Episode 115: Putting Yourself First

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…

“You gotta be your best self to perform in your daily job, you may not be an Olympic champion but you have a lot you have to give every minute of every day, and you want as much energy at the end of the day as you do during the day when you’re working at your job.”

Sounds great…but taking care of yourself takes practice…

“Working out was like a luxury. It’s not anything brown, black women did in my neighborhood. No one talked about therapy, no one talked about getting massages.”

Coming up…two women, two different stories of how they came to put themselves first. And they don’t feel guilty about it. 

My first guest is Leigh Stringer. She lives in Washington DC, she’s in her forties, married with two children, and she works as a workplace strategist at an architecture firm. It’s client-driven work, so lots of deadlines.

AM-T: “Would you have described yourself as someone who got a lot of your identity from your job?” 

“Oh, 100%. I’m a type A northeasterner, lots of degrees from lots of universities, I am very into – or was – into title and position, didn’t always want to admit it, but it’s kind of true.”

During the financial crisis of 2008/2009 business got tight and everyone who could clung to their jobs. When the employment market improved, a lot of her colleagues moved on at pretty much the same time.

“I had to pick up the ball for lots of folks, doing four jobs for months on end, had to work 80, 90 hours a week, and after third month or so I hit a wall. I used to pride myself on my ability to hunker down and push through and deal with it, but it was clearly not my best work.”

She had prided herself on her work ethic. Now she was just exhausted.

“I could just feel my body not responding any more and not able to rally in the way it typically is. Wasn’t exercising, forget that.”

She was eating takeout for every meal, getting home at 10 o’clock and drinking wine to wind down. She rarely saw her husband or kids or anyone outside work.

Now she’d been at this firm for some years. So she had some leeway. And after that project finally wrapped up she went to her boss and said…

“I’m either gonna take a sabbatical or I’m gonna quit. You help me decide.”

He said, see you in three months.

Leigh says those three months changed her life. For one thing, she knew she never wanted to get so run down again. She walked a lot and spent time with her family, but she also began research on what became her second book, The Healthy Workplace. As part of her research she visited the Human Performance Institute in Florida. It was originally set up to train the world’s best athletes in how to attain peak performance – by maintaining their energy over a long period of time. These days it mostly focuses on applying those same techniques to busy executives. What it calls ‘corporate athletes.’

Leigh treated herself as if she were a CEO going to the Institute for a tune-up.

“They get you in there and they have you beforehand take a test and have your family  members, your friends and other people write about how you’re doing, how your energy levels are, if you have time for them, if you’re eating well, taking care of yourself and sleeping and all those kinds of things. And they play back the results while you’re there. And they take blood draws and things like that to really check your nutrition. And the point is you’ve got to be your best self to perform in your daily job, you may not be an Olympic champion but you have a lot you have to give every minute of every day, and you want as much energy at the end of the day as you do during the day when you’re working at your job. But it took someone shaking me and a lot of my friends, family and colleagues writing me and literally saying, she doesn’t have energy, she doesn’t have time for me, Mommy, kind of thing for me to turn around and say oh shoot, this self-care thing was real…it’s not about being selfish it’s the most selfless thing that I can do.”

Before, she’d only exercised to lose weight. Now she sees exercise as something that helps her get through the day and still have energy at the end of it. If she can, she goes for a 20-minute run in the morning.

But not everyone has that option.

Before I spoke to Leigh I’d posted on the show’s Facebook page. I’d said I wasn’t even sure I should cover this topic of self-care. I just didn’t know that I could bring anything new to the discussion. It’s so thoroughly covered in women’s media – all those articles urging us to juice and meditate and do yoga. But the listeners who responded said they would be interested, IF it felt real.

AM-T: “And one woman said my feeling is, ‘yes, this is covered a lot but it’s rarely covered in the context of real life.’ She said, ‘whenever I read about this or that person’s morning routine…I roll my eyes because I have young children, my husband gets up at the crack of dawn so I’m solely responsible for the morning routine…and I just can’t relate to these ideas. I mean what do you say to somebody like that? It can be tough depending on your schedule. Especially perhaps if you’re a single parent, to care for yourself after getting everyone else off to school.”

