Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Putting Myself First On My To-Do List

My matcha tea was getting lukewarm. I could tell by the almost invisible steam wafting from my coffee cup. Having an intense and long conversation with one of my girlfriends meant neglecting my drink. Her words carried the weight of her heart while mine broke as I listened to her.

She was the fifth girlfriend this month who unloaded her heart's burdens in an apologetic tone as if she wasn't allowed to have them. Please don't apologize, I told her.

I noticed a common theme in my conversations with my girlfriends via phone, email and text. We've expended our energy taking care of our people but failed to place ourselves as top priority. It reminds me of Michelle Obama's quote in my passion planner: We need to do a better job putting ourselves higher on our own "to-do" list.

The issues I've heard from my girlfriends this month ranged from a husband's infidelity to a baby's stillbirth; from a child's diagnosis of autism to a confusing breakup; from an elderly parent's death to an impending loss of income. Some have lost their way feeling disoriented in unfamiliar territory while others experienced debilitating grief incapable of feeling anything but anger, depression or emptiness. I've quietly listened while these lovely women cried about the hollowness inside of them or the exhaustion of waking up with anxiety every day.

During a lull in conversation I've asked them one question: What do you do for you that makes YOU happy?

Silence...more silence.

Sadly, every answer they gave me included someone else.

I love watching movies with my husband.
It makes me happy when my kids and I go shopping.
I feel content when I take my parents out to dinner.
It brings me so much joy when the kids and I people watch at Disneyland.

I wasn't surprised. As women we've been programmed to sacrifice ourselves for our tribe at the expense of our own happiness. I'm the oldest daughter in a Filipino family which meant executing the only three duties expected of me: caring for my younger siblings, obeying my parents without question and never talking back to my elders. Eeasy peasy, amirite?

The problem with this was taking care of my younger siblings meant it interrupted my reading and crashed into my bliss. From the moment I could read my face was always half obscured by a book and I was immediately catapulted into its story. I was oblivious to whatever crap my younger brother and sister got into, ultimately resulting in my punishment for neglecting them. Obeying my parents without question meant I couldn't speak up about the unfairness of taking care of two siblings who were clearly beyond my control. To my old school Filipino parents, speaking up meant talking back and talking back was a sign of disrespect. As you can imagine I was in constant trouble.

It's not only Filipinas but women in general have been forced to drink the Kool-aid of sacrifice and silence. We've been led to believe that putting our needs last was praiseworthy and pursuing our happiness was selfish. As in, Hey Mom and Dad, I want to be a photojournalist because documenting real life brings me fulfillment. To which they replied, Ay naku (Oh my gosh in tagalog), stop that nonsense. You need to go into the medical field so you can make money and take care of your family.

To be fair my parents experienced the atrocities and trauma of World War II. While I understood their intentions I knew that trying to convince them otherwise was futile. Once I accepted this I began the process of undoing the programming in my head by beginning to put myself first.

This isn't just slapping a hashtag in front of the words self-love and self-care on an Instagram-worthy photo for my followers to scroll through. Putting myself first means saying no to obligations that waste my time. You know, those times when an acquaintance asks you for a favor like Hi, can you photograph this event we're having for a good cause? It might be a wonderful cause but if I know my yes will only deplete me of energy then I've learned it's okay to decline.

There was a time when my close friends nicknamed me Superwoman. My chest used to swell with pride thinking yeah, I can DO everything through my exhaustion! I was managing three teenagers (let's be real, with teenagers you manage them not raise them), working three jobs, taking three classes at a junior college, hanging out with my friends, working out, volunteering at church, going to weekly family functions, etc.

As time went on I became secretly unhappy, bitter and angry. I hid it because Superwoman doesn't experience negative emotions. That's what I've noticed with my girlfriends who've confided in me recently. I hear the guilt in one's voice when she speaks about her child's recent diagnosis with a social condition. As if it was her fault. She said she felt safe telling me about it since I've experienced it with my own. My heart ached for her when she didn't buy my words of reassurance that her best was good enough for her child.

There are a handful of my closest friends who are internally suffering the ravaging effects of miscarriages. On social media they post beautiful pictures of their smiling selves but they tell me how completely broken they are inside. I can only express my sorrow for their pain, letting them know it's okay to be hurting and pissed the eff off at the same time.

When my girlfriend's self-esteem plummeted after her husband's infidelity she was tortured with thoughts about her aging, her weight, her looks. As I quietly listened to her make excuses for him she owned the infidelity as if she forced her husband to cheat with another woman. I grabbed her wrist to interrupt her. 

My friend's life orbited around this husband so much that when I asked her what she did for herself that made her happy she blinked at me as if I spoke a foreign language. When she slowly listed what her happiness consisted of everything included her husband or kids. 

Ladies, it's time to stop feeling guilty for longing to be number one. We need to stop wasting time owning someone else's problems when we're only responsible for our own. We don't have to stuff our bras with blame for everything that goes horribly wrong in our lives. 

I don't have the answers to my friends' issues and I accept that I can't fix them. The only nugget of truth I can give is to seek your happiness with only you in mind and give yourself permission to embrace it. 

It's going to look different for everyone. 

My sister books monthly massages for herself knowing it makes her happy after working with patients in her physical therapy assistant job.

I make it a point to work every Friday at my favorite coffee shop for a couple of hours and treat myself to a matcha latte with almond milk and a vegan donut. That cup and donut holds much happiness extending praise to myself for kicking butt during the work week.

I've learned not to wait for anyone to shower me with praise or affirmation. My daily mantra: get it girl, you got this! Making yourself top priority will feel strange at first. It will take serious commitment to deconstruct the beliefs you've been ingrained with.

In the beginning you'll feel unrooted from the familiar landscape of saying yes to everyone but yourself. You'll feel guilty because people will project it on you when they start noticing your happiness. Don't lose your balls, this is the time when you dig in your heels and say, No! Me, me first!

I assure you, create this habit and you'll feel fortified enough to face whoever needs your time, attention and care. You'll react less out of anger and more out of love. Typically, the first symptom that shows up when I've given all I've got is the snappiness toward others. When my dude lets me know I've hit my snap threshold I know to remove myself from his presence and do what makes ME happy.

See...more happy, less snappy.

Your brokenness and pain won't miraculously disappear. Your child's social condition will have it's good days and bad days. You'll feel unattractive and bloated on Monday, utterly fabulous on Tuesday. But once you begin treating yourself the way you deserve I guarantee it will take the edge off all the negativity. YOU matter. 

To all my sister friends who are feeling imperfect and inadequate, go! Go get you some joy without guilt or apologies! You're number one today for 30 minutes, an hour, half a day or all day. You owe it to yourself and I promise you it will be okay. 

I'll leave you with words from one of the most encouraging woman I follow on social media. You're welcome!