and grudges were taking up space in my brain and were eating away at my soul. I spent countless hours reflecting on my childhood with an emotionally absent mother. Finally, I realized it wasn't helping me; I wasn't becoming enlightened but only stuck. Thinking about the past created a toxic environment within my own body. Once I let go of those bad feelings, I felt lighter and freer and ready to live in the present.
© 2018 McKenna Meyers