“Yeah, I mean that’s reality, and I think as women we’re particularly resistant to want to give ourselves even a minute’s break, we are servant leaders, we’re so good at taking care of others, it’s in our nature, a lot of us. It’s difficult to say, you know, it’s of more value for me right now instead of racing off to do this conference call or to race into work, to take a few minutes and go for a really short walk around the block, or mindfully sip coffee instead of racing off to the next thing…it’s a mindset and it’s very difficult to break that. Particularly when there are so many things we care about in the world and we want to spend our time doing better for others and improving other people’s lives but the truth is those mini breaks…those mental breaks, it helps with focus and productivity and all the science tells us it’s really better to do that…you’re a better, more productive person when you’re able to do that. So if there’s any cheerleading I can do, try it, give it a shot, squeeze it in when you can… and be an experiment. Actually experiment on yourself.”

A lot of people swear by meditation, including Leigh. She often meditates using one of those meditation apps . But she says any time you can take for yourself – preferably away from a screen – counts.

“The other thing I’ve started doing recently, and this is really old school is reading a book, that’s a physical book, it’s not a device…and that is really good, like I spent last weekend reading this fantastic book, it was fiction, I almost never read fiction. I was like, oh this is fantastic! This is almost as good as meditating!”

But what about those times when you’re really worked up about something in your work life or just your life? You know what you SHOULD do, according to the self-care gurus…chill out on a mat somewhere, or get on your bike, and let it all go.

AM-T: “One woman who contributed to the discussion on Facebook said I know all this in my head, but I get really angry about things and a yoga session or getaway weekend is useless... because I just can’t let go of these negative feelings. You know in theory what you should be doing but it can be tough to release negative feelings, they can follow you into your weekend.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve definitely been subject to that…I remember distinctly having this awesome massage at some spa place and I remember being angry at something that happened at work, someone who was trying to sabotage a project, and I spent several hours getting rubbed down and it had zero effect on me. It was pretty bad. I felt completely un-refreshed, although I’d been in a beautiful place.

One of my tricks lately has been to say, are you in control of the situation? Is this something you can do something about? If you can’t do something about it, let it go, let it run its course, it is what it is…maybe that’s part of being a mom or a wife…it’s definitely one of those things you just have to pull away from.

I will say one thing personally, I can’t remember if we talked about this, about a year after I’d written the Healthy Workplace my husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and he’s about 49, it’s early Parkinson’s, he’s doing well and it’s all great, but one of the biggest things to minimize the symptoms getting worse is to work out. And one of the biggest influence on his behavior is me…if people around you are working out you’re more likely to work out. I knew, number one, a disease like that puts things in perspective, but what I do impacts other people and my kids too, that really swayed my focus and putting myself first, because I have to take care of my family. And when my husband’s health, knock on wood won’t go downhill too much, but chances are it will and I’m gonna need to be there to support these young kids. If I don’t they have no one, or they have a backup system but I’m their most important person, caregiver, and I need to be 100 percent effective and have 100 percent energy in everything I do.”

And hearing her talk about that made me think again about single parents and how challenging it can be to do anything for yourself when everything is on you…

“And maybe that much more important because you are the foundation for your family, and if your health falls apart, if you start suffering from a chronic disease or you feel really bad, you’re not able to hold it together, and holding it together requires self-care.”

In a minute we meet someone who discovered that first hand.

You first met Theresa Thames a few episodes ago, in the show I did about being overweight at work. Theresa is a theologian, a longtime pastor, and now associate dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University.

Theresa grew up in the south, in Mississippi, and when she was a teenager she was sexually abused. And the way she dealt with that trauma wasn’t through talking about it to anyone – certainly not to a therapist.

 “What I had was food – and that’s what I turned to.”

