Having a Life of Your Own

Having a Life of Your Own

“Dear Dr. Hanson,
This fall, our youngest starts first grade, so all three kids will be in elementary school. I’m starting to think about Life After Children, or maybe just Life After Summer Vacation. It’s as chaotic as ever, but somehow the kids need me less. They’re more off on their own, my husband and I go to work each day, and we are all so busy. There is so much to do! I’m totally taken up with mom/worker/wife. When things are quiet for a minute I sometimes ask myself ‘Is this it? Is this the point?'”

It sounds like you are feeling the stresses of multiple commitments. All tug at you, so that you can never take care of any single one as much as you would like.

You seem to be serving many masters! Is it fair to ask, When do you serve yourself? When and how do being a mom or worker or wife serve you?

You speak of yourself in an interesting way: as a role (“mom/worker/wife”), defined by what you do, not what you are. From schlepping kids to doing laundry, getting to work and doing your job to keeping a relationship alive with your husband, it sounds like your attention and energy is taken up by external tasks.

And as it turns out, much of what you do is to serve the needs of others.

Thus it’s a double whammy: thinking of yourself as a do-er as well as the nature of your doing may draw you away from the core of your own being, your own interests and goals. It can be hard to experience having a life of your own.

That’s how most of us think of ourselves, not just moms or workers or wives, but it needn’t be that way.

We tend to do so that we can be: I’ll work so I can relax. Unfortunately, doingdoingdoing, the endless task orientation, can take over our lives and somehow become an end in itself. We become mainly an “accomplisher” of tasks, rather than an “enjoyer” of living.

It’s easy to see in those “other people” zipping along 101, with their tired, pinched faces and looks of concern. Maybe they’re driving a nice car, but they aren’t having much fun. Are they looking at us and seeing the same thing?

To be sure there is honor in doing, especially the self-sacrificing doing you have dedicated yourself toward. And one can experience being in the act of doing, like the mindfulness of monks as they break bread or work in their garden. Yet the demands of doing can be overwhelming, especially in Marin: the need for income and effort is intense, the typical life feels (and is) fragmented, and there is a high standard of competence and success that most try to meet.

So what can we do? Oops, wrong question: So what can we be?

  • Understand the seductions of “doing.” They are like the water in which the fish swims, who doesn’t know she is wet. Be vigilant and clear-eyed. Your own habits and the appreciation of others will draw you unwittingly into details and tasks again and again.
  • Ask others to do more for themselves. This can be hard if our self-worth is based in large part on what we do for others. Remind yourself that when you are looking back, toward the end of your lifespan, the measure of your life will be much more who you have been, for yourself and others, than what you have done. Try risking being more of a benign and loving presence, a humorous and supportive observer, and let others do more of the problem-solving and task-accomplishment. Notice your worth to others as who you are rather than as what you do.
  • Experiment with not-knowing. Our doing is based on our expectations and beliefs: what we think we know. Not-knowing is not stupidity. It is the scientist’s attitude of skepticism and reserved judgment. It is also the child’s attitude of wonder at a star or snail. See what your day is like when you try to assume nothing about it, and consider everything freshly, from the ground up. Maybe you don’t really know how your kids or husband or boss will react if you _______ (fill in the blank)! Getting a little distance betwen ourselves and what we “know” can be a tremendous relief.
  • Cultivate not-doing. Find a time each day, even a small one, when you sit quietly and simply be. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings without getting sucked into them. Let them come and go while you settle deeper and deeper into a deep, calm and simple awareness. With every breath release limited, task-oriented notions of yourself. Enjoy the sense of yourself as a fluid presence, a Be-ing, grounded in honesty, happiness and good will toward self and others. Try to carry this feeling with you throughout the day.

* * * * *

This could be a good time of change for you. You are in the middle of a small and great transition. The small one is the end of summer, and the large one is (Oh no!) mid-life. I will write more about transitions in another column. Here I will simply say that all transitions involve the breakdown of familiar structures and the creation of new ones. In that process there is much creative energy and opportunity for you have more of a life of your own.

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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