It’s difficult for me to chime in on other people’s sleep deprivation stories. Their experiences are typically caused by appropriate reasons like energized toddlers, insomnia, stress, or excessive caffeine intake. My sleep deprivation stories are ugly and painful. They involve smashing my husband’s coffee pot and blowing through a red light at a high rate of speed. My sleep deprivation stories are filled with impatience, overreaction, and raised voices.

The most joyless period of my life was when I deprived myself of sleep to tackle multiple page to-do lists and appear to have it “all together” to the outside world. In reality, my precious life was being buried under too many commitments, too many screens, and too many self-induced pressures to be all and do all.

Getting only four or five hours of sleep a night contributed to my transformation from a positive person to a critical one. Each day, I woke up the same way I went to bed: irritable, ungrateful, exhausted, and unhappy.

Neglecting to give myself proper rest and self-care brought out the worst in me and contaminated the lives of everyone in my house. Thankfully, there was an unforgettable moment in time that allowed me to see the damage I was doing and provided a powerful motivator for change.

My older daughter was reaching for a snack on the top shelf of the pantry when she accidentally knocked over an entire bag of rice. As thousands of tiny grains scattered in all directions across the floor, I saw a look in my child’s eyes that made me stop breathing. She held the unmistakable look of fear.

What has become of me? I thought. My child made an innocent mistake, and she is terrified of my reaction.

That was not how I wanted my children to grow up. That was not the person I wanted to be. That was not how I wanted to be remembered after I was gone.

It was time to face the truth about why I stayed up so late every night to do far more than was necessary and at an unrealistic standard of perfection. I was allowing my inner bully to dictate my thoughts and actions. That critical inner voice was the one that pushed me to keep working, keep people pleasing, keep never enough-ing myself. It was the same voice that wracked me with guilt whenever I nurtured myself. Through daily prayer and restorative daily walks, I was given a three-word mantra to silence the negative critic and replace it with a loving encourager. That mantra was: Only love today.

Whenever a critical thought came to my mind or my mouth, I would cut it off with the words: “Stop! Only love today.” Sometimes I said it 1,000 times a day, but it worked. Only love today became a voice of grace in my head, in my heart, and in my home. Only love today inspired me to lovingly connect with my children every night at bedtime. No matter how many mistakes we’d made during the day, we were able to end the day on a positive, peaceful note. This time of connection was important for them, but it was critical to me. It became my signal to turn off my brain and body and give myself the rest and sleep it needed to thrive.

Today I am grateful for the most painful and pivotal moment in my life that happened when I was sleep deprived. It gave me ONLY LOVE TODAY, which is now the practice of my life through daily intentions like the ones listed below. Unlike regrets and broken glass, love and forgiveness offer us a soft place to lay our heads at night.

5 Ways to End the Day in Peace & Connection

1. Have “Talk Time”

Although my older daughter coined this term when she was a toddler, it is just as important to her 13-year-old heart now as it was then. It means for a handful of minutes, I push away my distractions, my to-do’s, my worries and regrets to be offer my undivided presence to my child. No matter how tired, stressed, or distracted I am going in, I come out feeling connected, peaceful, and renewed. Although I am grateful for this nightly ritual today, something tells me I will be even more grateful in ten years when I see the beautiful results of this daily investment.

2. Do a Heartbeat Check

My family members love when I lay my head on their chests and tell them what I hear. While one child’s heartbeat check brings laughter so intense that hiccups result, the other child’s heartbeat check inspires solemn talks of surgery, kidnapping, and terrorists. My husband’s heartbeat check brings deep conversation and physical closeness. Despite the different results from each person, the Heartbeat Check offers solace. No matter how crazy the day … no matter how discouraged I feel … no matter how dismal the state of our nation, the heartbeat check offers refuge. There is nothing more hopeful than the sound of the human heart.

3. Offer Soul-Building Words

Perhaps time is running short and you only have a few seconds to say goodnight. Make it count by speaking words that nourish the human heart and foster growth and acceptance:

· You make my life better.

· I love spending time with you.

· Seeing your face makes me happy.

· I am amazed at how much you are handling right now.

· I see your light and will do all I can to protect it.

4. Count to 50 in Your Head

Early on in my journey to slow down and be fully present in my life, I found it difficult to oblige when my daughter said, “Stay a little longer.” That is when I would count. I would count to 50 or 100 in my head. Every time I mustered that little extra time, my child would say something important, funny, or simply whisper, “I love you.” I would be thankful I stayed. I would be thankful I didn’t miss that moment to accomplish things that don’t really matter in the end.

5. Remember the Power of Presence

Maybe the connection between you and your loved one is strained. Maybe nothing on this list feels right. In that case, remember the power of presence. Remember you don’t have to have all the answers or the ability to “fix” a troubled heart. Sometimes our mere presence is enough. Simply say, “Can I sit with you? I love you and want you to know I’m here for you.” Our mere presence has the power to change a dismal situation into one of hope.

ONLY LOVE TODAY: Reminders to Breathe More, Stress Less, & Choose Love is a moment-to-moment resource of encouragement written & lived by New York Times bestselling author Rachel Macy Stafford. Each short entry (organized by seasons of life) serves as a re-set button directing us back to peace, connection, authenticity, self-care, self-acceptance, hope, and love. Secure your copy of this highly anticipated book here.

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