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41: What if I treated myself the way I wanted to be treated?

When I turned 41, I gave myself permission to invest in myself. I knew that making changes in life was difficult in part because familiar contexts inspired familiar habits. Embracing a new foundation would require questioning how I lived, being willing to defamiliarize myself in order to rebuild a stronger sense of self. The first step was to completely shave my beard for the first time in twenty years, sparking what my hair stylist called the “Dansformation.” It seemed a fitting name. I shaved almost every day for the next year, a daily reminder to pay attention to myself.

I decided that I would run a marathon as a form of self-care: rather than forcing myself to run --especially as running was never an activity that I had pursued for pleasure-- I would approach the marathon as something I would allow myself to do. Each day I set forth, I would give myself permission to run, and would be gentle when I would need to walk. After a few months, I found that I could run between 40 and 60 miles each week. Running long distances is a solitary task, and doing so afforded me time to simply be present to myself without worrying about who was (or was not) trying to communicate with me. I learned how to listen to my body, how to anticipate when to slow down and when to speed up.  

I made my bed, each morning—it was a small thing the woman I had dated would do and I associated it with a small but foundational act of care that I could give myself.

I wanted to change my appearance to reflect the future I was creating rather than the past I left behind, and so purchased new clothes for the first time in five years. I began wearing slacks and dress shirts instead of jeans and concert t-shirts, dressing up for my own life, even though none of my part time jobs were particular. Each day, instead of shrugging into an old t-shirt, I carefully selected the outfit that I wanted to wear. Being intentional, even about this small thing, was an empowering confirmation of my sense of worth, every day. The new wardrobe also was useful as my running had begun to transform my body—I ended up losing over fifty pounds, dropping from an XL to M waist size. My scale showed numbers I hadn’t seen since I was in seventh grade.

Photos by Jason Smith, 2018

Photos by Jason Smith, 2018

I recreated my dwelling space: I cleaned out old furniture that felt junky, and invited a new sense of spaciousness instead of filling it again. I rearranged the furniture that I had, and began (with the help of several friends) refinishing the basement where I kept my television to make it a more inviting place. I filled this space with new life: I got plants, and, at the prompting of my child, a dog. I had never voluntarily had plants or animals to care for on my own prompting.

These decisions were guided by taking responsibility for caring for myself. I soon realized that caring for myself differed from feeling like I “deserved” this or that indulgence, decisions that were permissible but generally left me feeling empty. Caring for myself, staying focused on treating myself as I was worth, involved listening to my needs and taking responsibility to meet them myself. I prioritized valuing myself and my self-respect over almost everything else: I allowed relationships with people that were anchored in my self-doubts to slip completely into the past. I listened more to people around me, and listened more to myself. I found that trusting myself made me feel more confident. I stopped worrying about dating, deciding that a relationship would only distract me from the kind of growth that was long overdue. 

This was a difficult process. It was easy to miss the woman I had dated and to compare myself to my friends—many of who are successful academics. Rather than repressing my sadness, I allowed it to be present. I would grieve the things I never had, I would mourn the losses of things in the past, and I would continue to try to deepen my life in the present. Rather than writing to others, I spent more and more time journaling, listening to myself.

The most valuable lesson that I learned during 41 was that I needed to treat myself with more respect in terms of my schedule. Until this time, I treated anyone else’s request of my time as more important than the plans I had for myself. I realized that I could only be as valuable to others as I found value within myself, and that value was measured practically—it meant treating the hours of my day as incredibly valuable and precious, rather than as time to fill or to kill.