I jump when my phone rings as I sit in my doctor’s office waiting for my annual physical. I drop my head in embarrassment, avoiding the annoyed stares, as I put my phone on vibrate. I’ve gotten really good about turning my phone off when I’m attending to personal business, but today is one of those rare days that I forgot.
Since I am a single working woman who lives alone, for the last few years, I have made sure to schedule an annual physical. I want to detect any illness I should be aware of and prevent any illness I can dodge. Because I live alone, I realize that if something happens to me, I could be dead for a couple of days before anyone would become alarmed. Lying on the floor, curled up from a stroke or heart attack, is not the way I want to go out. The yearly doctor visits are part of the self-care routine I implemented after I quit using my time to take care of everyone’s personal priorities but my own.
For many years during my career, I was an executive coach and process specialist. Part of my charter was advising people on how to work more efficiently with less time and fewer resources available. Often, when I started working with them on efficiency, they would open up about being overburdened by personal commitments unrelated to work. Commonly, these people were stressed because, outside of work, others monopolized their time and energy without considering their schedule and needs. Many of these people didn’t know how to make time to attend to their personal desires. They didn’t know how to self-care.
Most of the folks I coached wanted someone to listen to them and consider their needs. I also noticed that women generally seemed more pressed for time than men. Women had so many obligations outside of work—children, parents, girlfriends, church, charities—that they seemed burned out and joyless. I met women who described dark lives that were full of burdens and duties. For them, the only sunshine was the innocence and hope their children showed. Even in the twenty-first century, with all our technology, education, and open dialogue on popular talk shows, many women still have friends or family who do not treat them considerately or compassionately. These women belong to all economic classes and all educational groups. I know exactly how they feel because, secretly, I used to be one of them.
I was raised to get an education and a good job, but self-care was something I had to learn on my own. By teaching others who prospered in their careers, and who by society’s standards were successful, I learned that many men and women grapple with issues related to caring for themselves both at and away from work. They allow others to dominate their time.
When I realized that I, too, had allowed other people to be in my driver’s seat, to control my spare time and creative energy, I knew I had to make a change. I felt I was wasting my life working to satisfy the emotional and intellectual needs of others. I also felt cheated since people were taking my time and ideas, but very few were reciprocating.
When I was slightly younger, I watched the TV shows Ally McBeal and Sex and the City. They made being a single professional woman appear to be fun, with lots of friends and lots of dating prospects. And, in fact, some single professional women actually do enjoy an active social life; however, there is a dark side to being single and professional. Although having no family may give you more discretionary income and more time than women with families, these attributes can also attract personal parasites—family and friends who want to burden you with their problems, including financial issues and relationship stresses. Thus, if you are this type of professional woman, with all your talent, energy, and education, you can morph into a perfect host for personal parasites without even knowing it.
I was like many single professional women who were being manipulated and “operated” by others who had a hidden agenda. But, I have learned to interrupt and excuse myself from friends who call and go on and on about their problems without ever asking about me. I have learned to say no to friends who come to me with the “next big thing” business scheme. I have learned not to wait for perfect coordination with friends to travel to exotic places. I have learned to say no to boyfriends who don’t follow through with what they promise. But, most of all, I have learned to turn off my phone when I need some quiet time or to focus on a personal priority.
When I realized that nothing people wanted to talk to me about was life threatening, no matter how urgent it seemed to them, it freed me up to say no or put them on hold. I found myself less stressed and with more free time to pursue my interests, including exercising and writing. Nothing comes without a price, however. I did lose some friends who wanted me to continue as a perpetual listener. I’m sure they went on to find a more willing host to attach to and neither of us is the worse for it.
I brought out of the shadows any behaviors that did not serve me well, so I could free up my time and energy to invest in my own dreams. And just like any other addict, as a personal parasite host, I’m still in recovery, but I manage to stay bug-free on most days.
– Lisa Blackwell