This week is part of a multi-part series with fellow Air Force veteran Mary Polanco. She’s a wellness coach who went through what so many of us do when we try to keep up with the rat race—total burnout. She broke free from that endless loop and she’s going to share with us how and why.
I had the pleasure and honor of working with Mary back in the day, and I’ve been watching her journey unfold as she’s moved into wellness and helping people. She and I have similar stories in going through burnout that took a toll on our mental health and on our lives. Her story of turning that around and changing her life is so inspirational and I hope you see that if somebody else can do this for themselves, their family and their community, while stepping into the fullest essence of themselves, you can do it too.
Q: Let’s start with a sort of snapshot in time. Where were you in your life when you decided something’s got to change?
A: 2017 was a pivot for me. I had been at what some people would consider the height of my career. I was in a high visibility leadership position, I was taking care of over a hundred people, living that go-go-go life. I started noticing that every single day, I would promise myself that when—fill in the blank—finishes, I will take care of myself. The problem? There was never an endpoint. It was taking a serious toll on me, manifesting in anxiety, something I had never experienced before. I decided to stop listening to that anxiety. In the military, we have a saying: Take a knee and relax. That’s what I needed to do to figure this out. It made me stop and evaluate my situation.
Q: There are so many Type A overachievers who are cut from the same cloth and it often takes something that kind of shocks us to get us to stop. What do you think was driving a lot of the continual push in you?
A: If you had asked me that back then what was going on in my life, I would have had no idea. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was doing everything in my life for someone else. I was extrinsically motivated to hit a certain rank and to get a certain position because that’s what the people I trusted were telling me that I should be doing. Because my life was so noisy, I didn’t take the time to sit with the silence and say, “Okay, what do you want?”
My life was filled with every sort of distraction. Not just my military career, which took the bulk of my energy, but I was also a wife and mother to two small children. I was involved in all kinds of community things, too. There was never an opportunity for me to say, “Okay, are you doing what you’re called to do?” It got to the point where people would ask me What’s next?, meaning what’s your next job, base, etc. That became a trigger for me. Whenever someone would ask me that question, the anxiety would kick in. I started wondering why I always had to be thinking of the next step. That became my moment for realizing something’s going on here. I need to stop and start answering this question.
Q: I love the quote: “I’m not who you think I am, I’m not who I think I am. I think I am who I think you think I am.” That’s kind of a tongue twister, but it’s all about how your goals aren’t even your own anymore because you’re doing the things that you think you should do. After a while, it can be exhausting. I remember saying to a friend, “Gosh, when’s it going to be enough?”
A: There’s that saying that if you’re comfortable, you’re not growing. And I do agree with that in so many ways, but I also think there is something to be said for being in that moment of comfort, building your confidence, knowing what you contribute, and really, just living. When you’re comfortable but afraid of what’s coming next, then it’s time to reevaluate. But if you’re comfortable because you’ve worked to get there, you should enjoy that and build your confidence based on that foundation.
Q: I want to hear about your process and what you took yourself through to break free from that. And ask you: What if the discomfort wasn’t in physically doing something and striving for something but it was in reevaluating your beliefs?
A: I had to step into the discomfort of basically the antithesis of what I was believing. I would come home from work, mentally and emotionally drained, not wanting to even look at my kids in their beautiful faces. I had stepped away from the Air Force and got a job in the civilian sector. It was uncomfortable to go from one extreme to the other. When I could no longer wear my busy badge of honor, I had to sit with the quiet and I had to figure out who Mary was. I had to answer those questions that I had been avoiding subconsciously for a very long time. When I started to really dive into that process I got through the pain and couldn’t push it to the side anymore. That’s where I really dove in and started doing personal development.
Q: So the quiet was that life-changing?
A: Yes. I recall being at my lowest when I was in consideration for the next big position. I remember thinking I didn’t have it in me. So I went to my boss and transparently just poured my heart out and said, “This is not right for me right now. Can we please reconsider and do it next year?” He was so supportive. When I walked away, I realized that people who loved me still loved me even though I didn’t say yes to that position. For years, two thoughts had been weighing me: Who am I going to disappoint? How are they going to view me? As a lazy slacker?
But when I owned my truth, it was the most empowering and beautiful thing I could have done for myself. The mantra I live by now is put yourself first by doing the work to personally develop yourself so that you can then show up for others in an entirely new and authentic way.
Q: You finally gave yourself permission to find and stand in your purpose and say no to some things that weren’t aligning with you anymore. What does life look like now?
A: The biggest difference for me is the massive amount of belief that I have in myself. I don’t allow limiting beliefs or negative self-talk in my life. When it creeps in, and it does because I’m human, I say, We don’t do that anymore. That is not how we live our life. By choosing to really put my efforts and energy into that mantra and the way that I live, it has opened doors that I didn’t even know existed for me. I’ve written a vision for my life and stopped worrying about how it was going to happen. By letting go, I’ve been able to really transform my life and take on roles and opportunities that are aligned with my life’s vision.
Q: Oh, that is beautiful! When you are joyfully aligning yourself with your purpose and taking the time to chart that out, it must feel incredible.
A: I went from opening my eyes in the morning with the weight of the world on my shoulders, and it taking everything in me to put my foot on the ground, to now waking up before my alarm goes off, and popping out of bed with a smile and gratitude. That has been the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself.
For more of our conversation with Mary Polanco, join us next week for part two. Remember everything is created twice. Always first in your mind and your imagination and then in physical form.