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Sheryl Crow
Credit: Debi Del Grande

When I was 30, I was frantic and anxious. Even though I didn’t have kids, I was like a mom in an unhealthy way, trying to be a caretaker for the people around me. For whatever reason, I felt that if I got everything right, I would please everyone and be loved. And that belief was transferred into my music and my career.

My début record sold something like nine million copies, so when I went in to make my second one, I was paralyzed at first because I was trying to be the same person I was three years before. People liked that version of me, so I thought, “Maybe I should just keep doing that.” There was pressure to write singles that would sound good on the radio, to maintain my profile.

I was also a caretaker in my personal life. I continued to get into relationships where I made myself smaller and smaller and smaller. I’m a fix-everything person and didn’t have any boundaries. I’d just do what had to be done, as if I didn’t have any needs. I didn’t fight for myself.

I was really struggling in 2001, when I was recording my fourth studio album, C’Mon, C’Mon. My work had become weighed down with more importance to me than it should’ve had. But I thought if I stopped, I would disappoint people. I measured my self-worth by my productivity.

One day Chrissie Hynde [of the Pretenders] visited me in the studio in New York. She saw I was having a hard time and said, “Why are you doing this?” I told her, “If I get this record done, I can take some time off.” And she said, “But you won’t. Nobody does. You finish the record, and then you start promoting it, and then you go on the road.”

She was right. But I didn’t change in a meaningful way until 2006, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. All of a sudden it was like, “You have cancer, and you’re gonna lie on an aluminum table with your arm over your head, and you’re gonna think about this for a few months.” The best lessons in life are the ones that stop you in your tracks. I was staring down a beast in the mirror, and it was saying, “You need to start changing some things.”

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My radiologist, who was quite a stoic woman and someone I would never describe as buying into woo-woo philosophy, said, “There’s a lesson in this cancer experience. Don’t miss out on your lesson.” And I really believe that’s right. I needed to stop focusing on everyone else’s needs before my own, to set some boundaries and start saying no more often.

I also realized I’d been telling myself stories about what my life was supposed to look like. Because my parents have been married for 61 years, I know what a real relationship can be. I wanted to become a parent, but I’d created this mythology that there’s an order to the way things happen: You fall in love, you have a great relationship, and then you have children.

I had to let that narrative go. And as soon as I did, I started the adoption process. In 2007 I brought home my son Wyatt, and then, in 2010, I adopted my son Levi.

Now I have two boys who love each other and could not be more mine if I’d given birth to them. I also moved to Nashville, which slowed things down in a great way. It helped me put life in perspective even more. And I started taking time for myself. I meditate every day, and as someone who’s always been very hard on herself, it’s really helped to have some self compassion. These days I don’t step into the middle of messes that aren’t mine. And in terms of relationships, I think I’m better about picking people I don’t feel I have to fix. Now I take care of Wyatt and Levi, and that’s it.

The other thing I’ve focused on is just embracing my age, which has been liberating in every way. There’s something beautiful about being able to write music for grown-ups, being free from the pressure to succeed only in terms of radio play or sponsorships. In the past 10 years, once I let go of trying to be younger and needing to have a pop-radio career, I’ve found the space to write about things that really matter. It took me a long time to figure out how to have a healthy relationship with being an artist. I don’t get all my self-worth from it anymore.

At 55, I feel as if I’m closer now to the person I’m supposed to be than ever before. —As told to Leigh Belz Ray

Sheryl Crow's new album, Be Myself, is out now. For more stories like this, pick up the July issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download June 9.