A Primer on Cycle Awareness

I first drafted this post and spoke about this topic on my podcast last week, in the throes of PMS – which, I swear, has gotten markedly more mood-swingy and roller coaster-ish since I turned 40. I decided to finish and post this today, since I am now in the “spring” of my cycle and heartily embracing imperfection. So here goes. Inhale curiosity, exhale judgement. Read on.

I realize this is not a sexy topic. But it’s an important one – for all women, and also for men who know/like/love/work with/hang out with women. Knowledge is power, people!

Cycle awareness has been an instrumental part of my recovery, of ditching diet culture, and embracing my 40s, with my childbearing years behind me and perimenopause (EEK) on the horizon. Having a better understanding of what my body is up to, and what my strengths are at any given moment has proven to be empowering, comforting, and motivating. I now wear the pants in the relationship between myself and my uterus. And by pants I mean something with stretch and an elastic waistband, obviously.

Why is cycle awareness so important? Well, if you have an irregular cycle like I do, the more you can understand where you are, the easier it is to deal – and even thrive, at every stage of the month. My cycle has been irregular for most of the 12 years or so that I have been off the pill, since trying to conceive our first child. It took us 15 months to get pregnant the first time, in part because I never knew exactly when I was ovulating and my period lasted anywhere from 25-35 days in any given month. Our journey to conceive our daughter was utterly agonizing. These days, my irregular cycle is more of an extreme annoyance. I no longer have the pressure of baby-making weighing on me and my hormones, but it’s still deeply irritating to never know when I’m going to get my period or how long my PMS is going to last.

Even if your cycle is regular and reliable, it is still helpful to know what your particular strengths are in any given week. Much of what I now know about cycle awareness I learned from the book Period Power by Maisie Hill. I love this book. I highly recommend this book.

With her vast knowledge and experience, plus her British charm, Hill expertly holds our hands through the process of learning about the female body. She divides the phases of the monthly menstrual cycle into four seasons:

  • Winter – from day one of your period until the end of your period
  • Spring – from the end of your period until just before ovulation
  • Summer – pre-ovulation to post-ovulation
  • Autumn – post-ovulation to the last day of your cycle (basically, PMS)

Winter and Spring comprise the follicular phase, from menstruation to just before ovulation. This phase is dominated by estrogen, or “your Beyoncé hormone” as Hill calls it. During Winter, which is when you have your period, you may feel tired and anti-social, but this is also a powerful time for introspection and listening to your gut. “Consider how you can clear out the old to make way for the new and shine the spotlight on what’s important to you,” Hill says. “When you make space and are present during your Winter, you’ll find yourself gifted with insights and creative solutions to problems you’ve been stewing on for a week or a decade.” If you feel run-down, rest. If you feel heavy and uncoordinated, steer clear of tabata and HIIT workouts. Try meditation. Being present during this time can pay off in a major way, as you are setting yourself up to maximize the potential of the next few seasons of your cycle.

Enter Beyoncé. As your period wanes, your estrogen kicks in and you start to feel like a million bucks. Spring has sprung! Your skin is glowing, you’re waking up before your alarm, and a workout that seemed impossible just a week before is now an endorphin party for one. Embrace your curiosity, your zest for life, your playfulness. “Spring is not the time for perfection, in fact, sod perfection and aim for incompetence,” encourages Hill. This is the season of giving no Fs. Enjoy it.

Summer and Autumn make up the luteal phase, from just before ovulation to the day before menstruation. This phase is dominated by progesterone, which Hill accurately and hilariously calls “The Great Sedater.” Summer starts right before ovulation and lasts until PMS sets in. This season is a bit of a roller coaster, as you may feel like an invincible rock star before you ovulate, and then crash and feel miserable after you ovulate, only to bounce back before crashing again during Autumn. But despite the curveball of ovulation, Summer is an ideal time to tackle big, audacious projects or goals. Challenge yourself. Stay brave. Strut your stuff in the arena. And don’t forget to prioritize sleep, especially after ovulation.

Autumn is the doldrums. This season is also impacted by your stress level – so if you’re going through, say, a global pandemic, or any other big stressor in your life, your Autumn may cut Summer short. JOY! NOT. Autumn is the pits, but it can still be a productive time once you’re aware of your strengths. This is the time to bask in your assertiveness (Tell it like it is!), explore your ability to concentrate more deeply, and focus on your priorities. This is a great time for reviewing and editing, or embracing your inner Marie Kondo.

