Updated: Jan 6
By Dorian Martin,
I Start Wondering Founder
While Malcolm Gladwell is more well-known for his concept of the Tipping Point, Martha Beck’s tipping points are much more relevant for women our age. Beck, a noted life coach, writer, speaker, and podcaster who has a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University, describes the difficult but worthwhile journey—a heroine’s quest—to becoming our own person.
Based on interviews with women that are described in her book “Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Re-Create Their Lives,” Beck realized that women often reach a tipping point based on culture’s definitions of what womanhood entails. We’ve got the traditional values — being the good and attentive mother with amazing children, the loving caregiver, the homemaker who keeps a pristine residence — and the modern worldview of women stepping into the workforce and competing with men. Eventually, these two viewpoints ratchet up and reach a point where the woman feels like she is being pulled in several directions, like being drawn and quartered.
Women also are acculturated to keep “soldiering on” no matter what we feel, think, or want. Recently, I had lunch with a friend who is reaching that tipping point. “I don’t know who I am, anymore,” she said, noting that the voices of her family members as well as the expectations of work and culture have slowly but surely taken over her own inner guidance, making her continually second-guess herself. She feels pressured to keep the perfect home, be the perfect mother, go to all the parties, and be a stellar employee who always makes the sales quota.
My friend is not the only woman feeling that way. It seems that over the past few years, many older women are reaching a personal tipping point. The pressing question – how do we negotiate that tipping point and begin to replenish ourselves so we can become the commander of our own lives again?
What seems overwhelming – thinking that you need to make major changes in your life that might have unknown consequences – is an important opportunity to make positive changes. I feel we can get clear on where we want and need to go next by listening to ourselves instead of constantly looking to others for direction. And not listening to and heeding those internal cues can lead to frustration, depression, and unhappiness.
My Tipping Point
I certainly know that feeling of having the pressure mount in my life and having the dawning realization that something is off.
My journey into burnout began in the early 2000s when I was working a high-pressure job and starting graduate school. My parents—who lived eight hours away—were starting to have serious health problems, including my mother’s worsening memory loss, so I was thrust into the position of being a long-distance caregiver.
In 2005, I abruptly lost that job in downsizing and found myself pivoting to freelance writing. Five months later, I suddenly took on caregiving duties for my mother, who was diagnosed with full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. I got a brief respite after she died in 2007, but my elderly father started having physical issues and ended up moving in with me in 2010.
I had always been someone who could multi-task easily, but I overestimated my capacity to handle the increasing load of caregiving, which I placed on top of work and graduate school. Slowly, the stress built—and without noticing it, I was becoming the proverbial frog in the pot of water which was not paying attention to the increasing heat levels.
Dad’s health significantly deteriorated in 2013, making him much clingier — and that led to my compassion fatigue, which according to the Compassion Fatigue Project, is “a broadly defined concept that can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another.”
The breaking point came over the course of 2014. I was on a strict deadline to finish my dissertation by mid-October or be kicked out of the program with nothing to show for my many years of graduate classes. But in late April, Dad’s visit to the hospital for a routine medical procedure ended up dragging out to 47 days of hospitalization--including frightening complications of emergency surgery and further scares while he was in intensive care and after--and then going into a rehabilitation center.
Yet like the Energizer Bunny, I was determined to just keep going. I juggled organizing Dad’s medical care while trying to continue writing my dissertation and working to have income. I rarely asked for help as I tried to meet the various expectations of my father, relatives and his medical team concerning his care.
Long story short, I ended up successfully defending my dissertation on the last day possible in October—and then I crashed and burned.
My tipping point came as a culmination of doing the equivalent of multiple jobs for a period of 10 years – finishing the dissertation, making a decent income in my freelance writing, and being the maid/chef/nurse/companion to my parents.
As 2015 dawned, I realized I had the decision to make. Was I going to continue this downward spiral, which might put me in the grave before my father? Or did I feel there was more to enjoy in life and to offer to others? I decided on the latter — but had no clue which way to go.
How does one find a sense of balance when there is none? Strange as it sounds, I drew inspiration from agriculture and made the decision to take what I called a “fallow year” in 2015. Fallow is a concept by which farmers give their fields a period off from production. This time allows the soil to replenish, which creates better crop quality in the future. I figured that imitating nature made sense; if the soil could be replenished, I could, too.
What does taking a fallow year entail? Actually, we all can have different ideas on this; for example, ISW Columnist Rhonda Collins wrote about her version of a fallow period after her retirement. My fallow period was diametrically opposite.
For your inspiration, these are some of the ideas I put into practice during mine.
1. Strip back to the essentials.
You could think of this process as what nature experiences in winter. “Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency, and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible,” says author Katherine May.
I committed to taking care of the responsibilities that emerged — handling Dad’s issues, making the final corrections on my dissertation so I could graduate in May, and doing my freelance work. I committed to taking care of my health through better food choices and exercise.
