01.07.2012 Personal Growth

Caring for You

Caring for others is only possible if you care for yourself first. Story by Rosamund Burton

Like so many people, especially women, Cheryl Richardson has spent much of her life taking care of others. She was the oldest of seven children, and from a young age she helped out.

"I remember changing diapers when I was five years old. So I really learnt very early on to be a good little helper and a good little girl. And what we learn very early on in life often dictates the way in which we live," this vibrant 52 year old explains to me on Skype from her home in Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, Michael and their cat.

Cheryl is a professional coach and in 1994 she decided to hire a coach herself believing it would make her better at her job. In the first session, the coach, Thomas Leonard, asked her to tell him about her life, and for the next 20 minutes she explained how she gave career planning seminars for a corporate consulting firm, worked as a business development counsellor at night, and on weekends volunteered for a local job search organisation and also supported friends in difficulty.

His response was, "Wow, you do a great job of taking care of a lot of people. You're such a good person." Then he added: "And the truth is, Cheryl, your 'good girl' role is going to rob you of your life." His words really hit home, and she realised caretaking had become her way of life, leaving no time for herself and doing what she wanted to do.

Since then Cheryl has not only been looking after herself, but also coaching others about self care. Her books on the subject, Take Time for Your Life, Life Makeovers and Stand Up for Your Life have all made The New York Times bestseller list. She was also the team leader for the Lifestyle Makeover Series on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and has hosted several of her own lifestyle makeover programs.

She had been practising self care for well over a decade when five years ago she began to write her book The Art of Extreme Self-Care. At the same time, her husband, Michael, fell very ill and, in addition to looking after him, she was running a company, hosting a weekly radio show and meeting speaking engagements, as well as overseeing all the details of the dream home she and Michael were building.

Within several weeks she was juggling her husband's needs, the demands of the new home, as well as fulfilling her work commitments and writing the book. Despite all she had learnt and taught about self care, she found herself feeling lonely and afraid as she tried to do everything herself and ignore her own needs. It was then a friend said to her:

"Cheryl, you're writing a book about extreme self care and your life's in a state of disrepair." Despite the 'good girl' in her wanting to meet her deadline she rang her publisher and explained she needed to put the book on hold. She also began to take care of herself in a myriad of other ways.

"I learnt that we can have the best intentions, but life gets hard, and it happens for all of us at some point or another. That's when we need self care the most and that's when we often neglect it the most."

In The Art of Extreme Self-Care, Cheryl illustrates the importance of making choices which honour ourselves, rather than leave us feeling deprived. "Every day people make critical decisions," she says, "based on what others want, knowing on some level that they're committing an act of self betrayal." So learning to say 'no' is vitally important. She also emphasises the importance of routine, living and working in a supportive, clutter-free environment, taking care of our health, speaking up for ourselves, and uncovering our passions that have been forgotten due to taking care of everyone else.

One chapter is devoted to sensitivity. Cheryl had always been sensitive, her feelings easily hurt as a child, and as an adult she still cried easily and felt overwhelmed by too much stimulation, such as large crowds, bright lights and loud music.

After she had given one of her first speeches on coaching and had received positive feedback from scores of people, she was complaining to her coach about the one negative evaluation, and telling him how much she hated her sensitivity.

"You know, Cheryl," he responded, "your sensitivity is actually your greatest gift. This gift has gotten you to where you are today, and it's what makes you a great coach. If I were you I'd protect your sensitivity rather than hate it."

Realising it was her sensitivity that made her feel deeply connected to nature and able to sense what people were thinking or feeling, instead of judging and disowning this part of her she made a decision to honour it.

Cheryl tells me her mission is to help people become masterful at managing their lives, so they can feel good. When she first began studying to be a coach, part of her training was to spend a year working on her own life to put a very strong foundation in place, so that she no longer had crises in her life.

"I don't think enough people invest enough time, energy and commitment to creating that strong foundation," she says, "especially when it comes to money." People can feel enormous pressure when an exciting new opportunity comes to nothing, or a large unexpected bill comes in. In Cheryl's case at the time, by paying off debts, reeling in spending, and getting a job that supported the development of her coaching practice so that she was no longer desperate for the next client, she created that strong foundation. And it has been the basis of her growth from strength to strength ever since.

You Can Create An Exceptional Life (Hay House 2011) is Cheryl's most recent book, one she co-authored with Louise Hay.

"Louise taught me to ask myself what thoughts will make me feel good," she explains. "When Louise and I worked on the book together what we really did was give people a game plan for really taking charge of how they think. And by paying attention to how you think you actually begin to take your actions in the world."

Cheryl admits that when Reid Tracy, CEO of Hay House, asked her if she would consider writing a book with Louise Hay she knew she would do it just for the experience. Describing the time spent putting the book together with this octogenarian who has led such an extraordinary life and inspired so many people, she says: "I felt as if I was in Tuesdays With Morrie [Mitch Albom's book] except that Morrie wasn't dying. Morrie was completely alive, vibrant, health and happy."

Cheryl believes her most important message is 'self love'.

"Louise once said to me, 'Cheryl, you will be with you longer than anyone else on the planet, you might as well make it a good relationship.' I love that, and I want to share with people what I've learnt about how to create a very loving and beautiful relationship with the self."

It's so easy to be hard on ourselves and neglect our needs, physical and spiritual. Cheryl Richardson reminds us that truly valuing and caring for ourselves is vitally important, and not only does it transform our own lives, but also the lives of those around us.

Rosamund Burton

Sydney based writer Rosamund Burton is the author of Castles, Follies and Four Leaf Clovers