As a part of my series about “Learning To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Maria Leonard Olsen, who is a lawyer, author, motivational speaker, mentor, writing/empowerment retreat leader and co-host of a radio show on WPFW in Washington, D.C. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Virginia School of Law, and served in the Clinton Justice Department. Her latest book is 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life (Rowman & Littlefield 2018). See MariaLeonardOlsen.com for more information.
Thank you so much for joining us! I’d love to begin by asking you to give us the backstory as to what brought you to this specific career path.
At age 50, I got divorced and sober, and became an empty-nester. I was living alone for the first time in my life and felt rudderless. I was in a very low place and had to find a way to bring light into my life. My latest book, 50 After 50, chronicles that journey.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?
I am on a book tour promoting 50 After 50, and giving motivational talks at book festivals, retreats, nonprofits and corporate meetings. The most gratifying part of this book experience is seeing how I am helping readers re-invigorate their lives. My book includes help for victims of sexual trauma, people in recovery, divorcees, biracial people, empty-nesters and those in mid-life funks. At almost every book talk, someone approaches me in tears about something I have said aloud or in my book that helped them.
Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self acceptance?
After losing my marriage and getting sober, I changed almost everything about my life. My development of self-acceptance was gradual. I tried many things. I stopped worrying about what anyone else thought of me and sought out anything that brought me light and joy. I was very much out of practice in that regard. I suppose I had to hit my personal bottom point in my life to want to crawl out of it. Volunteering in a very poor community helped me cultivate gratitude and focus on all that I had (and sometimes took for granted), as opposed to all that I had lost.
According to a recent study cited in Cosmopolitan, in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?
Women, in particular, are hard on themselves. I blame societal norms and media messages for some of that. I had to learn how to change the dialogue with myself. Catch yourself when you are being critical and ask, “Would I speak to someone I love this way?” We are all deserving of love. And if we cannot love ourselves, we cannot be optimal partners for others.
As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?
If one does not love one’s self, how can we expect others to do so? I believe in the law of attraction. Also, one cannot pour from an empty cup.
Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?
People grow complacent with their lives and forget that life can be short. Sometimes it takes a profound loss to wake us up. Yet, time is the one thing we cannot buy or get more of if we waste it. I aspire to living each day as if it is my last, or at least as if it is New Year’s Day and I have a new chance at life each day. It’s your life; it’s up to you what you do with it!
When we talk about self-love and understanding we don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?
I began attending al-anon meetings, which truly improved my relationship with other family members. I learned to ask myself if situations were really mine to opine on or get involved in or not. I learned how to practice restraint of pen and tongue. I listen more than talk, and my relationships have improved as a result, especially with my adult children.
So many don’t really know how to be alone, or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?
I used to dislike spending time alone because I disliked introspection. I kept myself overly busy so that I did not have to reflect on anything personal. But not processing issues does not make them go away. Painful things frequently resurface in unexpected ways unless dealt with in some healthy way. Past trauma can negatively affect one’s present life, so it is important to seek help with it.
Meditation has changed my life. It helps me center myself. It also helps me enjoy my time alone more.
How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?
The more I love myself, the greater my capacity to love and be present for others.
In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?
Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you, and avoid energy-vampires and negative people.
Be intentional about how you spend your time. I no longer do things to please others and have learned that “no” can be a complete response. I look at my time as a precious commodity of uncertain duration, and try to live each day as if it might be my last.
Nurture your closest relationships. I no longer spread myself thinly and instead spend most of my time with the people who matter most to me.
Journaling helps me process my days and track progress towards my goals. I recommend it.
Spending more time in nature is spiritual and nourishing to me. I walk instead of drive whenever possible and, by doing so, I am richly rewarded in spiritual, psychological and physical ways.
Not taking things personally has relieved me of much pain. Each person is on their own journey and has their own reality and difficulties.
Try not to compare yourself with others. “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Social media is usually just a highlights reel. Do not give it much stock.
Have more fun! Sometimes I have to schedule in things like game nights so I can build more laughter in my life and remain more a human being rather than a human doing.
What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself, that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?
1. I pursue things that bring me joy, even if they are not of interest to my significant other. I do yoga and meditation, and go to many women’s retreats. These activities replenish my energy and support my serenity. My partner supports my pursuit of growth experiences. If he did not, we would not be together! We each recognize the need to learn and grow.
2. I spend time alone. My partner and I have our own houses, but spend the majority of nights together. I enjoy my own company, and time spent apart makes us appreciate each other and not take each other for granted. I finally appreciate the difference between being alone and being lonely.
3. I use affirmations to bolster my self-worth. I am enough. I do not need a partner to make me whole. Affirmations help me believe in myself. When I first learned of this technique, I thought it was silly. Over time, however, I started to believe the affirmations.
4. I know that I alone am responsible for my happiness. I enjoy time with my significant other, but I cultivate happiness on my own. I spend time with people who bring out the best in me, enjoy time in nature, read books I love, create art, and other activities that bring me joy. I used to depend on outside affirmations to help me feel worthy. Those feelings gleaned from what others thought of me were fleeting, however. I had to develop self-love for myself.
5. I let my partner — and others — know what I want and need. Being clear about my desires demonstrates respect for myself and self-love. I cannot assume others can read my mind. This communication practice prevents misunderstandings and helps prevent resentments. I know that not being clear in my communications damaged other relationships in my past.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?
For podcasts, I like the Optimal Living Daily podcast, which helps me with new ways of elevating my life. The host curates the best in blogs, books and other sources and puts them into short podcasts that I listen to as I get ready for work.
Favorite books (aside from my own) include, Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle, and several by Gabrielle Bernstein. Both are brave women who taught me valuable ways of cultivating self-love and self-compassion. The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, is a powerfully simple book and was a seminal book in my spiritual development. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, underscores how we always can choose our responses to whatever happens in life.
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? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…
I would urge people to read my latest book, take suggestions from it and to do the exercises to help them spark more joy in their lives! Check out my website for more information: www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?
Being angry is like drinking poison and hoping the person with whom you are angry dies. Anger is corrosive. If someone has wronged you, learn to forgive them. Otherwise, you are allowing them to continue to hurt you. The anger hurts you, not them.
I had to let go of my anger in order to move forward with my life after I got divorced and sober. I now feel so free and am finally living a life authentic to me and my values.
Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!