So how do you know you need to simplify your life? For Susan Tolles, Director of Local Groups for 4word, it took decades of over-achieving and overworking herself and her family in pursuit of perfection before she realized she needed to make a change … or risk her legacy being affected.
4word: Have you ever struggled to keep things simple in your life?
Susan: When I reflect on my life, I see that I didn’t know I needed to simplify things, but I did need to. The most vivid memories I have of over-complicating my life were during the time I was a stay-at-home mom for 24 years. I poured my life into being a super-mom, super-wife, and super-volunteer. I had dinner on the table at precisely 6:30 every night (probably feeling very stressed). I made elaborate painted t-shirts and sweatshirts (thank goodness that era has passed!), we had picture-perfect Christmas cards (which didn’t show how agitated I had gotten trying to make my little ones sit still and smile), we made lavish Valentine cards for grandparents and relatives (most of whom my kids didn’t even know) and I closely monitored their school projects to make sure they were flawless (of course the teachers knew). I had a color-coded calendar with all their activities, and I took pride in the fact that I was all put together (on the outside, anyway) with children who were as busy as I was. Can you tell I am a perfectionist?
In my empty-nest stage, I was searching for something productive and fulfilling to do, so I took a giant leap of faith and created a website for women over 50. I spent hours and hours at my computer, once again striving for perfection and probably driving my graphic designer and web developer crazy with my sometimes-unrealistic goals. I had to hire someone to manage my social media because it was consuming me! Once again, I got lost in the details and forgot to enjoy the journey. It took several years, three websites, and some deep meditative prayer to realize that being on the first page of Google was not nearly as important as spending time with my family and friends. There is great freedom in getting older and wiser, when you care less about what others think and more about what is eternally valuable.
4word: Why do you think women have such a hard time keeping their lives free of busyness and to-dos?
Susan: One of the worst culprits is how we constantly compare ourselves to others. We wish we were smarter, younger, thinner, or more successful. We look at a friend’s God-given gifts and wish they were ours. We measure our progress as beginners against that of experts. We shy away from having guests over because our homes are not as nice as theirs, or we have a little clutter around, or we simply do not have a house that looks like it came out of a magazine. Life is not picture-perfect, but we live with the false belief that if we are not perfect in the world’s eyes, we have failed. We measure our worth by how much we accomplish instead of fulfilling the purpose God has called us to.
There is a risk in being vulnerable and real, which scares most women. Giving ourselves the grace to be imperfect, practicing self-love and seeing ourselves as worthy gives us the freedom to live authentically, embracing who God created us to be rather than who the world says we should be.
4word: Do you think there’s a correlation between a need for simplicity and the rise in depression and anxiety?
Susan: Absolutely. The more we feel we must do and be, the more we are stressed and stretched. It is easy to become exhausted when your calendar is overbooked. Neglecting self-care in favor of striving for more can certainly deplete the mind, body and spirit. Throw in the constant comparisons, fed by spending time on social media, and depression is too often the result.
One of my favorite scripture verses is Psalm 139:14, showing that each one of us is a miraculous creation of God, just as we are!
“I will give thanks to you
because I have been so amazingly and miraculously made.
Your works are miraculous, and my soul is fully aware of this.”
And another important reminder is in 1 Peter 3:3-4.
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment,
such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.
Instead, it should be that of your inner self,
the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
That last line says it all…a gentle and quiet spirit is of great worth in God’s sight. He doesn’t care about our to-do lists. He wants us to commune daily and share our anxiety with Him, which is impossible if we are so busy we can’t have a quiet time—even if it’s just a short moment to take a deep breath and pray.
4word: What are some common “enemies” of simplicity that keep our lives from calming down?
Susan: As I have walked alongside women as a Christian Life Purpose Coach, I have seen so much “heavy baggage” that weighs them down. Three of the most common are:
- Fear—fear of failure, fear of disappointing someone, fear of what others will think, and sometimes even fear of success. Finding confidence in God helps conquer anything the world throws at you!
- Perfectionism—striving to be like someone instead of the amazing woman God created. Being your beautiful, authentic self who is worthy in His eyes brings a sense of peace to your life. Practicing “good is good enough” is liberating!
- Unhealthy boundaries—saying yes out of obligation or guilt instead of setting boundaries with that all-important word “no.” Simplify your life by saying no more often to the things that don’t “light your fire,” and leave plenty of open space for those things that you want to do! Then you will feel more enthusiastic, energetic and joyful in the activities you choose to do.
