I surround myself with people who help me become my best version. I am a proponent of positive psychology and do my best to avoid “energy vampires.” The more I am around negative people, the more my positive energy dissipates. Even if the negative people are family members, there are ways to protect our own energy and limit our time around such people. Sometimes, excusing one’s self from a room to practice deep breathing can reset and create an effective psychic boundary. It can, at least, disrupt a negative conversation.
As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Leonard Olsen.
Maria Leonard Olsen 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.
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 story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?
At age 50, I got sober and divorced, became an empty nester and was living alone for the first time in my life. I felt rudderless. I had to change just about everything in my life. And without the crutch of alcohol, I had to find healthier ways to deal with my emotions. I had used alcohol to numb out my feelings and self-loathing. After getting sober, I incorporated many new wellness methodologies into my life and enjoy helping others find a better way of living.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I felt that I had lost so much in my life after drinking my way out of a 25-year marriage. So I sold many of my belongings, put the rest in storage, and traveled to the other side of the world to volunteer at a school high in the Himalayas. I wanted to make the world a better place somehow. It turned out to be an exercise in cultivating gratitude for me. The Nepalese villagers had so little — no running water or electricity, for instance — but were the happiest people I had ever met. I returned with an attitude of gratitude infusing my life. I no longer take so much for granted. Just by virtue of living in this country, we know we will have access to clean water and will likely eat a meal today. In this remote village, that was not a guarantee.
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?
When I started this chapter of my life, I set out to try 50 new things to discern how I would like to live my newly sober, single, empty-nester life. I wanted to stretch my comfort zone. I signed up for an open mic night, though I have a terrible singing voice. I got on stage and belted out a song and was awful! I left the stage to wan, polite applause. I never have to do that again! But I proved to myself that I could push through and survive uncomfortable situations and feelings. It gave me confidence to tolerate discomfort.
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
I sponsor many women who are newly sober and mentor women who have been sexually assaulted. One in four women will have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and do not often feel they can talk about it. I also help women heal from divorce, depression and other life difficulties. I use my experience and pain as a way to help others. I have tried many different healing modalities and help others find the right combination that would work for them. At my speaking events, people often approach me in tears saying I told their story or that they no longer feel so alone in what happened to them. I help them find courage to allow others to bear witness to their pain. Not processing trauma is like holding a beach ball under water. It pops up in unanticipated ways, if you just keep pushing it down and do not deal with it. I tried that for many years. It didn’t work.
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?
My sobriety sponsor, Sandy, helped save me from myself. She said she would love me until I could love myself. She is one of the most generous, kind people I have known. She accepts me where I am and loves me unconditionally. In our 12-step sobriety program, we must admit to another person the exact nature of our wrongs. I told her things I never before had shared. She listened with understanding and without judgment. I was able to heal from a lifetime of secrets. I now pay it forward to other women, as part of my 12 steps of recovery.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
I believe that it is a lack in self-love. If we truly loved ourselves, we would practice more self-care. We abuse our bodies because, at some level, we do not believe we deserve better. If we take the time to examine the roots of our lack of self-love, we may be able to remedy this situation. With self-love would come a re-prioritization of what really matters. A perceived lack of time to take care of ourselves would disappear as well. Does it matter if you make millions of dollars if you lose your health? Many of us speed through life in pursuit of material or other things that do not really matter in the long run. It is helpful to ask yourself what you might regret if you happened to die tomorrow. The answer likely would not be that you did not work more or make more money.
Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)
First, in this society, we generally are more careful about how we spend our money than how we spend our time. Yet, time is the one thing we cannot buy or manufacture, and it is of uncertain duration. I now am much more intentional about how I spend my time. I am a recovering people-pleaser. Now, however, when someone asks me if I want to do something, I practice the pause and ask myself if it is something I really want to do, or if I would just be doing it to please someone else. And if I conclude that it is not something that helps me in any way, I reply that I have another commitment. The other person does not need to know that the commitment may simply be to myself, to replenish my energy.
Second, I surround myself with people who help me become my best version. I am a proponent of positive psychology and do my best to avoid “energy vampires.” The more I am around negative people, the more my positive energy dissipates. Even if the negative people are family members, there are ways to protect our own energy and limit our time around such people. Sometimes, excusing one’s self from a room to practice deep breathing can reset and create an effective psychic boundary. It can, at least, disrupt a negative conversation.
