Maria Leonard Olsen: “Radiate love”

Radiate love. If we all could practice compassion for ourselves and others, the world would be such a better place. Start where you are, and your light can have a ripple effect. Stop criticizing and seek to understand. Everyone has difficulty in life. Let’s stop the vitriol. The Covid epidemic is giving us all an […]

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Radiate love. If we all could practice compassion for ourselves and others, the world would be such a better place. Start where you are, and your light can have a ripple effect. Stop criticizing and seek to understand. Everyone has difficulty in life. Let’s stop the vitriol. The Covid epidemic is giving us all an opportunity to re-set and determine what really matters in life.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Leonard Olsen.

She is an attorney, author, radio talk show co-host and recovery mentor. Maria graduated from Boston College and the University of Virginia School of Law, served in the Clinton Administration’s Justice Department and on numerous charitable boards, and has fostered newborn babies awaiting adoption. Her latest book, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life, which was selected for the National Press Club’s National Book Fair, has served as a vehicle to help people across the country heal from setbacks, reinvigorate their lives and become their best version. See @fiftyafter50 for more information.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

At age 50, I got divorced, sober and became an empty-nester. I was living alone for the first time in my life. I had to change almost everything about my life. So I decided to try fifty new things to determine the contours of how I wanted to live my next chapter in life. The things I tried spanned physical challenges, adventure travel, spiritual endeavors, learning and teaching, and social activities. When I shared this plan with others, I discovered that I had hit a nerve, especially with people in midlife, a common time when people reassess their lives. I now share what I learned with others and help them overcome adversity and design their new chapters.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My latest book was very self-revelatory. I wrote about my sobriety journey and other difficulties, like divorce and being sexually abused and assaulted, and how I healed from all of these things. I felt so exposed. But the first time I gave a presentation about it, people approached me in tears saying how I gave them courage to talk about their pain and secrets. That made it all worth it. If I can help even one person by turning my sorrow and experience into a force for good, I will have made the world better because I was here. And that is my goal in life.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

On my way to speak at a large trade association’s convention in downtown Washington, D.C., to deliver a talk on self-care and mindfulness, I got a flat tire. I became so stressed that I was going to be late! I arrived in the nick of time, but very frazzled. All of my work experience went out the window until I recognized the irony of the situation. I am trying to teach people how to deal with life’s curveballs, and the universe was putting me to a true test. I went to the restroom and practiced meditation. The deep breathing brought my heart rate down and helped me re-center. I learned that my meditation practice will be a life-long, helpful endeavor in many situations, and that it need not be lengthy to be effective. I also learned to leave much earlier for speaking engagements.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There were far fewer women in law school and in law firms when I started in the law. I am grateful to the women who paved the way for people like me to have good opportunities, and believe we all have the obligation to pay forward what we have been given. I mentor people who follow me along various paths. In fact, in my 12-step sobriety program, the 12th step is to help another alcoholic. By helping others, we provide service, but that service also helps us to maintain our own sobriety. It reinforces what we have learned and how far we have come. This can apply to multiple situations.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Develop a meditation practice. I am grateful that meditation has gone mainstream. The benefits of meditation are widely known. We can re-wire our brains to develop more calmness and serenity. Sometimes, beginning with guided meditations are an easy way to start. There is so much online to assist us in starting or deepening our meditation practices. Walking meditations are an easy way to practice both physical and mental self-care, if we can focus on being present.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Provide opportunities for your employees to continue to grow. No one enjoys or thrives while remaining static. Help those you lead to feel vital. Set a good example by continuing yourself to grow and by listening to those in your organizations. Each person has a perspective or lesson they can share. The person at the lowest rung of the corporate ladder may see something you have not considered before that may help your company. Diverse opinions help with more effective marketing, for example. Consider having open meetings for suggestions to be shared. Making those you lead feel valued can go a long way in employee retention and in creating a healthy work atmosphere.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

Learn a new skill, Keep strengthening your brain. During Coronavirus 2020, many of us are learning how to use Zoom or other online platforms for meeting or keeping in touch. In fact, I am more in touch with my friends who live in other parts of the world because of Zoom. We set up weekly calls to check in with one another and share ideas and news. Social self-care can increase mental health. Having a strong social network increases connectedness, a vital part of mental health.

