How to Create a Life that Loves You Back

If there’s one thing I’ve learned (the hard way), it’s that loving someone who can’t love you back is a futile pursuit destined to fail. Often in a crash-and-burn kind of way.

I’ve poured myself into more than one one-way relationship, only to find myself, at best, drained and frustrated and, at worst, ghosted or betrayed. I wish I were a faster learner, but over time I’ve become better at choosing where to put my energy and heart. I no longer accept the role of the one-way giver in a one-way relationship.

That’s why, lately, I’ve been checking in on one of my most long-standing relationships. I want to be sure we haven’t veered off our two-way street onto a wrong-way exit lane. This relationship, however, isn’t with a fellow human. It’s the relationship I have with my own lifestyle—the routines, habits, disciplines, and activities I surround myself with. It’s the way I spend my days. It’s the attitudes and beliefs I invite in to stay.

Are these things pulling their weight around here? Or are they dragging me down? Am I doing all the work? Or is my lifestyle giving back to me? Is it strengthening me and giving me the energy, hope, and perspective I need to face the day? Or is it leaving me drained and discouraged?

Here’s what I know.

With some relationships, I can choose to pull back or move on, when the warning bells go off. With this one, I can’t. One way or another, my lifestyle is sticking around, so we better work this out.

Second, this relationship will have a big effect on me, whether I choose to pay attention or not.

And third, in ways I’ve wished for in many human relationships along the way, I actually have the power to shape this one. I can create the lifestyle I want it to be. For all the times I’ve said, “If only that other person would (x, y, or z), this relationship would work,” and had zero control over the outcome, this is a situation where I actually can control both sides. I can create boundaries, assert my needs, AND make changes to meet them.

And, oh yeah, also I can’t blame anyone else if things go awry.

Where lifestyle lives

I think sometimes we just fall into our lifestyle. We let it happen around us, shaped by the people we do life with, the job we hold, the finances available. But what if we put a little more thought into it? What if we really evaluated which parts of our lives are building us up, and which are dragging us down? What if we really thought about the kind of people we want to be, what we want to contribute to this world, and how we can best achieve that? What if we had the courage to make some tweaks—for the sake of our selves?

In my first few years as a single mom, the kids and I lived in a townhouse that served as a cozy nest to rebuild our lives. It was tiny, tucked back, and private—a soothing place to regain our bearings. But there was no good place for my kids to run and play outside. It was miles from our closest friends. And it didn’t match my personal style in any way. I began to feel isolated and trapped. To say that the thought of selling my townhome, finding a new house, packing, packing, packing, and moving was overwhelming to me is an understatement. But, my desire to create the lifestyle I wanted for my family—one filled with friends and neighbors, one where my kids could roam freely and where I could create a beautiful space—provided the momentum I needed. That, plus a small army of friends and family.

Moving is one of the most radical ways to change a lifestyle. It provides a built-in opportunity to reset the way we live—everything from where we shop to how we spend our time. As my close friends and family have moved to Dubai, Germany, Chicago, L.A., or even just from the suburbs to the city (or the lake), I’ve watched their lifestyles change—and their lives, their energy levels, their hopes, their dreams, and their capacity for growth along with it.

But moving isn’t the only way to reshape your life.

Creating your lifestyle right where you are

For me, some parts of my lifestyle are so critical to my wellbeing that taking care of them comes as natural as breathing. In these areas, I don’t typically have to make many adjustments to feel in balance. You probably have your own areas like this. For me, some of the things that come easy are:

My surroundings
Call me hypersensitive, call me visually oriented, call me a snob, I don’t mind. All I know is I’m so directly affected by my environment I start to wither away if I’m in a space that’s drab, cold, and lit by fluorescent lights. (aka, the grocery store. And most office buildings.) By contrast, if I’m in a space that’s creative, warm, and beautifully lit, I come to life. I breathe easier, I focus better, and my creativity sparks. Honestly, that’s part of the reason I’m a work-at-home freelancer (and an Instacart grocery-delivery evangelist). For me, a critical part of my wellbeing is to surround myself with sights, sounds, and smells that spark life, and to drive the things that don’t spark life to the thrift store (where I usually end up buying more things that spark life—because rotating out my décor also sparks life).

None of this requires a concerted effort on my part. I do it because I can’t help it. But maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you haven’t taken a second look at your surroundings lately. If so, give it a try. I promise you your surroundings are affecting you—whether you realize it or not. So hygge up your winter. Cozy up your space. Brighten up your rooms. Buy yourself flowers. Light a candle. See what it does for your productivity—and your moods.

