Gaslight to Greenlight — How to Live Unapologetically

Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

People have asked me…

Why is personal agency and self advocacy so important to me? What was the origin? What’s the point?

For those with whom I’ve shared the story, it has felt familiar, especially for working moms.

When my kids were younger and work schedule onerous, I gradually and unwittingly fell into a trap, one that I felt I “knew better” about and “should have” avoided. I had bought into the impossible myth that if women are good enough, they can do it all (at the same time) — as though there are that many hours in the day.

The Gaslighting of American Women

There’s a prevalent narrative that women are steeped in from birth that they must meet the external needs of everyone and everything before seeing to their own, all while effortlessly looking like a model. The worst part is that they are then penalized for “letting themselves go,” even though that is a natural byproduct that comes from ignoring your own needs and desires. I’m sad to say that I also internalized this for a while, despite being raised by a strong mother to be a strong independent person.

I thought if I just worked a little harder and longer, slept a little less, and removed one more item of personal health + interest from my to-do list, I could take care of all the demands around me (from work, home life, extended family), and do it without even breaking a sweat. And, create picture perfect holiday and weekend memories to boot!

Wrong.

You see, the to-do list for the rest of the world will NEVER get done, not magically in time for you to get to anything on your list, anyway.

What actually happened was that I treated each day like a race to stuff as many “essential” tasks as possible (wake up, make breakfast for family + lunch for kids, drop kids to school, race to work, work as fast as possible, dash home, pick up kids, make dinner (tradeoff days w/ husband), scarf it down, clean up, homework, baths, bedtime stories (the best ritual ever BTW), deal with household and kid admin stuff + other people’s needs (like MIL birthday cards and such), catch up on more work, acknowledge (sort of) husband, sleep. Repeat.

Fun, eh? No.

People would ask about my interests and what I did for fun, and I’d think “what a dumb question.” I don’t even have time to exercise, get regular haircuts, or water the barren wasteland of my front yard, and I sure as hell don’t have time for “hobbies.”

As you might imagine, the deeper I sank into this pit of self-deprivation the more unhealthy, uncreative, and detached from myself and family/friends I became. It got to the point where my body and psyche rebelled from being ignored so long. I felt like crap all the time and was convinced I had an actual deeply rooted issue.

I looked to all the external “solutions” google could find to “fix” me: medical doctors, CBT, MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction classes — which are awesome BTW), yoga (JK — I’ve never done yoga, I’m more of a kickboxer), essential oils, tapping (click here if you’re like WTH is that), calming walks, TONS of books (Mindset by Dweck is amazing), internet gurus, etc. on getting your shit together.

Greenlighting Myself

I finally came to see that although many of the above were helpful, if I wanted to reconnect with my inner knowing and intuition, if I wanted to feel like less of a stranger in my own body, I’d have to actually respond to my own needs and wants, and that would start with relearning how to recognize them after years of deliberately (and eventually unconsciously) ignoring them. I needed to put myself high on my to-do list, and not ask anyone’s permission to do so.

I had to reprogram my mindset toward possibility, opportunity, and growth. And acknowledge my inherent value and worth in order to repair the damage.

I made tiny shifts in prioritizing my day, literally adding myself into my to-do list + calendar (starting with time to meditate, exercise, daydream, even 10 minutes a day, and eventually developing hobbies/interests — I hadn’t thought this was possible)!

As I strengthened this muscle, it got easier to build on these positive habits, and push other things down the list to the “might not get done” pile as needed.

I found that although others might be a little miffed at their new lower priority (and oh some people were!), the world continued to spin, and I was a happier and more pleasant person to be around for the inner circle in my life. Some stuff never even noticed that I stopped showing up and was easier than expected to drop.

My kids saw more joy and empowerment, and we enjoyed more ease in our home.

My husband and I saved money, drove old cars, and lived more leanly for a while, and this laid the groundwork for what would become such a tremendous gift in my life — the mid-career break.

This was the first break from work I’d taken since high school (aside from 6 weeks away after each child as born). Some thought I was nuts and ruining my career, some thought it was absurd (or worse, selfish!) to take time off to just do stuff I felt like doing. Some thought it was awesome and wanted tips.

I took about a year and a half off and did all the stuff on my to-do list that I could never seem to fit in before: Kondo decluttering (we had 7+9 year olds at the time and diapers in the closet!), landscaping the front and backyards (the pickaxe is so satisfying!), learning Spanish and guitar (being new and terrible at things builds character!), swimming and running regularly, making meals that weren’t mac n cheese for dinner, and generally slowing the hell down for a little while so I could hear myself think.

Toward the end, we even pulled the kids out of school for a semester and left the country for a while, road tripping in Mexico and exploring/backpacking through southern/eastern Europe. It was quite a silver lining that came from their school situation becoming so unbearable that we needed to make a change anyway, so why not make a big one. Incredible.

After all of this, I was rejuvenated and to my great surprise, highly motivated to get back to work — but this time with far more autonomy. I started a consulting business in my field (housing development) and have worked on a number of fascinating projects with terrific clients.

Like everyone else, it’s all about making the best choices we can to fit in all the things we want to accomplish in a day/month/year — something I’m doing a much better job of now.

With a renewed foundation based on self-regard and openness to possibility, I now choose carefully which tired old cultural “expectations” I internalize, making sure the things I allow onto my schedule will best serve my values (of acting with care and respect for myself, family, and friends, clients, projects, others in the broader community and the earth).

Lessons Learned and an Invitation

We are all entitled to love, acceptance, compassion, respect, forgiveness, and to live our most authentic lives, sharing our unique gifts with the world.

We alone have the power today to unequivocally grant these to ourselves.

Not everyone is going to like our choices, and that’s ok. When we look to others for permission or approval, we give away our power. When we choose to value ourselves, we reclaim our power and can find the grace to truly value others.

  • We each have a unique set of gifts, experiences, and perspectives that only we can share with the world.
  • We can learn to cut through the b.s. ingrained by our culture and fed by unhelpful mindsets and activate the tools already in our arsenal to reclaim our power.
  • Waiting for: permission, validation, acceptance, applause from others? Stop. These are for you to give yourself.
  • Want to try something new? Step 1 — Decide it’s important. Step 2 — Start today (even 10 minutes a day counts). Step 3 — Take comments from the peanut gallery with a grain of salt. Step 4 — Pivoting is natural; do so as needed.

Many of us (often women, but not always) have filled our calendars with people and things that aren’t nourishing to our well being, our inner circle, or our core values, yet we feel powerless to change this.

My purpose is to empower each of us to see that the beliefs and choices that keep us small and obedient can be unlearned, changed, and released.

When my fuel tank was empty, I had little of value to share with others (can’t pour from an empty cup). Paradoxically the more I nourish myself, the more I have to give.

For now, I’m pouring some of that energy into these projects (visit carahouser.com for more). I hope they resonate with you and serve to support you on your journey.

The Burning Question + Answer

Why step outside convention and the judgments and expectations of our culture and other people?

Why the hell not?

It’s your one life to lead, so do it authentically.

Draw on the positivity and support you’ve encountered and offer that light to others. It will grow with you. It will set the world ablaze.

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Cara Houser

Cara Houser

I help high impact women see their value, find their power, and get what they want in work + life.