Click here for “From Frazzled to Focused: 10 keys to Slowing Down and Simplifying Your Life.” I’ve used these strategies with my clients for years, and I am happy to share them with you!
4word: Last summer, you spent time in Uganda leading two women’s conferences. How did that experience impact your life in terms of simplicity?
Susan: I had an extraordinary opportunity to spend 10 days in northern Uganda with women who have very few resources. In their remote communities, they live in 15’ diameter mud huts with no running water or electricity and they cook over coal-fired pits. They sleep on mats on the ground and their daily meals are primarily beans and rice.
In each community, I spent two days sharing God’s truths about fear, shame and unforgiveness. Yes, they struggle with the same negative beliefs we do, but their oppression comes from poverty, war, sexual abuse and disease. I was deeply affected, seeing how they continued to praise God despite their heartbreaking circumstances. In some ways, they lead simple lives, not burdened by clutter or busyness. But their lives are also extremely hard, just trying to survive. What came through most of all was their beautiful faith in God, trusting Him to provide for all their needs. They don’t need a closet full of clothes and shoes in a house filled with the latest décor to know their eternal worth. These women radiate the joy of the Lord as they sing and dance, praising Him daily for His abundant blessings.
Since that trip, I have been simplifying my life. I have donated clothing to a women’s shelter and have taken two carloads of home accessories to a local thrift shop. When I buy something new to wear, I am committed to removing at least two items from my closet. I have gathered the things in my home that I haven’t used in several years and donated them to a disaster relief center. Now, I feel lighter, less burdened by “stuff” with greater freedom to enjoy life unencumbered. I tell my children “One day, you will thank me, when you don’t have to deal with all of this!” It is a gift to them for me to clean out now.
4word: Anything else you’d like to share?
Susan: A few years ago, I asked my three amazing grown children, “What was it about your years growing up in our family that made you who you are today?” Not a one of them said it was because of our perfectly-timed dinners, painted shirts, holiday cards or A+ school projects. Their answers were consistent and changed the way I look at perfection and busyness now:
- We had a strong faith foundation in our home. Jesus was the center of our lives.
- We had unconditional love for one another. My son said “I used to be grossed out when Dad would give you a kiss and a hug first thing when he got home at night. But that made a huge impression on me, something I will do with my wife.”
- We had respect for one another. There was always a “pecking order,” and parents were always above kids. We had boundaries, which gave them direction and a sense of security.
- My husband and I were involved in their activities. Apparently, many parents dropped their children off at their sporting or extracurricular events. At least one of us was always present to support our kids in whatever they were doing.
I had been an over-achiever, and no one noticed. I had wasted hours of precious time and energy on things that did not have lasting value. I had been exhausted at night, instead of allowing messes to stay put so I could get some much-needed rest. What did shine through to our children were our core beliefs, which are solid and traditional. That is our legacy, not perfection in unimportant things.
Your legacy is rooted in your relationships, first with God and then your family and friends. No one will remember what you checked off your to-do lists in years to come. What they will remember is how you impacted their lives through your words and actions.
Use the Focus Daily steps in this downloadable resource to simplify your life.
Is your legacy being sabotaged by being an over-achieving stressed out woman? We love Susan’s advice for letting go of the pursuit of perfection and focusing on rooting your time on this earth with what’s really important: God and those you love.
Susan Tolles is passionate about helping women flourish by inspiring and equipping them to live according to God’s purpose for their lives. Susan’s life’s journey has taken her from being a career woman to a rich experience as a stay-at-home mom, then to becoming a first-time entrepreneur at 53. As a Certified Christian Life Purpose Coach, she has been a guide, strategist and cheerleader for women around the globe who desire to live with deeper meaning, less stress and greater confidence in God’s calling. Susan’s created her nonprofit Flourishing Life International Ministries with a vision “to awaken hope and significance in women who have been wounded through abuse, addiction, exploitation and poverty.” Her book “Created to Flourish by God’s Design” is the foundation for that ministry and will be published Spring, 2018.
Susan is the Director of Local Groups for 4word, overseeing the development and growth of Local Groups globally. She and her husband Jim live in Austin, Texas. They have three grown children and an expanding nest of precious grandchildren who light up their lives.