Are You Taking Yourself Out of Your Own Story?

One reason I'm calling my new book SOMEDAY is not a Day in the Week is because it’s sad to see how many people are working themselves to death, thinking they'll relax and enjoy themselves when things aren't so crazy at work. I’m not making that up. A 2015 Atlantic article reports that job-related stress is the #5 killer in the U.S, causing more deaths than Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

People promise to take better care of themselves when they're not so busy. What if that day never comes?

While on my Year by the Water, I had a crucible moment that demonstrated (rather dramatically) the consequences of putting everyone else first. Hope this story motivates you to put yourself back in your own story and do something this week that brings you joy.

My plan for the day was to drive California’s Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey to Morro Bay. However, work responsibilities came up that morning, so it was late afternoon before I hit the road. I didn’t think much about it until the sun went down and it got dark. And when I say dark, I mean no moon. no light.

If you've taken this spectacular drive, you know about its many hairpin turns. In the day, you can see what’s ahead and adapt accordingly. But it was pitch black which meant I couldn’t see beyond my headlights. I completely lost my equilibrium because I had no idea what was coming up next.

What made it worse was the road often narrowed to one lane because of construction to fix damage caused by recent landslides. The only thing between me and a thousand foot drop down to the rocks below was a rather flimsy looking guardrail.

A truck zoomed up behind me and flashed its brights. I did what I always did, what I’d been taught to do growing up in a small mountain valley. I looked for the next pull-out and pulled over to let the driver behind me go by.

The only problem? The pull-out was gravel. And shorter than anticipated. I braked and started sliding. I finally came to a stop a couple feet from the cliff’s edge.

I sat there and shook. The truck was long gone. It was just me, the road, and my realization that my default of putting others first had just about cost me my life.

Does any of this sound familiar? That was a rather extreme example of "selflessness," but on some level, is your default to put others’ needs before your own? At what cost?

If you’re a business owner, executive, parent or team leader, this may have become your norm.

Somewhere along the way, was it modeled for you that the meaning of life is to be found in service? There are hundreds of quotes perpetuating this belief that serving others is the right thing, the noble thing, to do.

For example, Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Yet serving others at the cost of ourselves is an extreme … and any extreme is unhealthy.

Self-sacrifice comes at a price. We lose our equilibrium and end up compromising our health and happiness. What's worse is that when we habitually take ourselves out of our own story, we teach the people around us we don’t matter, that what we want and need doesn’t count.

Is that what we want to teach? Is martyrdom the model we want to pass along?

A college counselor told me, “Sam, I don’t have kids, but I do have students. Many are away from home for the first time. They’re lonely, confused and overwhelmed. My heart goes out to them, so I’ve given some my home phone number so they can call if they’re having a tough time. Good idea in theory, not so good in practice. I spend many evenings on the phone mitigating one crisis afterhonoring another. My husband is starting to resent this and I can’t blame him. Plus, I’m getting burned out because I never get a chance to recharge.”

I told her, “Good for you for being there for your students. The question is, are you also being there for yourself? Think about the Law of Unintended Consequences. What we accept, we teach. What are you teaching by not honoring your health and by not having any boundaries around your time and access?”

“But I feel so sorry for these kids. They all have a story.”

“I understand. However, you’re thinking only of their story and not your own. Where are you in this story?”

“But I can’t just cut them off and turn my back on them.”

“I’m not suggesting you be selfish and think only of yourself. I'm suggesting you serve others and yourself. Create some boundaries with metrics. If your boundaries don’t have numbers in them, they’re not boundaries. Instead of being available to your students every single night, what is a fairer balance?”

Suffice it to say, we created a written policy around her “evening office hours” that she posted and handed to her students. They still have an option to contact her in case of an emergency, otherwise there's a step-by-step process for how they can schedue time with her on campus.

She contacted me later to say our conversation, and her new policy, taught her a valuable lesson. “I never realized how much I was devaluing myself by focusing exclusively on my students’ needs. I see now that my compassion for them was at the cost of compassion for myself. My husband thanks you, I thank you." She laughed, "Someday, my students may even thank you for having someone model for them that it’s not selfish to put ourselves in our own story, it’s smart.”