Take a class. There are so many free offerings online. Coursera and Class Central are a few examples of free or low cost classes. Perhaps you could even teach a class on Udemy or another platform. Keep those neurons firing, to stave off cognitive decline.

Practice positive psychology. I took a few positive psychology classes that helped me stave off panic in the early days of Covid-19. The classes helped me build tolerance for uncertainty and to reprogram my mind toward positivity. That which we dwell on becomes our reality. I emphasize the positive and look for the good in any situation. I write daily gratitude lists and cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Volunteer work for those less fortunate helped me realize how much I take for granted. I am grateful for the prosaic — like that I can see, hear, walk — to the profound — I have love in my life. We all can find things for which to be grateful. I also am an advocate of affirmations. I used to think saying affirmations to one’s self was silly, until I experienced the change in myself by practicing affirmations for thirty days. What we tell ourselves can become our truths. I am enough. I am content. These are my truths.

Develop a healthy inner dialogue and eradicate negative self-talk. Many of us are full of self-criticism, but we can change the tape. Treat yourself how you would treat someone you love. For years, I was full of self-hatred. It took me a long time to learn to accept myself as human and therefore perfectly imperfect. All my mistakes became lessons for me. I firmly believe now that every person and situation in one’s life can provide an opportunity to learn. I must be open to the lesson.

Learn how to be more mindful. Meditation can help tremendously with this. Meditation need not be long to be effective. A few deep, cleansing breaths can re-center us. Focusing on one’s breath can help you become more present. You are, at least for those moments, fully present, because you cannot simultaneously be fully focused on your breath while worrying about the future or fretting about the past. When you feel anxiety creeping in, increase the depth of your breaths. This can lower your blood pressure and heart rate. Pause and re-set. Try this when stuck in traffic or at a red light. I work in a busy litigation practice and maintain my focus and calm by taking deep breaths throughout the day.

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

Keep growing. Seek to learn something new every day. The internet provides endless opportunities to learn. Check out TedTalks and free courses online. I learned how to fix my refrigerator myself by watching a YouTube video! You even can virtually visit world class museums online. Research shows that maintaining your cognitive health with new stimuli may slow memory loss and cognitive decline. Plus, it’s more fun and gives you more to share with others. I also enjoy planning trips. I recently realized that much of my enjoyment of travel comes from the planning of it, i.e., learning about what the place has to offer, finding the most interesting things to do while visiting, and feeling excited anticipating the experience. Many people I know are learning the riches our national parks have to offer. And there are incredible discounts for senior citizens for travel in our country, including admission into our national parks.

How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

Pay attention to your inner dialogue. When you hear that critical voice in your head, consider how you would treat your best friend or family member. Would you speak to him or her like that? Practice self-compassion. Put that bat you use against yourself away. And allow yourself to have more fun. It will help you deal better with stress. Do not be in such a hurry to “grow up.” Maintaining a child-like wonder with the world is a good thing! Unfortunately, most of us allow the judgment of society and jadedness to lessen that wonder within us. Wonder is a gift. Savor it.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

“Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a prisoner in a concentration camp. The takeaway of that book for me was that everything can be taken from you but the right to choose one’s attitude in a given situation. So powerful. I have learned to practice the pause between stimulus and response and to choose how I want to respond, instead of reacting right away. It has changed my life, especially with challenging people and situations. There was a period when my son tested my patience over and over. I learned how to count to ten and to listen more before responding. It vastly improved our relationship.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Radiate love. If we all could practice compassion for ourselves and others, the world would be such a better place. Start where you are, and your light can have a ripple effect. Stop criticizing and seek to understand. Everyone has difficulty in life. Let’s stop the vitriol. The Covid epidemic is giving us all an opportunity to re-set and determine what really matters in life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt’s wise words are a life lesson I wish I had understood earlier. I think one of the benefits of aging is caring less about what others think. I got a motorcycle at age 50, which seemed out of character for me. I received disapproving looks and criticism, but I learned not to take that personally. Really, the only one who has to approve of me is me! Dropping the rock of judgment was so freeing to me, though it is something I will continually work on because it is a hard habit to break.

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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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