Five minutes into our first session together, I could hear tears in her voice. Whenever I work with a new client I ask them to identify five goals they'd like to accomplish in our work together, and the first one she came up with was: "Putting myself first without feeling guilty".
"I hurt myself so much with this, it's toxic," she told me, her voice catching. "I never say no and now it's caught up with me. It's so hard for me, but I need to start prioritizing things that are important to me, instead of what's important to everyone else."
Her voice even more emotional, she said: "I can't even begin to describe to you HOW MUCH I long for time alone, I need it so badly and never get it. There are always things to do and people around, and I'm going to just lose it one of these days."
I hear this all the time from clients; we're living in an epidemic of overwhelm with to-do lists that will eat you for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you let them.
Time alone is essential to our sanity.
You need time alone to rest, reflect, plan, dream, breathe. If you don't get enough - and the amount differs for every person - you'll be cranky, irritable, stressed and even depressed. Also, research shows that our spiritual lives are fundamental to optimal mental, physical and emotional health. How can you connect deeply with God if you're never alone and quiet?
Ironically, even though others may need you "all the time", you'd be significantly more pleasant and useful to them if you've had some precious and necessary down time.
So here are some tips for staking out that desperately needed alone-zone:
1) Declare social bankruptcy
The first time I used this term was in conversation with my friend and colleague, the amazing Gen-Y Blogger and former Google Manager, Jenny Blake. We were talking about how totally out-of-control our schedules and commitments had gotten, and needed to get things under control quickly before we self-destructed or buried ourselves in an avalanche of cupcakes (both Jenny and I have issues with cupcakes, i.e. we like them a little too much).
I can't recall if Jenny or I first used the term "social bankruptcy", but the most important thing is that IT WORKS. Here's how you do it:
Simply decide to officially declare social bankruptcy. The next request you get for your time - whether it's a friend, an acquaintance, or someone needing you to help them out or inviting you to an event - you simply say "I'm so sorry, but things have gotten so bad that I've declared social bankruptcy until further notice".
Most people will laugh, as it's kind of a silly concept. Most people can relate (and would love to imitate you once they've heard it!). I've found that they also get that it's not about them - it's about you needing to do something radical to reclaim your sanity and life.
This doesn't mean you don't see anyone at all. You choose carefully who you absolutely have to make time for during this "social crisis", but that's it.
I shared this concept with the client I described above, and she implemented it immediately. It was too late to rescue the current month, but she declared bankruptcy for the next month and had a wonderful time. She finally had time to herself, went on a much-needed romantic weekend with her significant other, and spent deep quality time with her closest and dearest family members. Just like that.
2) Use a (valid) medical excuse
Do you have any health challenges or potential risks? Examples could include unexplained fatigue, frequent colds, allergies, rashes such as eczema; the list is long (and it goes without saying that you're seeking proper medical treatment or care for whatever is going on).
Here's the deal: stress is known to exacerbate or even trigger a huge range of medical conditions. If this applies to you in any way, you can legitimately play this card as a reason why you absolutely need some downtime.
Another client of mine had a sister who'd developed a devastating autoimmune disorder, and worried that her busy lifestyle might trigger something similar in her own body. There was a real risk of that, so I encouraged her to remind those close to her who were making her feel "selfish" for needing quiet time on her own. (I believe my exact words were "Milk it!")
3) Build alone-time into a necessary health-related behaviour
Again, few people will deny someone the basic right to protect their health. "Alone-time" might seem selfish, but needing to exercise to lose weight or improve cardiovascular health (e.g. "in order to live to see your grandchildren") might be more easily accepted.
Create a daily ritual around solo exercise, such as going for a walk every morning like I do or hiding in the basement and using the exercise bike that's gathered dust for years. I get my best thinking and rejuvenation from my walks and don't miss a day.
4) Steal it when no one's looking
Who said anyone needs to know? Take a look at your schedule: are there any opportunities that jump out? If you usually go grocery shopping every Sunday night, you could stop in a cafe on the way there for 15 minutes and linger over coffee and something delicious?
Could you slip outside during your lunch break and treat yourself to a lovely solitary lunch, or enjoy just relaxing on a park bench?
Get creative with this, it might mean sneaking a good book in with you when you're cleaning the bathroom - shut the door, sit on the floor, rest your back against the wall and take a reading break halfway through!
The more alone-time you get, the happier you'll be and people may even start to comment on it. If they do, be sure to tell them the secret has been getting more downtime - that way you can remind them how much they appreciated the benefits, the next time that you need it!
Have you found ways to get time alone that might work for others? Or would you like to share your challenges in this area with me? Please comment below, I'd love to hear about it.
For more tips on how to create more balance, happiness and health in your life, see my book Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You (www.LiveALifeYouLoveBook.com)
If you'd like me to personally coach you past your challenges and obstacles and into a life you'll absolutely love, you'll find more information at Live A Life You Love Coaching .