Autumn is also when your inner critic comes out of hibernation. You are at your most vulnerable and your inner critic knows it. Hill recommends several strategies for dealing with your inner critic (feel free to tweak the pronoun as necessary):

  • Hunt her down.
  • Stand up to her.
  • Grill her.
  • Challenge her.
  • Kill her with kindness.

However you decide to navigate your relationship with your inner critic, know that Autumn doesn’t last forever. Eat regularly (yes, your body will want more food (read: ALL THE CARBS) during this time and yes, you should feed it) and rest up. Try to keep boundaries intact and don’t hesitate to say no. Once you get your period, this all starts again! Yeehaw!

As I said at the start, I wrote the first draft of this post during my Autumn. I was not in the mood to put photos on social media. Writing felt clunky and even tedious because the words did not flow as smoothly and confidently as they do during other times in my cycle. My inner critic was having a field day, telling me I’ll never make it as a coach or a writer, telling me I’m fat, telling me all the nasty things. But because I was aware that I was in my Autumn, I told my critic to F off. I purposefully drafted this post during Autumn because it’s more research-y than my usual blog posts, and I knew my capacity for concentrating was high.

I am finishing this post in the early days of my Spring. I know it’s not perfect. It’s not my best writing, I could have gone further in depth, blah blah blah. But you know what? I’m also in the mood to just fling this out into the world and hope it helps someone, so I can move on to the other projects on my plate today. Also, the huge, red volcano of a clogged pore that I picked during my Autumn has now settled and almost completely healed. Life goes on.

Cycle awareness has helped me in so many ways, the most critical of which is that I am more kind to myself. Where I used to be severely lacking in self-compassion, I am now positively brimming. If I feel more hungry than usual, it’s probably because I’m in my luteal phase and my body actually needs more food, so I eat without guilt. If I have a crappy workout, it’s probably because I’m doing something that is too strenuous on top of my hormonal load, and I can choose to change it up or, if I stick with it, modify without guilt. Case in point: I had scheduled a 45-minute full body strength class during my Autumn. I knew this was not great timing, but decided to go for it anyway. I felt sluggish and heavy, so I modified by using lighter weights and doing fewer reps. I commended myself for doing the best I could and reminded myself that if I do the same workout in my Spring or Summer, I’ll feel like a total badass.

I used to blame myself for not being able to crush a workout or for being too hungry on any given day. Now I know that this is my body and my hormones doing exactly what they have evolved to do: protecting me and optimizing my system to be able to grow a human. Which I did. Twice. Now I know that my body deserves grace, not grief. These monthly hormonal fluctuations should be honored, not fought against. Cycle awareness has helped me learn to listen to my body without judgement; and in the process I have come to appreciate my body more than ever before.

Now I realize instead of denying the messages my body is trying to send me, it’s much more helpful to listen and respond. It’s not weakness to take a nap because I’m extra tired during PMS. If I want to tack on that extra strength training workout during my Summer, I go for it. The more in tune I become, the more inner peace I feel. That may sound crunchy-granola, but it’s true.

If you want to start becoming more aware of your cycle, here are four quick tips to get you started:

  1. Educate yourself! Again, I highly recommend Period Power: Harness Your Hormones and Get Your Cycle Working For You as a great starting point.
  2. Track! I use my Apple Health app to track my period days, and I also jot notes in my bullet journal daily. Once you have a few months’ worth of notes, you can clearly see patterns and gain a deeper understanding of how your body handles each season.
  3. Balance your to do list! Make sure that along with all the have to’s there are activities that align with where you are in your cycle: workouts, down time, social time.
  4. Remember gratitude! We all know someone our age who no longer menstruates – perhaps a breast cancer survivor or someone who has dealt with early-onset menopause. Stay grateful, friends. As much as your cycle can feel physically and mentally irritating and even excruciating, appreciate that your amazing body is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.

I would love to hear your thoughts on cycle awareness, and how your relationship with your cycle has evolved. Please leave a comment! The more we normalize discussing things like this, the more grace we will give ourselves and each other. Be good to you, my friends.

Take the Compliment and Run

I made this post a podcast! Woohoo!