How about you? Are you running on empty? Burnout is a clear sign we’re not enforcing our boundaries. It’s a clear sign we are people-pleasing and putting everyone else first – and ourselves last.

The good news is, it’s not too late to change this default.

Next time you’re about to say yes when you want to say no – next time you’re about to give in and go along instead of speaking up for what’s important to you – next time you're about to compromise your health or safety with "No, you go ahead. You go first" .... STOP!

You matter. What you want and need counts. You can be responsible to others and to yourself. You can serve others and yourself.

Put yourself back in your own story. It’s not selfish. It’s smart.


What Do YOU Really Want?

Have you been responsible for so long, you habitually give up what you really want?

I was on a budget while traveling on my Year by the Water, so often elected to stay in back-of-the-property rooms instead of in the higher-priced waterfront rooms.

I was in Los Angeles to work with a client and opted to stay in Marina del Ray, about fifteen minutes from LAX. The hotel staff was so enamored with my adventure, they upgraded me to a suite on the harbor.

As the bellman ushered me into my room, I was met with a stunning sunset framed by palm trees and colorful bougainvillea on my balcony. I opened the sliding glass doors, walked out, threw my head back, received and reveled in the evening air and magnificent 180 degree view with pelicans doing majestic fly-byes.

A long-time friend, Glenna Salsbury. called in the midst of my reverie and revelry. She could tell from my voice how happy I was.

She asked, “What’s going on?” I explained how wonderful it was experiencing this room overlooking the marina.

She was puzzled, “You’re on your Year by the Water. Don’t you normally stay at places on the water?”

I explained about my budget. She paused and then said, “Wouldn’t you rather spend six months overlooking the water than twelve months overlooking the parking lot?”

Yes I would. Yes I would.

How about you? Do you habitually give up what makes you happy?

Have you been emotionally and financially frugal for so long, you no longer even ask for what would put the light on in your eyes?

Are you settling for parking lots when OCEANS are what you really want?

I understand the importance of being responsible, realistic and reasonable.

Yet many of us are doing this to a fault.

We have become so accustomed to giving up what we want, it has become our default.

Many of the people I interview for my SOMEDAY is Not a Day in the Week book tell me it's been so long since they've had the freedom or autonomy to do what they really want, they no longer know what that is.

How about you? Have you been putting everyone else first for so long, you've forgotten what it feels like to put yourself first - for even an hour or a day?

What would you do if you could play hooky for a day - if there were no repercussions and all your responsibilities were taken care of?

What do YOU really want? How can you start bringing more of that into your life?

Granted, as leaders, parents and partners, there are times we need to put what others want first; however there are also times when it’s appropriate to make an exception to our rule – or to revisit and update our rule.

Doing what we really want is a gift that keeps on giving.

I can hardly describe how happy it made me to wake up to water, to have breakfast next to water, to swim in water, to go for an energizing walk along water. It made my soul sing. It set up a happiness ripple effect that positively affected me, and everyone around me, for days.

I could have been in a dingy, dark room overlooking the six-lane highway or parking lot. I could have been in one of those sterile, hermetically-sealed high-rise hotels by the airport that sucks the soul right out of you.

Instead there I was, fully alive, surrounded by people kayaking, paddle-boarding, walking in the fresh air, smiling and enjoying every minute of being outside in nature. (Check out this 57 second video.)

Investing in what makes us happy isn’t indulgent, it’s inspiring.

Life isn’t supposed to be a drudge. We are meant to be happy.

I am not suggesting we can or should do what we want ALL the time. We continue to take care of people. We continue to be financially responsible.

Yet we also take care of ourselves. And that means doing what makes us happy every once in a while – without apology or guilt.

That means getting in, on or by water (or whatever lifts you up and makes your soul sing) instead of giving up what you really want and settling for the parking lot.

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Sam Horn, CEO of The Intrigue Agency and TEDx speaker, is on a mission to help people create a quality life-work that adds value for all involved. Her books have been featured in NY Times and on NPR, presented to NASA, YPO, National Geographic and Capital One. This is excerpted from her upcoming book SOMEDAY is Not a Day in the Week (St. Martins Press, Jan. 2019) Want Sam to speak to your group? Contact