The catastrophe of putting yourself first
I was brought up with a strong belief in the value of caring for other people. One of the biggest unforeseen sequelae of this seemingly nice value was the belief that this may require self-sacrifice. Now don’t worry, I am not here to vilify doing something kind for someone despite a hardship that it may result in for me. In fact, this type of self sacrifice can often have incredible benefits and can result in feelings of joy from being generous.
But I digress- I am here to clear up a big misconception that is costing tons of people happiness.
Putting yourself first doesn’t mean the people around you have to suffer.
Really it’s all in the wording. Putting yourself “first” implies that someone has to come second.
Why does that have to be true?
Why can’t we do things to care for ourselves AND love other people just as much?
We can, we just don’t even consider it as an option.
There are so many articles and apps on self care (and probably at some point I will write one... maybe I am right now). But what if the real obstacle to self care isn’t time or energy, family obligations or money, but rather the thought that someone else will suffer if we do things to make ourselves happier or healthier?
If that’s the case, of course we won’t pursue these things!
So let’s just agree to never use the wording “putting myself first” ever again: it’s a sneaky way to invoke guilt and who needs that?
Here’s the thing, if we can start building a better balance into our lives, we won’t need to build up self-care into something that requires a trip to a spa or a weekend away. We won’t need to keep finding ways to escape our daily lives. With a balance of love for everyone, including ourselves, we will be much happier in the day to day.
Self-care and loving other people can be mutually beneficial, not mutually exclusive.
Let’s see how this plays out in the model of thoughts→feelings→actions→results. We can use the ever present, new year example of exercise. Keep in mind this could work just as well for the “self-care” goal of getting out of work on time or prepping healthy food.
Thought: Exercising will take away the time from my family (AKA my family will suffer if I exercise)
Feeling: GUILT - UGH!
Action: Don’t exercise, get resentful, have no energy, burn out. Tell myself I have no option.
Result: My family suffers because now I am a crazy person- go figure, this is exactly what I was trying to avoid in the first place.
So what if you decide that the idea that others suffer as a result of doing something for yourself is simply a thought error? Simply just not true? What if we can just ctrl-alt-delete that thought?
Here’s what that could look like.
Thought: Exercise has nothing to do with how much I love my family (let yourself off the hook).
Action: Do it without the mental drama. Stop blaming my family or my busy life for my lack of physical fitness. Take control. Actually schedule time to exercise.
Result: I can love everyone AND exercise. No resentment :)
Once I come up with the thought that exercise has nothing to do with how much I love my family I come up with a bunch of supporting evidence (thoughts). My job is to love my family, not to protect them from every discomfort and kill myself in the attempt. That is an impossible task which will 100% lead to frustration. Life has some discomfort. Period. OR (if that seems harsh), let’s be honest, I would not likely be playing games and singing kumbaya with my kids if I don’t exercise. I would probably be telling them to pick up their shoes or get their homework done while I made myself busy with something else. Sound familiar?
Now some people admittedly have some more serious obligations than carpools and making dinner. How can this help if you have a dependent parent with dementia or a chronically ill child that truly relies on you for everything? This is where we have to use a more compelling thought.
Circumstance: Exercise and a dependent parent
Thought: My mom is totally dependent on me. I absolutely have to keep myself strong for her AND I can find a way to do it.
Feeling: Determined/ Committed
Action: Find a way to exercise while caring for mom. Short bursts of exercise throughout the day. Prioritize exercise over running errands when I have someone to watch her and find a way to delegate some of the errands.
Result: No one suffers.
The problem is, many of us try to use the “be strong for my family” thought when the circumstance isn’t quite as compelling as a dependent parent or ill child. You know the old “put your oxygen on first” analogy (can’t stand that analogy.) This doesn’t work for many of us because the truth is, our family is managing just fine right now without us exercising. So we don’t actually believe it to be true that we “need” to be strong for our families. Whereas, if I hurt myself taking care of a dependent mother because I am out of shape, this could have serious consequences.
You have to believe the thoughts or they don’t actually produce the feelings, actions, and results that you want. So if “I need to be in shape for my family” is totally unbelievable, maybe “I can love my family AND be in shape” seems more realistic.
Moral of the story: you CAN have your cake and eat it too.
Punishing ourselves into caring for others at the expense of ourselves is optional. Why choose that?
I choose to love everybody (including me) and see what that gets me.
What do you choose?
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