The third is not taking things personally. We all have our own realities and bring an amalgam of our own experiences to any given situation. I practice self-compassion and compassion for others by not assuming that their poor behavior has anything to do with me. I used to misinterpret someone’s disapproving look as a failing on my part, for example. Now, I recognize that it may be a reflection of something going on with them. I ask myself if my thoughts have evidence of truth or is it a faulty assumption. And I let so much more go. We all can drop rocks of judgment and focus on self-approval rather than what others think of us. It is impossible to control what others think, and I used to exhaust myself trying to do so.
Being mindful is something I strive for each day. I used to pride myself on my talent for multi-tasking. What that led to was an inability for me to be fully present. I did not savor good experiences. I endlessly planned ahead or “future-tripped” about what might happen. Now I work on staying present in everything that I do. It has helped with my memory, concentration and joy in simple pleasures.
Mediation is part of my endeavor to be more present and mindful. Mediation can take many forms. It can be as simple as taking one deep cleansing breath at a traffic light. It can be slowly walking from my car to my office door. Meditation centers me and allows me to better deal with whatever curveballs life throws my way. Sometimes, in my busy litigation practice, someone will look at me in wonder at how I am remaining calm in a storm of activity and near panic over a project deadline. I am much more effective and productive when centered, and meditation helps me accomplish this state.
All five of these things have enabled me to move beyond and thrive following my divorce, getting sober, being sexually assaulted, and other life challenges and difficulties. These changes have profound impacts on my life. I wrote about them in my latest book, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life, and speak about them in seminars, book talks and self-care presentations.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?
Exercise helps relieve anxiety and stress, of which there is far too much in our frenetic society. It is an important tool for maintaining physical, mental and emotional health. Exercise helps dissipate the stress hormone, cortisol. It has helped me lower my genetic high blood pressure. I exercise with a friend, which also helps my social well-being and helps to keep me motivated.
For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?
Walking. There is so much beauty in our world that we cannot experience in a car or rushing around. Walk mindfully. Sometimes, make it a walking meditation. Appreciate all the beauty that surrounds you. Second, some core strengthening work to support one’s back and spine. There is so much free Pilates online nowadays. I would add yoga or another kind of stretching that incorporates breathwork. This will keep blood pressure down, relieve stress and keep you flexible, which is especially important as we age.
In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long term injury?
Stretching and listening to one’s body. Alternate heavy exercise days with recovery days where you do yoga or simple stretching. Do self-massage or get massages, if you can. Make sure you are getting proper nutrients in your diet and are hydrating properly.
There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow? Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?
I eat everything in moderation. Food is a great joy in life for me, especially when able to share it with others.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
The Four Agreements, by Toltec shaman, don Miguel Ruiz. One of the agreements is not to take anything personally. That agreement with myself has fundamentally changed my life. We are all on our own journeys with our own experiences. When someone cuts me off on the road, for example, it likely has nothing to do with me; that person may be in a hurry because he or she just received some horrible news. I have gained much peace by following the lessons in this book.
You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
I suppose it would be an acceptance movement. There is so much hate being strewn about lately. Why can’t we all accept ourselves and each other as human beings. We are, I believe, spiritual beings having a human experience. Let’s love each other more and dispel the unnecessary hate that has infiltrated our culture.
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,” by Eleanor Roosevelt. I spent much of my life giving away my power. We are all people who are perfectly imperfect. I am enough. But it took me years to accept myself for who I am. I felt an inordinate amount of shame and allowed others’ disapproval to make me feel less than. For instance, someone I know expressed shock that I now have a motorcycle. I initially felt a pang of shame when receiving that criticism. I took a deep breath and reclaimed my power. I do not need others’ approval. I need my self-approval.
We are very blessed that 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 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 🙂
Oprah Winfrey. She also was sexually assaulted as a child and came from a less than ideal childhood. She is one of my heroes in that she brings so much goodness into the world and has used her pain as a force for good. It is a dream of mine to meet her and to be on her Super Soul Sunday show (or another of her wonderful productions)!
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!