Learning to Protect What You Love

Last week I had the privilege of addressing 360 women at the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women event. While many of us know (at least on some level) that heart disease is the cause of one out of every four deaths in the U.S. each year, it’s somehow easy to dissociate from statistics. So, here’s my story: 

When my father was only 42-years-old, he underwent double bypass surgery. My own uncle, Dr. John Janes, put him to sleep and we all prayed that he would wake up. 

I’m happy to report that he did.  

Not only did my father wake up physically that day, he also woke up mentally. He made such significant changes with his diet and exercise that he’s still with us, almost 30 years later. 

Holding my breath at 15 years old while my young father’s chest was cracked open was good practice for what was to come later in life as I watched all four of my grandparents endure their own battles with heart disease — including strokes, bypass surgeries, stints, aortic aneurysms and valve replacements. Not to mention the fact that both my great-grandmother and great-grandfather died in their sixties from heart attacks.  

Somehow I never managed to register the fact that I could die from heart disease. How in the world is that possible, you might ask? After all, I’m not remaining blind to the disease that’s most likely to kill me after witnessing its wrath from a distance, on TV or in clinical medical materials. I’ve been ignoring the fact that seven of my family members either died or had a heart disease-related health scare. For 20 years, I did absolutely nothing to prevent myself from experiencing the same fate. 

Why? Well, the answer is as simple as it is sad. I didn’t love myself enough to take care of myself. From age 15 to 35, I suffered at the hands of what I refer to as my dragon of self-doubt. 

To glance at the trappings of success in my life — the titles, the trophies, The Today Show appearances — you might assume I was always free from the nagging doubts and fears that torment so many women and mothers. But there’s more to my story than superficial achievements and optical delusions that blindly impress most people. The truth is that I spent the better part of my career working 80 hours a week and collecting external signs of success not because I wanted to fill the empty spaces on my bookshelf, but because I needed to fill a hole inside myself. 

My emptiness stemmed from feeling less-than for the majority of my life. And while my world looked firmly pressed and buttoned-up on the outside, I was always running, always chasing, rarely satisfied, and I never felt good enough. 

Maybe you’ve felt the same. Perhaps the time and energy you put into performing, perfecting and pleasing your way into the opinions of other people leaves very little time for exercising, eating well or even paying attention to your own family’s history of heart disease. 

When my dragon of self-doubt was at its strongest and I was at my weakest, my accomplishments at work were very important to me, so any time spent taking care of myself through nutrition, exercise or me-time would have taken time away from advancing my career — and, therefore, my self-esteem. Translation: it wasn’t going to happen. 

It’s hard to be concerned about your health on the inside when you’re hustling so hard to be loved on the outside. 

Despite my significant family history of heart disease, I was never concerned about my health on the inside because I was too busy proving myself on the outside. 

I believe that as women, it’s not that we don’t care enough about heart disease; it’s that we don’t care enough about ourselves to protect our bodies from heart disease.

I learned the hard way thatyou cannot protect what you do not love. We love our children; we protect them. We love our husbands; we protect them. We love our careers; we protect them. 

The time has come to start loving and protecting ourselves. 

Or 500,000 of us will continue to die each and every year from a preventable disease. 

The trajectory of my own life, health and happiness changed seven years ago when, in my role as CEO of The Mom Complex, I conducted a research study with over 10,000 mothers across 17 countries and discovered that beneath the surface of the pretty pictures and the “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine!” personas, lurked hidden truths that mirrored my own. Women around the world with little to no time to help themselves on the inside, because they were so exhausted from overperforming on the outside. 

The fact that other mothers were suffering from the same self-doubt set me free. Simply knowing I wasn’t alone was the spark I needed to set off on a two-year self-help journey during which I studied and tested advice from self-help books, spiritual gurus, meditation teachers and reruns of The Oprah Winfrey Show. It’s amazing what you don’t know about yourself until you’ve been interviewed by Oprah in your mind! 

The insights I collected and applied to my own life helped me slay my dragon of self-doubt and that changed everything. The transformation was swift and remarkable. I went from broken to whole, from silent to vocal, and from lover of chicken tenders to raving fan of tofu.

I took the long, not-so-scenic route to discovering that being happy leads to being healthy, not the other way around. 

There are only 24 hours in a day. When you stop wasting time making yourself look better, you can use that time to make yourself feel better. 

In my case…

  • Instead of avoiding the doctor, I went all in — signing up for a concierge medical program where each and every year I show up loud and proud for incredibly thorough blood analysis, stress tests and vascular age assessments. 
  • Rather than ignoring my family medical history, I now show up to each and every doctor’s appointment with it spelled out on a Word document.  I usually say to (for instance) my gynecologist, “I have no idea what this means to you, but it means a lot to me and I’d like for you to review it.” 
  • Instead of making excuses that I have no time to exercise, I put myself and my health on my calendar — setting recurring meetings (color-coded in purple) for walks, yoga classes, meditation time or a cardio workout on our Peloton bike. 

My, my, my, what a difference life without a dragon of self-doubt makes. 

As women, I believe, we must love ourselves if there is any hope of taking care of ourselves.  

If 500,000 women die every year from heart disease, that means that two million women died in the four years it took me to research and uncover the fact that self-doubt prevents so many of us from seeking the mental, physical and medical help we deserve. 

Today I am 42 years old, the exact same age that my father was when he underwent bypass surgery and, like him, I am not only physically but mentally alive — and I intend to stay that way. 

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