I used to care deeply about what people thought of me.
I smiled sweetly at folks I met, even if I didn’t feel much like smiling. I said “no problem” if a client asked me to reconfigure a piece of work, even if it really was a problem. I tried to honour commitments I made to colleagues, even if doing so put me under a lot of stress.
I wouldn’t publish on my blog unless I’d checked and edited a post about a million times. If I thought that you’d think what I’d written was shabby, I’d leave the thing in my drafts folder.
Most of what I wrote used to end up in my drafts folder.
Offline, I put a lot of time into thinking about what I looked like: what clothes I wore, if I was fat or not (all the better if I could keep my weight just so), and whether, on any day of the week, were you to meet me, you’d judge me as looking effortlessly pulled together.
You get the story.
I wanted people to like me.
I guess somewhere along the way, I’d figured that giving a shit about pretty much anything was the way to be successful and indeed happy.
Over the years, I got reasonable results from this strategy. But it wasn’t what you might call easeful.
I’d always be fretting that I could be doing things better. I’d often wonder inside if I was letting someone down. But I bumped along with it because it was so ingrained in my way of being.
Then, late last year, Lena, my mother-in-law got ill. Terminally so.
One day, my life was a big playing field comprised of whole weeks and months during which I could fret about goals and ambitions and how much of a shit I had to give to get them all achieved. The next day, my horizons closed in.
I was thrown into caring for my family.
I went from being at liberty to spend my days doing as much or as little work as and when I wanted, going to gym if and when I wanted, meeting folks for coffee if I fancied, to days when I had only a few precious hours to dedicate to anything that was “mine”.
At first, I panicked.
I imagined that, as far as work was concerned, maybe I could work late into the evenings. Or keep an eye on all my social media activity, while sitting at a hospital bed. Or just absent myself from time to time from my family in order to do things that were important to me.
That’s when I found myself asking:
What IS important to me?
What do I truly have the bandwidth to give a shit about right now?
The answer was, not much.
It turned out to be a bit of a no-brainer. I could either be present for my mother-in-law, my husband, and his family. Or not.
It was tricky, because in the beginning, I didn’t have a great relationship with her. Still, I decided that, this was no time to hedge on my feelings.
And, since I decided I wanted to be 100% present, I in turn decided I needed first to be present for me.
Which meant letting a whole lot of things drop.
I declined to tender for a large and lucrative coaching contract.
I apologised to my former Instagram pod that I wasn’t going to be able to continue to support their social media efforts.
I stopped posting to my Facebook page and indeed pretty much withdrew from social media.
I said no to a mega opportunity to do a piece of international training as part of a cadre of high achievers.
I relaxed my own rules about nutrition and exercise.
I begged the forgiveness of friends for being unavailable to attend their social functions.
In other words, I began to give less of a shit.
Before my mother-in-law got ill, I imagined that adopting this outlook to life would be painful. That it would feel debilitating. To my surprise, it was a huge relief.
Sadly, Lena passed away in September.
After some weeks of mourning, my time is becoming my own again. My horizons are once more opening back up to allow me to consider what I want from my life. Interestingly, they now look a whole lot different than before. A fundamental shift is that my give less of a shit mindset appears to have become ingrained.
I feel much more able to give more of a shit where it most mattered. And way less of a shit where it does not.
I’ve lost any residual need to please people.
Just the other day, I pushed back on a new client who tried to change the terms of engagement with me after they’d been verbally agreed.
“It’s a matter of integrity,” I said. “It’s those terms or not at all.”
It no longer mattered to me if my clarity upset them. If they did, then we were not meant to be working together.
I’ve also de-stressed all of my expectations about myself and how I turn up. The other day, I did the once unthinkable thing of wearing a very old evening dress to a black tie do and just made it work for me. Nobody noticed.
I’ve largely stayed off social media and here I am knocking out a personal essay on Medium.
Allowing myself not to overthink it and just put it out there.
So, while my mother-in-law’s illness and death has been harrowing, I’m grateful that through it I seem to have dropped a ton of balls I’d got used to juggling, without feeling any need to chase them down.
And, although I’m sad for my loss, I paradoxically also feel the happiest I have in years.