I’ve spent the last 4 or so years of my life training to become a Naturopathic Nutritionist – in other words, someone who uses nutrition, herbs and lifestyle changes to support greater wellbeing.
Whilst I was doing this, I held down a 4 day a week job, tended a marriage, stayed connected to my family and friends and raised my baby. But I’m not saying this to brag. I’m also not looking for sympathy. I’m referencing it because in my relationship circles here in London, it’s a perfectly normal way to behave. People normally congratulate or celebrate you for having a life like this, even though it could be viewed by some as pretty extreme. When I look back, it seems foolish, but I was there doing it, motivated by a desire to look after my daughter, my husband, my family, my friends… and me I suppose. Somewhere long down that list.
Over these past four years, to be awarded my diploma, I’ve studied biomedicine, illnesses and diseases, read papers on the latest research into new drugs to treat us, understood how these drugs interact with supplements but most of all, I’ve seen clients. 200 hours of clients.
Some wanted to improve their appearance, their fitness, their general wellbeing; others were taking on cancer, infertility, diabetes, multiple sclerosis. They all at some point had reached the end of the list of solutions that they could imagine for themselves and somehow had landed on nutritional therapy as an option. For many, going through the process of spending an hour telling their story, was the first time they had been able to take the time to digest and consider it, and to feel heard by someone, even a relative stranger like me.
Over these 200 hours, patterns appeared. The clients I saw were either younger people, battling as hard as they could to keep their head above water in this big city, worrying about being successful at work to make rent, often far away from their family. Or they were women. These women stuck in my mind the most as they, without fail and without complaint, led these incredibly complicated lives where, for them, it truly was difficult to find the time to shop for food differently or take an hour or two each week to focus on themselves.
They came from varied backgrounds and lifestyle: some were older, their kids had already flown the nest; some were supporting their young families, a few were preparing or trying to start a family and some had chosen to be childfree altogether. The red thread was that they were all nearly single handedly running the show, with very little support and very little care for themselves, and slowly but surely it was making them unwell.
Poor attention to their own needs – the food they ate, the sleep they got, the rest they took, they exercise they did, the hobbies or passions they pursued – had become the norm, their way of coping with all the demands, their way of saving time. But as I heard their stories, it became really clear it was a false bargain. They were tired, they were run down and then they started to feel guilty. Guilty that they could no longer reach the high bar they had set themselves, that they had lost enthusiasm for their kids, their partner, and they were often annoyed with themselves that the iron will that had been seeing them through was starting to crumble. As if they would cope better if only they had better resolve or stronger self control.
The very first thing I always said was: “You are doing a wonderful job of managing. But now we need to try to stop coping as well. You need to give yourself permission to be looked after, by me and by the people around you”.
The process of deconstructing the routine that has helped you hold everything together can be a long one, a battle against your perceptions of how much you can ask for, how much you can advocate for your needs versus how comfortable (or not) you feel with reaching out to people and risking your just-about-holding-it-together system collapsing like a pack of cards.
Interestingly, I had to challenge my own perceptions of my role as a nutritionist and as someone who was determined to be holistic and naturopathic. This naturopathic slant on my understanding of health alters how I support people, meaning that I’d find myself casting a net out wider and taking on a greater responsibility for the overall picture of wellness than a straightforward nutritionist or dietician would. I found myself being asked to paper cracks with vitamin supplements (when rest was what was required), to support a client in operating to a crazy caffeine fueled schedule (when it meant they slept only 4 hours a night) or to effectively be complicit in disordered eating (rather than address why controlling food had become a clients only way to cope with their day to day).
So now, here I am, at the end of 4 years of clinical education and finding empathy, having been handed a mission that I didn’t expect to find. In a roundabout way, I found this gap and lack of support work for people like me – the women stretching themselves too thin, trying to juggle everything and never drop the ball.
To help you take your first footsteps on a more balanced path, I’m sharing the 5 things I decided to do to help me reframe what mattered to me and begin to challenge my wonder woman complex.
Decide what to own and what to drop
Be real. The answer cannot be “I can do it all”. Not only is that not a laudable goal, you’re also ruling out the possibility of deepening connections to other people. Being a solo queen is an isolating, perhaps lonely, role to hold. Over the past few years, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my mama tummy is here to stay, that my house will never be fully clean, that my hair will never be coiffed and that my husband and I just won’t have that much alone time. For now, these all have to be optional things. Ones I can’t manage to fit in with the compulsory things, like putting food on the table, keeping people clean and healthy, keeping connected to my family despite the mayhem. And then I had to give myself permission to not worry and not berate myself. If and when the time is right, I will pick up the ones that still matter to me.
Be clear about who is your priority
Hint – it has to be you first. I learned this the hard way more than a few times. The cycle of having just one more coffee, just one more meal that you know isn’t great for you, watching one more box set that’s keeping you from sleep, taking on one more assignment or doing one more favour is hard to break and it all adds up to you not having time to make sure you are looked after. Speaking from experience, everything else will just seem like fluff if you ever do truly do become unwell.
Ruthlessly support your health and mental well being
You must be your own advocate and become better connected to your own body and mind. So many of us see our bodies as the machine that acts on our mind’s commands and wishes, ignoring symptoms of hunger, tiredness, thirst and pain, effectively removing our chance to understand much more about what would make us healthier and happier, about what balance we need to strike and how we can flex our limits at legitimate times of pressure to make sure we can call on our reserves and be resilient when we need it. We can’t be always on.
Emotions are signposts. Valuable ones.
I’m an ex emotion hater. For the longest of times, emotions were useless to me. Pointless signals that made me feel bad and worry about my choices, complications that I didn’t have time for. Needless to say that after 4 years of studying how thoughts and feelings affect the chemical make-up of our bodies, I view them a little differently. Treat these messages from your self as precious and use them accordingly. These connections to your inner wisdom and intuition need respect and acknowledgement or they will just keep trying to reach you. Even worse, if you suppress them long term, they might become quieter and your inner compass will be lost
Lose anyone who isn’t a cheerleader for you
It’s fair to say that most people’s lives are complicated. It’s also right to say that relationships represent our greatest joys and frustrations.They are big, complicated, emotional things (wince – see previous point) that take a lot out of us. Many of my friends and many of the women I met are empathetic to the point of being like a sponge, ready to give and take until there are very few boundaries left. The result? A difficulty seeing in what’s working for you and what isn’t. A slow and gradual acceptance of relationships that aren’t balanced and take too big a part of your all too precious energy. If you don’t feel lifted up by a relationship and positive when you leave them, it’s time to reconsider.
For a wonder woman, I know just how hard it is to admit that old ways of working aren’t right, that maps for the future need to be redrawn, that the wheels may have come off the one woman road show. The clincher for me, as ever, has been my daughter. Acting as a mirror to me, she helps me see just how unstable and unsupportable my deals with myself have become. I’m fervently hoping she won’t ever need to unlearn the doctrine of ferocious self support. It’s up to me to show her a different way.