And, obviously, if you’re one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t yet watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, watch it now. Or read the book, which is what I did last year, followed by at least 14 SUV loads to the thrift store.

My friendships
I am relational to my core. People are my jam, especially in one-on-one or small group settings. Other than the aforementioned bumpy relationships, this part of my lifestyle energizes me, encourages me, supports me, and is pretty much always vibrant and alive. How about you? Are your friendships supporting you? Do they make you a better person? Are they getting the time and energy they deserve? Do you need some shifts in this area?

My downtime
The Ying to my friendship Yang is that I’m an introvert – so the one thing I need as much as I need people is time to myself. This is such a core (and sometimes desperate) need of mine that when the balance is out of whack, I reflexively start saying “no” left and right to every invitation. Or, when that’s not possible, I do lots of venting to my friends and take as many mini/personal timeouts as possible until I can get things back in balance. How about you? What do you need to recharge your batteries? Are you getting enough of it?

My work/life balance
I’m fortunate to say that I love what I do. I get paid to do work I enjoy. And, for most of my years as a freelancer, especially since I’ve been a single mom. I’ve worked really hard to maintain solid boundaries around my time, so I can support the household while also still being there for my kids and having time left for me. The choices I’ve made along these lines have kept me from certain kinds of career opportunities, but I’ve never regretted it for a minute. To me, balance was my most important goal. How about you? What are your most important goals and values? Is your work/life balance supporting that?

The harder stuff

And then there are the things that, for me, take a little (sometimes a lot) more effort to keep in balance. For example:

Movement
I spend a lot of time in my head. And my heart. I’m a thinker and a feeler. It requires serious discipline to get myself out of my brain and into my body. Lack of physical activity can drain and derail me if I don’t pay attention. Healthy choices are not always my first choices. I recently got a puppy (RED ALERT: LIFESTYLE CHANGE), and part of the reason was to get me out of my head, out of my house, and into the physical moment. And, holy cow, wow. Yes. It’s working. When I’m not chasing the pup, I’m getting fresh air every half hour for potty breaks or taking little adventure walks around the yard. I’m so appreciating the ways this new little creature is already getting me off my chair and into the air, and I’m looking forward to much more.

Housekeeping
Despite my need for pleasant surroundings, I have the magical ability to, for certain stretches of time, look past the dirty dishes and dust bunnies, almost as if they didn’t exist. I have an out-of-sight/out-of-mind superpower. If I can’t see the dirty laundry in the basement, it doesn’t exist. This can be a gift, truly. But I know it’s gone too far when my lack of upkeep creates, what I call, “a series of unfortunate events.” For example, purely hypothetically, when your new puppy has an accident on the living room floor and you go to grab a paper towel but the roll is empty from all the messes you’ve been cleaning, so you decide toilet paper will have to do, but the stack of replacement rolls in the bathroom is empty, so you go to the hall closet and that stash is also empty, and this leads you to the basement bathroom, where you steal the last remaining roll, and then you try to remember where you last used the vinegar/water spray and you think it’s probably upstairs in your office, so you run up to the office and by the time you return to clean up the accident it’s been tracked all over the living room. Proof that if I were to implement a little more regularity to my chore-doing lifestyle, I could eliminate some stress. And mess.

Spiritual Disciplines
This, too, is an area that requires effort for me. I know how life-giving it is when I sit in silence, prayer, and meditation. I know how much it feeds my soul to read and journal. And yet I resist. It’s a part of my lifestyle that I’m constantly working to shift.

Cooking
There’s no question that when my meals are planned—and healthy—life goes more smoothly in every way. I have to work at this. It’s not my default setting, but I make baby steps, and I celebrate those profusely.

These are just a few examples, and they’re just my own experience. But one thing that’s true for all of us: The lifestyle we choose will affect our hearts, our minds, our souls, our bodies. It will bring us peace, drive our success or leave us feeling depleted and crazed or anything in between. And the good news is this: We have control. We can shape our lifestyle. We can make small tweaks along the way—or sweeping changes all at once.

Did I mention I just got a puppy?

Yes. Sweeping changes. Lots of sweeping. But also, lots of snuggling, and playing, and laughing. I stepped back and decided I want a little more life in my home. I want some lighthearted fun. I want a sidekick. I want a lifestyle that will love me back. And, so far, the puppy lifestyle is doing just that.

My goal is to create a lifestyle that feels like a partner. How about you?

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Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and well-intentioned mom who almost never remembered to send lunch money to school. She’s perpetually the chilliest person living in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or at shortsandlongs.net.

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