She was an overweight teen and became an overweight adult. She says ideas about what’s now called self-care barely existed among the women she knew – they looked after other people, not themselves. And she says there’s a historic precedent for that.

“I grew up in public housing, my mom was a bus driver, my grandmother was a head-start teacher. Working out was like a luxury. It’s not anything brown, black women did in my neighborhood and you didn’t walk anywhere in Mississippi, you drove. No one talked about therapy, no one talked about getting massages, all those things felt self-indulgent but also we couldn’t afford them growing up. And self-care has never been part of the narrative for African American women in this country. When I think back to the history of black women form slavery, from 1619, when we came to this country, it was about labor. Our bodies are still products of labor. Whether we were having our own babies or having babies for the servitude of white bodies we’d have our babies and have to serve as wet nurses to other people’s babies. Even when I think about the black and brown women who clean houses before dawn in the morning, they’d have to leave their children before dawn in the morning to greet other people’s children with breakfast and love.”

In many ways the adult Theresa did break away from the past. She took a traditionally male job – pastor – something she’d been told her she’d never be able to do. As she said, therapy was not a thing growing up. But as a pastor in Washington DC, ministering to other people’s emotional needs, Theresa got herself a therapist and saw that person every single week. She says every pastor should have one. So she was looking after herself in some ways. But she was still severely overweight, self-conscious about it yet resistant to her parishioners’ not so subtle hints that she should slim down.

Then a lot of things happened at once. Her marriage failed, and her sister became ill and then died. She had a 9-year-old son, and Theresa decided to adopt him.

“I say when you adopt an older child they have handprints already on him, before you get them, so he’d gone through Hurricane Katrina where our family lost everything…so he knew that loss. This loss of his mother dying, and moving 1000 miles away from your family to live with your aunt, we had a great relationship but it was hard. I was dealing with a child dealing with deep grief in a brand new situation – DC is nothing like Mississippi, and getting accustomed to a different way of parenting…I had a different model of parenting than what he’d been used to, and we were starting all over.”

So she’s trying to raise this grieving child on her own, grieving the loss of her sister herself, depressed and often bingeing. She had prayer, she had therapy, but they weren’t enough. At one point she weighed 450 pounds. It was tough just to move about.

In the midst of all this she found out about the organization GirlTrek – some of you may know them – they get groups of black women walking in their neighborhoods all over the US, in honor of women like Harriet Tubman who helped people escape slavery, and other black women who marched for civil rights in more recent decades. One of the founders asked Theresa to read an opening prayer at a local walk in DC. She was happy to do the prayer…less happy to walk the walk. But…

 “I didn’t want to be a fraud. I didn’t want to believe in this organization and not make a commitment to walk and to take care of myself.”

AM-T: “And did you do the whole walk?”

“I did. I did the whole walk [laughs]. Yeah. It was hard.”

Partly because people kept wanting to talk to her while she walked – they’d loved her opening prayer and were eager to discuss it. But Theresa says she was still about 400 pounds at this point, and so unfit, could hardly breathe.

“So I didn’t want to talk. I felt highly irritated, but I’m in my official capacity, right, so I have to be nice and smile.”

But despite how difficult the walk was, despite the fangirls wanting to chat, that walk sparked something in her. She loved the GirlTrek mission and she wanted to continue. The organization encourages women to post selfies of themselves working out on social media – in part to combat all the negative images of black women that already exist on the internet.

Theresa began to walk regularly. Often in the dark, so people wouldn’t watch her, stare at her body or shout rude comments.