May 2021. A quick update:

1,034 days alcohol-free. 14 months into the pandemic. 7 days since my second vaccine (and still feeling fatigued, but grateful! Yay science!). 8 weeks to go in my kids’ school year. 2 giant jars of Nutella sitting in my pantry. 1 new office space in a niche off my bedroom that has me feeling super inspired and recommitted to this blog, to writing with a lower case “w” (#recoveringperfectionist), to putting myself out there more often in the hope that someone finds solace in my vulnerability and feels a little more inspired to just keep going.

Just keep going. Just do the next thing. That is enough.

Sometimes the next thing is a small task: brushing your teeth, packing a school lunch, walking the dog. And sometimes the next thing is a big ol’ leap. I did one of these big next things a few weeks ago when I finally decided to enroll in a program I’ve been pondering for the last couple of years, the IAPRC Certified Professional Recovery Coach dual certification program. By November(ish), I will be a Certified Professional Coach and a Certified Professional Recovery Coach. And I swear I didn’t just do it so I can add a lot of acronyms after my name:

Jennifer B. Butler, AB, MBA, CPC, CPRC

Although that looks pretty awesome.

My gut made me do it. This pesky gut of mine keeps clinging to wanting to write a book (yes, that is still on my bucket list and yes, it still terrifies and intimidates me on a daily basis); and, since becoming alcohol-free myself, wanting to help others ditch booze in a professional, entrepreneurial, mom boss kind of way.

I am absolutely loving the program so far. It has been like yoga for my brain. I feel more limber and stronger for having applied myself to the modules, worksheets, and practice exercises. I feel the invigoration of a long-overdue, much-needed mental stretch. My inner critic is having a field day trying to come up with ways to sabotage me (most involve scrolling Instagram – so unoriginal) but I have kept her at bay so far.

Just do the next thing.

When I was a wine mom, my inner critic was living large, spitting a constant barrage of abuse that sent me to my wine fridge on a daily basis. Wine crippled my ability to stand up for myself. Wine made me feel incapable of weathering discomfort. Again and again, I chose to numb. I didn’t believe I was strong enough to stand up against that voice that told me I wasn’t good enough, thin enough, smart enough.

Yesterday, in the midst of lingering fatigue from receiving my second Covid vaccine, my inner critic once again tried to get the best of me. “You will never be able to start your own coaching business. So many smart, pretty, successful women are already doing it. You’ll never actually be able to find any clients. You’ll wimp out on this, just like you’re doing with your book.” (That last one is a particularly low blow.)

I heard her. I felt hurt by her. But I did not open a bottle of wine. I did not even open one of the giant jars of Nutella. Instead of slinking away and numbing myself to those words that slashed me from within, I talked back. “Oh hi, inner critic. My, how vocal you are today! You make me feel pretty awful. But you are just a voice. You have no power. And using alcohol or sugar will only give you the power you crave. So I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to acknowledge that you’re there and try my best to do nice things for myself until you fade into the background where you belong.”

I took a nap. I took a shower. I walked my dog. I read a magazine. I meditated. I jotted in my gratitude journal.

I took my power back.

And today, I took more of my power back my taking some compliments.

I have an email account tied to this blog, but I rarely check it. Over the last few years I have received some really wonderful, heartfelt notes from people who have read this blog, or found me on Connect or Instagram, or read my posts on Motherly or This Naked Mind.

I never wrote anybody back.

This is VERY unlike me. I am a good correspondent. I keep in touch with people. I like writing emails. But for some reason, I just could not bring myself to respond to these very kind emails – some of which have been sitting in my inbox since 2018.

This morning, I sat at my new desk in my new office space – a bright, happy, vibrant office space fit for a life coach – took a deep breath, inhaling who I want to be and exhaling my inner critic’s b.s., and I wrote everybody back.

In her book Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes has a brilliant and hilarious chapter on taking compliments (and how many women suck at it). She reminds us:

“No one is obligated to compliment you.

“They do it out of kindness.

“They do it because they want to.

“They do it because they believe the compliment they are offering.”

Today, finally, I chose to receive these compliments. And I wrote everybody back to acknowledge them (well, and to grovel a bit for my tardy replies). I created a folder in my email called “Gold Star File” and I moved all of the wonderful emails there. Then I printed some of them out, to keep these compliments at hand for the next time my inner critic dares to pipe up.

But I think, if I keep on this path of believing in myself and my ability to be a great coach and a great writer, my inner critic’s pipes will fade to peeps. And I’ll be able to focus on my life’s work instead of drowning in self-doubt.