Susan Merrill had the perfect life on the outside – intact, midwest family growing up, straight-A student, married Mr. Wonderful right out of college, and a perfect job.
But she was depressed and anxious.
“My awakening started when I had my son,” she says. “I started to realize that here was this human being I brought into the world and in so many ways, I had been faking my life. I wasn’t that in love with my husband, I didn’t really like my job, but I was being what the American dream is – good job with benefits, marriage, buying a home in California – yet it was all kind of false.
“It was the love for my son that made me realize I didn’t want to pretend any more. I wanted a more authentic life. I had no idea what that meant, but I knew at some level I needed to learn new skills and figure things out in a new and different way.”
So Susan started reading books, going to therapy and she learned massage. She was looking for a more authentic way to live. It was through that process of self-inquiry that her marriage fell apart.
“It was hard,” she says. “I still cared about him, he’s the father of my son, and we’re friends now – but I was sad for the loss of that dream.”
Susan was single for 8 years, worked two jobs, and eventually got re-married and returned to graduate school to become a psychotherapist.
“As I built my self-confidence and trusted myself, I trusted that I knew myself and that I could accomplish what I put my mind to. I thought about all of the ways I had suffered in my early years trying to be perfect – but when I got divorced, I realized I didn’t need to be perfect and I could figure out what I wanted.
I was the perfect wife
“Before, I tried to be the perfect wife by not arguing, not speaking up, and holding back. I would go along with whatever he wanted to keep the peace – especially since I came out of a childhood with an angry father. Internally, I felt like a Stepford wife because I felt it was my job to keep everything calm and peaceful no matter what.
“But trying to be perfect made me really depressed and I felt super stuck. I didn’t know which way to turn.
“Even though I tried, it’s really hard to hide depression. I would go to my hairdresser and cry through the hour. At work I’d sometimes be angry and irritable. I would isolate more and stop doing things I used to like to do. That’s when I started seeing a therapist.
“My siblings and I were raised to keep our problems to ourselves and not talk about it. But all of a sudden when I got a divorce, I was faced with asking myself what I wanted, what was important to me, and how I wanted to raise my son.
“For a lot of us, those realizations don’t happen as light bulb moments – it’s more of a growing awareness of discontent. My therapist become my new role model – to be in a relationship with someone who really listens and tries to understand. It was an extremely powerful experience, and that was something I had never had.
“Over several years, there was a gradual dawning in me that I could have a relationship where I’m really listened to. And for me, the process of connecting to myself is one that never ends, so I’m still on this journey. Life keeps throwing curve balls, things keep changing, I’m getting older, and the world has a way of trying to unbalance us, so staying connected is a life long process.”
How to connect with yourself
- Sit quietly, close your eyes, and breathe.
- Ask yourself, “who is the inner self I’m talking to?” We all have a part of ourselves that’s wise, caring and kind because that’s our nature. You can access this voice by getting still and breathing.
- When you get quiet and connect with yourself, you may be drawn to a spiritual path – it might be a bible study or a meditation practice – whatever speaks to you.
Susan says, “You have to slow down. We find all sorts of reasons to stay busy, but to know yourself you have to slow down. There is no-one who can tell you who you are and who you should be. For me, it makes sense to spend quality time making ourselves a priority. If we’re so busy filling our lives with Facebook, errands and our kids’ activities, we’ll get more of what we’ve had, which is a distracted, frenzied life.
“I’m not saying you have to sit for 24 hours with your legs folded. I can barely do it for 5 minutes some days. Some days just sitting at the stop light is a good place to connect with yourself. What else are you gong to do – fiddle with radio dial? Check email?
“Every path starts with the first step.
Common ways we disconnect with ourselves
“The most common way we disconnect from ourselves is through our negative thoughts,” Susan says. “There are books on cognitive behavior therapy that help us to see how thoughts affect our behaviors. So one big piece is to become aware of our negative and critical thoughts. For instance, is it true that I’m a loser, or I’m stupid? One day my brother Dave and I started paying attention to all of our negative self-talk and we got the giggles talking about just how many negative thoughts we have. So ask yourself when you started to believe this stuff, and how you feel when you think this way.
“It’s very disconnecting. If I have the thought that I’m stupid, then why would I want to sit and be with myself? Instead, I’ll want to distract myself by cleaning the refrigerator or shopping.
“There’s a difference between having a negative thought that’s not true and makes you feel bad, such as I’m stupid or I’m a loser. But say your daughter is leaving for college. Feeling sad is a valid feeling – the sense of loss, the transition from hands-on parenting to a changing role. Transitions are really impactful and it’s completely natural to feel sadness. You can be both happy for her and sad for you at the same time. That’s very different from labeling yourself in negative ways.
“It’s really important to understand the distinction between natural and healthy emotions, versus negative self-labeling thoughts. If you try to suppress your natural emotions and thoughts, you bring on anxiety and depression because you’re suppressing a natural part of yourself – that’s what happened to me when I was trying to be perfect.
“If you’re constantly telling yourself you’re wrong to feel a certain way, or you’re labeling yourself in other negative ways, you will wind up anxious and depressed. So it’s good to acknowledge and embrace your humanness. We all have a wide range of emotions and even the so called negative emotions have their place. Here are a few examples:
- Love and joy move us closer to people.
- Anger helps us set boundaries.
- Fear helps us to fight, flight, or freeze.
“These emotions give us really important information about what we should be doing in our lives. You won’t be aware of your feelings unless you spend time with yourself in quiet.”
How Susan relates to the world now
- I feel more freedom to respond in an authentic way.
- I have more self assurance.
- I am more available to myself and because of that, I’m also more available to others.
- I am overall happier. It’s not like my life is perfect and every day is great. I certainly still have self doubt but it’s so much less than it was before and life is so much better.
- I’m more supported in my marriage I’m more able to give support.
If you’re feeling anxious, sad, unfulfilled, or stuck in your life, it’s possible you have lost an important connection – your connection to your Self. Rebuilding this connection takes a little effort, but the benefits are worth it. As you move away from disconnection and into rediscovery of Self, you will begin to recognize the emotional patterns that hold you back, learn to transform your negative thoughts into supportive ones, and start to gain Self-trust and Self-awareness. Check out Susan’s new book, Reconnecting to Self – How to Create a Better Relationship with….YOU!