Messages From Your Body: What Every Smart Woman Needs to Know

For years, I’ve been speaking at a global conference for women in technology. It’s common for many of the attendees to work 60–80 hours per week at their fast-paced IT companies. When questioned about this, the women reply, “The men at our companies work crazy hours. We have to compete.” A lot of conference attendees remarked that the conference felt like a vacation for them, even though it was a working vacation. I saw many spending early morning pre- and post-conference and hours working at their laptops. There was a silent, workaholic, elephant in the room that no one was talking about.

After the conference, I felt called to address what I had witnessed. In preparation for the next annual conference, I created a talk I called, “Messages From Your Body.” With great excitement, I presented it to the organization’s conference planners. They were skeptical, dubious. No one had ever offered anything like this to conference attendees. There was doubt about whether the topic would attract participants. I held firm. This topic needed to be brought out into the open and discussed. The planners reluctantly agreed to offer the talk.

The day of the event, I felt both nervous and primed. How would the talk be received? I watched the room slowly fill. I began by describing the nonverbal ways our body likes to communicate, the obvious signs as well as more subtle ones. Clear aches and pains were our body’s messages telling us something needs to be addressed. If those symptoms lasted more than a few days, it was worth our attention. Where the aches or pains showed up in our body meant something. A headache, for example, could have as its cause mental and/or emotional causes. An ache or pain in our feet might signal a reluctance to tread in a particular direction. Vision problems might be a telltale sign of something we don’t want to see. I told the group that an intelligence lurked beneath physical aches or pains, designed to call our attention to something that needed to be addressed in our lives.

Dreams and emotions were meaningful too, also part of the hidden messaging system of our body. Our body “spoke” in distinct ways, communicating on a specific, symbolic level what it needed from us. Body messaging might range from “That relationship isn’t working for me,” to “It’s time to leave my job,” to “I need to live somewhere else.” Like a small, insistent child, body messaging would get progressively louder, if we chose to ignore the original ache or pain. Our body, urgent to communicate, could resort to car accidents or chronic disease, in its desire to make us pay attention. During my talk, I shared stories about coaching clients whose bodies had ultimately manifested cancers, to get them to finally leave abusive jobs or unhappy marriages. Their bodies would no longer put up with situations that were damaging to their wellbeing.

I described the many simple ways I teach to revitalize mental, emotional and physical energy, from mild yoga and nutrition to Breathwalk™ and Freeform Writing. I spoke of the healing power of sleep. I knew that many women in the room were sleep-deprived. The room became quiet.

After the talk, women thronged to the stage. Barely introducing themselves, they shared things they had been reluctant to share publicly. “For the past three years, my husband and I have spent a fortune trying to get pregnant, with no success. The doctors don’t know what to do anymore,” said one participant, her eyes welling up with tears. “My brain can’t shut off. I lay awake for hours at night,” admitted a second. “I’m so exhausted that I constantly worry about having an accident on the road,” confessed a third. Complained another, “The men at my company have wives to cook and clean for them, so they’re free to work. I have to do it all myself.” Still others confided that they often got so engrossed in their work that they didn’t get around to eating until the end of the day.

I listened to these secret outpourings with empathy and compassion. Underneath their workaholic mornings and evenings, I had sensed their pain. What concerned me most was that the women seemed weary, frustrated, resigned. Making change would take energy, and they had none left. They had given it all to the office. Alongside that weariness was fear. Change might rock boats they weren’t sure they wanted rocked.

Vacations and time off work well when we feel tired or even burned out. These women had been overworking for years. They had been toiling at a level that was now depleting what the Chinese call “chi” or life force. Each of us lands on this planet with a certain amount of chi. Once that’s gone, it’s gone. I had seen the dire effects of with two friends. My close friend Sheila barely slept. Talented, brilliant and driven, she pursued learning and achievement with an insatiable appetite. At 48, Sheila was told by a well-respected, elder shaman that her energy was at a critical low. He warned that if she continued, she would die within three months. It had never occurred to Sheila that her habits might be life-threatening. Sheila wasn’t ready to die and immediately sought the help of an onslaught of traditional and non-traditional practitioners. Sheila dutifully followed practitioners’ prescribed plans for a short while and then would revert back to her old habits. No one seemed able to help Sheila undo the programming that was driving her energy-sapping behavior. A year later, I attended Sheila’s funeral. It was a sad, sad day for Sheila’s family and the many of us who loved her. A second friend, Louisa, also died of overwork. Her personal mission to save the world meant getting little or no sleep. No one could convince her that she needed to save her own life first.

My first “Messages From the Body Talk” happened in 2010. While many companies have since launched health and wellness initiatives, too many women ironically still keep themselves too busy to take advantage of those initiatives. Fewer working people take vacations than ever before, and when they do take time off, they typically stay in touch with the office, often taking work with them wherever they go. The original concept of “vacating” isn’t happening.

Listening to the messages from our body enhances our health and vitality. Our bodies are often smarter than our mind. As an example, when we experience the early warning signs of a cold, our mind says, “I need to finish this project,” and wants to override the body. When our body says, “Hell, no!” our bodies gives no choice but to stop working. If we continue overriding our body, a mild cold can turn into something more severe.

Our willingness to experience our body as intelligent in its own right and cooperate with its messaging will not only increase our health and vitality, it will heighten our sense of self esteem and self worth. Over time, repeated listening to our body will translate into physical health and resilience, as well as higher workplace productivity and greater overall happiness.