We hear it all the time - from our doctors, therapists, personal trainers, even in pretty quotes on Instagram...
"You have to take time to take care of yourself."
But do we really?
As a millennial, I entered the job force at a time when the country was emerging from the worst recession in history. I was fortunate enough to find a full-time job before I had even graduated college. So I told myself that I was young; it wasn't that important right then. Taking time for myself? No way, I needed to work hard, dig in my heels, and make a name for myself.
My first job out of college was working for a public accounting CPA firm, where they constantly threw around phrases like "subject matter expertise." We had career tracks that we were supposed to be on, with promotion schedules. I worked with people who were breaking records by making partner in their thirties while raising toddlers.
Take time to care of myself? No, I needed to take time to make a name for myself.
Over the years, I really came into my own stride. I found a company that I truly enjoyed working for, a small division of a large corporation. It felt wonderful. I felt truly content. I had a great work-life balance. Until I didn't...
Within the span of one week, all hell broke loose as the company underwent a series of large changes one right after the other, including the finalization of a merger, a migration to a new accounting system, and the loss of several of our most valued and experienced employees. I was promoted and catapulted into a whole new level of responsibility...and stress.
I went from taking daily walks or going to the gym on my lunch break to working through lunches and having my coworkers bring me food out of sheer concern. I was pulling 12+ hours every day trying to learn everything my old boss was responsible for while attending every meeting imaginable regarding our new system. It was hell to say the least. I barely had time to get everything done, let alone learn how to get everything done.
That period of struggle, confusion, mistakes, blame, and frustration was the worst period I had gone through in a long time. I didn't feel like myself. I felt bitter, angry, exhausted, and frankly like I wanted to quit. But I kept telling myself that after we achieved a certain result, things would get better. But they never really did. Problems continued to arise and compound on themselves. Then came my breaking point.
One day I learned that my blood pressure was high while at a doctor's visit and they had to switch my prescription out of precaution. I came home and cried, no balled. High blood pressure was something that ran in my family, and a key contributor to my mother's early passing. Strange as it may sound, it was my biggest fear realized. I had spent my whole life believing I would break the generational curse just because I was me and I would learn from others' mistakes, do better, and be better.
But I did not take my whole health seriously. I allowed myself to become stressed. I allowed myself to put work first - to care about what my coworkers and employers thought of me. Because I was young and still impervious, or so I thought.
I was still in my twenties. And yet, after four months of hell at work, thinking that it would eventually get easier, I finally learned a harsh reality. It would never get easier because they had every intention of wringing as much production out of me as they could. And I had foolishly bought into the idea that I needed them to respect me and the best way to do that was to work hard and be available at all times. Yet, I still did not have their respect...in fact, I had just one more worry to add to my plate - my health.
I realized then that I would never give that much of myself again to a job unless that job was truly my passion. I realized that I needed to take time for myself. I needed to learn to say no to being available. I needed to learn to take regular breaks, not just a lunch break. I needed to step away from my computer, put my phone on silent, and unplug. I began to make small changes to the way I lived. I started to practice and truly see the worth of mindfulness and meditation. I paid more attention to any tension in my body. I became mindful of my thoughts. I did a lot of self reflection.
I had always been good about exercising, but I had made a bad habit of ignoring my mental and emotional health. But the truth is, mental health or lack thereof, contributes to our overall physical health. If we allow others to put us in a place of distress, we give them power over our health and wellness. Bleeding myself dry for a paycheck and a "good job" was no longer going to cut it.
Corporate America taught me something then. I would never again sacrifice my whole health for a "good report card." I would never allow the fear of ageism or racism to cause me to put my self-care on the back burner. How can I give my best if I am not even at my best? How, logically, could I even contribute and be an active participant in meetings if my mind, body, and soul were exhausted? The best lesson Corporate America taught me was to put myself first, take care of myself first, and love myself first.
Your job is replaceable (trust!) but your life is not.