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I recently led a self-care retreat in Western North Carolina. At the end of the day, a participant came up to me and tearfully shared, "I had no idea how badly I needed that. Not just the connection with other women, but reconnecting with myself. My life has become an endless to-do list and I had forgotten what it's like to sink into my heart and remember I'm not alone with my struggles and fears. I'm realizing: we need each other."
I often work with professionals in the mental health field. We all agree that when women become disconnected from themselves, this untethering can manifest as depression or anxiety. It happens when we don't pay enough attention to emotional self-care (which I describe as the care and feeding of our hearts). We can easily forget who we are and feel separate from our hopes, dreams, and desires when we don't take regular time each day to pause, check in, and ask, "What do I need right now?"
Last month I was leading a work-life balance workshop for a group of 20 female leaders from across the United States. As I guided an exercise on self-care, one of the younger attendees raised her hand and said she just didn't get the concept of emotional self-care. She said she thought women were supposed to be strong, armored, and hold it together—no matter what.
The room became very quiet.
It was clear that this beautiful young woman had been taught that sharing her humanity was a liability. Her modus operandi for years had been to check her feelings at the door before she walked into work and to make sure that she didn't bother others with her personal issues. The silence in the room indicated that many of us could relate.
For women of all ages and life stages. Do you long to reconnect with who you are? Are you in the midst of a transition? Do you crave quiet reflection, rest, and renewal? Internationally recognized transformational coach Renée Peterson Trudeau...
This particular week has been unusually stressful for me. But after attending an entrepreneur meeting with peers, gathering with parents from our school community, and enjoying special time with a mentor over the weekend—I noticed I've morphed into a different person. Have my stressors vanished? No, but my mood has elevated and I gained some much-needed perspective simply by being with others who made me feel more connected—to myself, to my values, and to a larger community.
Research shows that women are particularly impacted by these types of connections. When we circle up for heartfelt dialogue, we release oxytocin (the cuddle hormone), our serotonin levels rise, and our stress hormones decrease. In fact, this data was one of the driving forces behind the creation of my Personal Renewal Groups for mothers 17 years ago. Today we have facilitators leading these sacred circles for women in more than 10 countries. Every month participants explore ways to reconnect with who they are.
Disconnection Breeds Loneliness
It's far too easy to disconnect.
Not only do our digital lives lure us into "empty connections" but we're isolating ourselves in all kinds of ways. A complaint I regularly hear from women when I lead stress management and resiliency workshops is, "I am so busy, I just don't have time for girlfriends anymore. Our lunches, coffees, and walks have become a thing of the past."
Brigham Young University conducted an influential meta-analysis of scientific literature on loneliness and found that social isolation increases your risk of death by an astounding 30%; some estimates place it as high as 60%.
To put it another way, loneliness might be a more significant health factor than obesity, smoking, exercise, or nutrition.
Many in the mental health world are saying loneliness may be the next big public health issue. Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions, defines loneliness as "being around other people but not having conversations that matter."
Connection to others and to ourselves is not just important, it's as essential as oxygen.
One of my mom's favorite songs in the 1970s was "I Am a Rock" by Simon & Garfunkel. The lyrics are particularly resonant today: I am a rock, I am an island. Growing up, I watched how often my mother would isolate herself from others and try to navigate the ups and downs of motherhood, parenting, and work alone. Today, my heart is filled with compassion for her. And I'm quite clear that this is not how I want to live.
The older I get, the more I wish to show up as "human" and vulnerable as possible in my interactions—both personal and professional. I believe this is our birthright and not only is it essential to overall health and well-being, it's critical to our growth and evolution.
Personal Reflection: An Exercise
Think back on a time when you felt overwhelmed, isolated, or sad. Then, invite in curiosity and compassion and reflect: What is my habitual response when hard times arise?Do I tend to isolate or push through the discomfort?What if I softened, opened, and reached out to a friend or colleague for a walk, phone call, or cup of tea?
This week I challenge you to sit with the following three questions as you explore the idea of connection. Then sidle up to a trusted friend and share your responses and invite them to do the same:
Which relationships, communities, or groups in my life really feed me (i.e., I feel happier and more connected after these encounters)?
Which relationships, communities, or groups in my life leave me feeling isolated or lonely (perhaps I am ready to let these go)?
What is one thing I could do to take my current relationships to a deeper level and initiate more conversations that matter?
I'm clear that in the second half of life, I want to be an advocate, a model, and a teacher for how we can all be more interconnected—both when we're struggling and when we're on top of the world. Connection and community are the medicine we most need right now.
Renée Peterson Trudeau is an internationally-recognized coach, speaker, and best-selling author. Passionate about supporting people in coming into balance through the art and science of self-care, her clients range from Fortune 500 companies, national conferences, and nonprofit organizations to world-renowned retreat centers. She has been facilitating transformational events for women for more than 25 years.