“The walking for me became therapeutic. It was my space, I wasn’t being a mom, I wasn’t being a pastor, I wasn’t listening to other people, it was my space…I joined the gym across from my office, and I sort of giggle because gym is not a friendly space for plus-size bodies, so I joined the Jewish community center with little old Jewish people and I’d go at a time when all the hard core gym bodies would be gone and that gym became my sanctuary. So I was able to go on the treadmill, work on my speed, and have this relationship of accountability where the front desk person said hello, and knew I was there…but there was no other conversation. But I kept my 30 minute commitment of walking, I would wear my GirlTrek shirts to the gym, and I took selfies, and tweeted them, and my body changed and the change of my body became the change of my eating habits and the change of my energy, so it led to this domino effect of, even now , now I’m at this weight, it’s not about the weight, it’s me taking care of myself. So when I walk I’m praying, I’m de-stressing, I’m taking inventory. It’s my stress thing, when I’m stressed I’m walking, I’m out and about.”

Thinking about all the weight she’s lost – about 200 pounds – and how this aspect of self-care has changed her life, it makes her sad and angry for the African-American women who have gone before her.

“They’re not here because they gave so much of their bodies, they had nothing to give tor themselves and they are in an early grave. And I feel it’s my role to change that and be a different example of living. And not just living, but thriving.”

Several years on, she’s doing well, and her son is too. He’s a young teenager now, and when she landed this job in Princeton, he quickly decided an old east coast college town was not for him. So he went back to Washington DC and goes to school there during the week. He stays with his godparents.

“We have a crazy, beautiful family, that…his godparents are Jewish and Vietnamese and I’m his African-American mom. And actually his school called on Friday and it was like, is this the Vietnamese mom or the black mom? The three of us show up to PTA and back to school night, you know. All three parents. And it’s a great way of loving and being community.”

And she’s keeping up with the walking. Even the running. She tries to work out every day of the week.

“I think I told you, I did the Brooklyn half-marathon, it was a big step for me. I’m gonna do another half-marathon. I’m thinking about maybe training for a marathon. I do it all the time, I do walking meetings, I love it.”

One last thing I wanted to bring up with Leigh Stringer was something one of my listeners raised in a Facebook post: the different ways men and women look at self-care.

AM-T: “You mentioned your husband, this brings me to men…because somebody else pointed out, ‘no one even calls it self-care for men. What do they call it, relaxing? And she said women make it sound so intentional and exhausting.’”

 “Yeah, I think they call it sitting on the couch watching the game. We have in our family called it out as, hey, I need some alone time, or some chill-out time…and that includes for my husband going to the baseball game with his buddies, or having dinner with a bunch of guys talking politics which is believe it or not relaxing for him. Not for me! We’ve gotten good at carving out what gives us pleasure and makes us happy. And maybe his having Parkinson’s has put a fine point on that…like well, if we’ve only got the next ten years before this thing could turn into something ugly, let’s take this next ten and really enjoy them and make sure we call out in our week things that are really important to us. And I’ve noticed I’ve started hanging out more with my girlfriends, I really enjoy that.”

Finally, in that same vein of men and women sometimes approaching life a little differently…

“It’s funny, I was talking to some friends of ours, the husband and the wife were going through a time my husband and I went through recently which is like argh, we’re in our upper forties and we need a change in our careers, we’re not really being challenged in our work. So my husband and the friend husband and another guy, their way of brainstorming about what’s next involved Cuban cigars and scotch and sitting around riffing, and the women, there were three women, this other woman and another and me, and we sat in a room and we had sticky notes and post-its and we had an agenda. This one woman was like, ‘this is my career move, and this is my agenda!’ She had it all organized, she had snacks…it was really funny. We’d moved to a specific office space and used that for a while to make it really official. I thought, this is so man versus woman right here, right now. But in both cases we came away feeling good and like we’d made progress, so we’ll call it a draw.”

Leigh Stringer. She’s the author of The Green Workplace and The Healthy Workplace. Thanks to her and Theresa Thames for being my guests on this show.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to all of you who contributed to that original Facebook discussion that got me thinking about this episode in the first place.

As usual I’d love to hear from you – you can find me on Twitter at Ashley Milne-Tyte – without the hyphen - or you can email me via the website.

Thanks to all of you who have supported the show with a donation, I really appreciate it. If you can’t afford to give – write a quick review on iTunes instead. It all adds up.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.