Updated: Jul 9
When I was 7 years old our mother abandoned our family home. She left 3 girls under the age of 13 alone with my father who promptly began to drown his sorrows, leaving us girls at home alone for sometimes days on end. Luckily our neighbour noticed that we were alone and regularly brought us food. And on the days that our father did come home, he brought homemade food from Grandma's house.
When our father sat us down to tell us that our mother wasn't coming home, that was pretty much all he said. There were no tears, no invitation to ask questions, no one asked how we felt; we were just given the facts and told to get on with it.
Back to school.
Be good girls.
No one ever mentioned it again.
I was so incredibly lucky to have my two older sisters to protect me and to take care of me, and they definitely sheltered me from the worst of the situation. The lesson I learned however, at such a young age, was that when things go wrong, don’t feel, don’t cry, just put on a happy face and pretend like everything is ok.
For the next 39 years I mastered the “happy face”.
I had many opportunities to practice my “happy face” skills during 22 years as an expatriate spouse of a workaholic hotelier. Recently I chose to leave the expatriate bubble and come back home to England. I also chose to leave the “happy face” behind.
That doesn’t mean I’m not happy anymore, quite the opposite; the “happy face” skills have served me well in my life. I am extremely good at finding the bright side of any situation; the silver lining; the rose amongst the thorns. However, for those 39 years my focus has been on making sure everyone else was happy; my family, my husband, my children, my friends, my community.
My life is not about making others feel happy anymore, it’s about finding out what makes me happy and doing that, which makes for a much more authentic happiness.
Not at all, because there is a magical ripple effect that occurs; others sense the authenticity in your joy and are inspired to find it within themselves.
I first had to give myself permission to stop doing things the way I had always done them, inviting myself to do a little experiment with me.
It wasn’t easy, I can tell you; old patterns die hard.
As I set the intention to observe my life, without judgement; pay attention to my emotions and what triggered them; notice the patterns that had become so familiar - so familiar that I had forgotten that I could actually pick and choose those patterns; choose to hold on to the ones that serve me and choose to let go of those that don’t.
What I noticed more than anything was my need to control my immediate environment. I had no interest in controlling other people and I was certainly open to change, but I did need to make sure I was prepared for anything, especially emotional pain. I was constantly on high alert, watching and waiting for something to go wrong so I could immediately do what I do best; put on my “happy face” and just get on with making things right again. That was my modus operandi.
Then came a series of “what if” questions.
What if I didn’t control my immediate environment?
What if I didn’t try to be prepared for anything?
What if I didn’t watch and wait on high alert?
What if, when something did go wrong, I didn’t put on a “happy face”?
What if I gave myself permission to actually fall apart?
That is when I started to really feel stress. It was everywhere; in my body, in my mind, in my interactions. And yet I insisted on inviting the stress in and allowing it to flow through me.
Not fighting it.
Or trying to fix it.
Or hide it.
Or pretend it wasn’t there.
My stress got so bad that I actually went to the doctor with all kinds of physical symptoms (I never go to the doctor!)
I couldn’t focus on my work.
I couldn’t be bothered with household duties.
I slept all night long, got up to see the children off to school and then went back to bed and slept some more.
I did only the bare necessities to care for my teenaged boys; I fed them, I did their laundry and then I rested.
Or watched stupid television (you know the kind that you wonder who on earth ever watches … well now we know!)
It took about a month before I started to feel better. I slowly began to feel like walking on the beach; doing a bit of yoga and meditation; writing in my journal; doing some painting; anything that made me feel happy from the inside out.
"For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn't understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
My shell has cracked and I know things have changed. But just like the radicle (the first part of the seedling to emerge) I am in no rush to grow. It will happen when and how and in which direction it is meant to. The seedling simply looks toward the sun and I, in my radical self care mode, look towards that which brings me joy and love.
By the way, during my month long falling apart no one ever went hungry, the house didn’t crumble to the ground, my friends and family didn’t suffer in any way, and my boys learned, at such a young age, that when things go wrong, it’s ok to feel, it’s ok to cry and it’s even ok to fall apart because that is where we find our “greatest expression”, and yes, everything will be ok.