As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce ” I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Leonard Olsen, author of 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). She is a mother, attorney, women writing/empowerment retreat leader, recovery mentor and cohost of WPFW’s “Inside Out” radio show in Washington, D.C. She served as a Clinton Justice Department political appointee and on the Boards of Children’s National Medical Center BOV, the Catholic Coalition for Special Education and the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Washington. Her book chronicles her authenticity journey and how she overcame trauma, alcoholism and divorce by igniting her life with physical challenges, adventure travel, lifestyle changes and spiritual practices. See MariaLeonardOlsen.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? At age 49, I got divorced, sober and became an empty-nester. After being a full time at-home mother for 15 years, I had to return to practicing law for financial reasons. My real passion, however, is writing. When I turned 50, I decided to give myself the gift of 50 new experiences to jump start my life. When I shared with others what I was doing, so many people asked me for my list. So I decided to write a book about what I did and what I learned, so that I could help others re-invigorate their lives. The first thing I did was to sell or donate most of my belongings, put the rest into storage, and travel to the other side of the world to volunteer at a school high in the Himalayas. It became an exercise in cultivating gratitude. Living in a mountain village, where there was no electricity or running water, brought into sharp focus all of the things I took for granted in my life. I returned to the States with a different mindset, an attitude of gratitude.
Can you explain to our readers why you are an authority about “divorce”? I wrote a book about how I learned how to thrive post-divorce. Circumstances conspired to force me to change so many things about my life. I now counsel others starting over post-divorce. I have much good advice that has proven helpful to many people in this new chapter in their lives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
I decided I wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle. It feels so powerful. I like to call it “wind therapy.” I was driving my bike in my neighborhood and saw a mother from my son’s tony prep school. Her jaw dropped as she gasped, “Maria! Is that your motorcycle?” I said, “Yes, my children are horrified.” She replied, “Well, so am I!” I felt the mantle of shame starting to descend upon me and affirmatively shut it down. I shrugged it off and full-throttled my way away from her and her judgment, not allowing her to steal my serenity. It was so freeing.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that? It was a bit uncomfortable re-entering the dating scene at age 50. In a chapter of my book I called “Dating for Dowagers,” I describe my experiences with online dating sites and speed dating. I learned that I am much more adept at discerning compatibility in person, as opposed to online. Twice my dates showed up looking a decade or two older than the photo they used in their online profile. These experiences taught me that the most important quality I was seeking in a potential partner or friend is honesty. I do not mind baldness, for example, but I do mind duplicity!
If you had a close friend come to you for advice after a divorce, what are 5 things you would advise in order to survive and thrive after the divorce? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1. Learn how to love yourself and practice self-care. Until you love yourself, you will not make a good partner for anyone else. Practicing self-care protects your best gift to the world—you. As a recovering people-pleaser, this was a hard lesson for me. I practiced self-affirmations and gradually changed the conversation I had been having with myself, berating myself in a way I never would have treated another person. Now, on the other side, I know that I am enough and that I am loved.
2. No one is responsible for your happiness but you. If you keep looking for outside affirmation of your worth, you will never experience serenity. Find out what brings you joy and cultivate opportunities to experience it. No one can make us feel a certain way unless we give them permission to do so. I no longer take things personally and remember that every person has his or her own challenges in life. I stay in my own lane.
3. Do not isolate. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you. Avoid energy vampires. No is a complete sentence. You do not owe others an explanation when you turn down invitations, for example. The people with whom I choose to spend time lift me in a psychic or spiritual way. We genuinely care for each other. I used to have hundreds of friends, but I spread myself much too thinly. I now focus on quality instead of quantity.
4. Be intentional about how you spend your time. Spend it with the people who matter most to you. Nurture relationships with those you most cherish. In the end, the people in your life are the most important. And we never know which day will be our last.
5. Negative and sorrowful feelings will pass. Learn to tolerate discomfort and then how to move past it. No one marries with the plan of divorcing one day. I was miserable after I got divorced. Now, I am just about the happiest I ever have been. I am living a life authentic to myself and loving it!
What are the most common mistakes people make after they go through a divorce? What can be done to avoid that?
1. Do not speak negatively about your ex. It hurts you and does nothing to the object of your anger. Anger eats us up from within. It is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. Plus, no one wants to hear vitriol. Process with a therapist any anger you may have.
2. Do not jump into another serious relationship right away. Take time to discern what you really want in life and re-examine your life goals and priorities before committing right away. Consider this a time of great opportunity for change, freedom and growth.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources related to this topic that you would recommend to our readers? 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life (Rowman & Littlefield 2018) and the Optimal Living Daily podcast.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that helped you in this work? Can you share how that was relevant in your real life?
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
For much of my life, I cared too much about what other people thought of me. At this stage in my life, I realize that what others think of me is not my business. In any event, I cannot control what others think of me, so worrying about that just detracts from the quality of my life. I care most about what I think of myself, and if I act out of love, I usually do the right thing.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people? I am continuing to tour around the country and speak about my book and my experience. At almost every event, someone approaches me in tears after the talk, telling me how I helped them. That is the most gratifying part of my life—making a positive difference in the world because I was here.
Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂 I would like to inspire the self-compassion movement! Until we love ourselves, we cannot be at our best for others.Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂 It is a dream of mine to meet Oprah. She, too, overcame significant adversity in her life. She has been a role-model and “Shero” to me, and her work continues to inspire me. I also think she would like my work!