But I also committed to really analyzing my choices. What was essential to my life? And what was not?
2. Stop before jumping in.
In her recent book “The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self,” Beck describes this tendency to try to fill our lives with more and more stuff (whether that’s relationships, experiences, material goods, hobbies, etc.) as “Mount Delectable,” which is taken from Dante’s Inferno. “I see Mount Delectable as a symbol of all the ways to be ‘better’ that we learn from our cultural context,” she explains, adding that trying to do these things—which often involve exhausting labor—is based on measuring our own well-being through comparing our lives to others instead of how we feel. In other words, it’s the fear of missing out.
My tendency throughout my life has been to just jump in when asked, which has led me to do things that I ultimately didn’t enjoy and to get overextended in both time and energy. As I entered my fallow year, I committed to giving myself the necessary space to make decisions instead of automatically saying yes, and asking whether I truly wanted to invest my time and energy into something.
3. Listen to my heart.
Like most people, my mind had increasingly been in charge and always was looking for novel experiences. But often, these experiences were like eating junk food—I never was truly satiated.
During my fallow year, I decided to follow a different plan. If something—whether it was an invitation to a gathering, a field trip, or a potential commitment--didn’t light me up and make my heart sing, I gave myself permission to not do it.
And when I felt a spark of energy that suggested a “yes, please,” I followed that craving. It turns out that getting in touch with and listening to the heart is key—it led me to find Sheng Zhen Meditation, get involved in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s book group, and hone in on the type of freelance writing I wanted to do. “When we aren’t distracted by culture, we move directly toward fulfilling our innate longing,” Beck notes in “The Way of Integrity.”
4. Just say “No, thank you!”
This perhaps was the hardest, because I have historically been a people-pleaser, and this required saying no to Dad, other family members, friends, and acquaintances. Some didn’t understand, and others may have taken it personally, but getting control over the keel of my own life was critical.
Learning to politely and firmly say no involves learning about boundaries. “We are not comfortable setting boundaries because we care more about what people will think, we don’t want to disappoint anyone, and we want everyone to like us,” said Dr. Brené Brown, the professor, noted author, speaker, and podcast host. “Boundaries are not easy, but I think they’re the key to self-love and they’re the key to treating others with loving kindness.”
5. Become comfortable with silence and being in the void.
I had become mentally and physically addicted to the rapid pace of life so the concept of slowing down wasn’t something I ever had contemplated. Yet, that’s what the fallow year required of me. I learned to slow down, to listen to my instincts. I learned that it takes time to replenish and much of that is raw, honest, and decidedly unsexy.
But there are other gifts from the slowing down that true silence requires. “Being silent allows us to channel our energies. It gives us the clarity we need to calmly face challenges and uncertainty,” writes Vijay Eswaran in “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Silence” in the Harvard Business Review.
6. Permission to relax.
I used my fallow year to learn more about what it felt like to relax and let of my tendencies to be competitive, obsessive-compulsive and controlling.
By doing so, I purposefully invited the Critical Parent who could so vocally take over my thoughts to relax as well. “…the Critical Parent is not to be confused with the voice of conscience. They are not the same,” said Dr. Lucia Capacchione in “Recovery of Your Inner Child: The Highly Acclaimed Method for Liberating Your Inner Self.” “A truly healthy conscience asks us to look at our values and our behavior. Are we being true to ourselves? Do our words match our actions? Are we ‘walking our talk?’ A healthy conscience helps us to live an honest, self-reflective life. An uncontrolled Critical Parent makes life hell.”
For example, I let go of New Year’s Resolutions because I can feel my Critical Parent flogging me with the “Thou must do (fill in the blank).” Instead, I set a New Year’s intention, which involves selecting a word to use as my guiding principle for the year. In 2022, that word was “flexible” while in 2023, I’ll be focusing on “nourish.” Taking this approach has truly changed my life in a kinder and gentler way that for me is more life-affirming while still embracing the concept of progress.
From Fallow to Replenished
In hindsight, the fallow year in 2015 gave me so many gifts. Perhaps the most important was committing to listening to my inner wisdom, instead of defaulting to whatever Dad or some other “authority” figure wanted me to do. I took more ownership over my life through following my heart instead of my head, finding some passions as well as identifying some areas that no longer gave me energy and were ripe for pruning out of my life.
Since that time, I also learned that it’s good to take shorter fallow periods on occasion. I did this consciously in a 10-day meditation retreat in 2021 — and I also have looked at periods such as the early days of the pandemic as an unexpected opportunity to go fallow.
Even now, as I feel there’s some change starting to emerge, I get a sense that a fallow period might be in the offing. It won’t be a year; instead, it may be a couple of weeks. Nevertheless, this fallow period will be a time to get even clearer on my own life journey and where I want to go.
I invite you to set an intention to explore the concept of fallowness in 2023.