What’s on your to-do list today, and how much of that revolves around other people?
The chances are, that your day is filled with obligations such as work and family commitments, with little free time to focus on anything else. Whether you do the 9 to 5 work-commute routine, work from home, or are a full-time parent/carer, you probably often feel pulled in a lot of different directions.
It may be the demands of your boss, the expectations of your friends, or the needs of your family that keep you busy from morning till night, and this may all seem perfectly acceptable to you.
It could become so normal that you don’t even realize that while you are running around after everyone else, you are neglecting your own needs. You may find it difficult to say no when asked to help out, or haven’t set reasonable boundaries that can give you space to live your life too.
Many women feel obliged to take on the role of carer, are more than ready to compromise when it comes to their personal desires, and think nothing of putting others first. My sister-in-law is a great example of this and the more I notice this about her, the more I see the wear and tear that it has on her personal well-being. Dina is a lovely person; caring, compassionate, kind, and a great mother, who will go out of her way to tend to everyone’s needs.
As a primary school teacher, she spends her working day with young children and always goes to visit her elderly mother after finishing work.
She’ll do the tidying up, see to medications, and keep her mother company for a couple of hours, despite having a paid, live-in carer for her mother. When Dina returns home, she sees to her own household chores and cooks for her husband (who, incidentally, works from home) and two grown-up sons. I think she probably collapses into bed around 10 pm, feeling exhausted and drained.
I do admire her values of wanting to be a good daughter, wife, and mother, but see that she devotes no time at all to herself. As a consequence, she has told me that she feels desperately unhappy and trapped, yet can’t seem to find a way to break the cycle of prioritizing the needs of others before her own.
The obligation that she feels to put others first is such a strong pattern of behavior that she can’t get past it. There are millions of Dinas out there; women who have become accustomed to making their happiness a low priority, women who are so selfless that they become empty and deeply discontent.
If you are single, you may not have that many commitments, but still spend a large part of your day making sure that you are pleasing people, be that your colleagues, your boss, friends, or even neighbors. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless you give so much of your time and effort that there’s nothing left for you. Those of you with families will know that from the moment you become a parent, you automatically focus on seeing to the needs of your children and put your own priorities on the back burner. Nothing wrong with that, until you completely run out of steam and become of no use to anyone.
If you are a stay-at-home-mum, not only will you be involved in rearing your children, but you probably wear a few other hats as well. You may be the cleaner, cook, plumber, electrician, technician, accountant, teacher, playmate, counselor, psychologist, and supervisor. That’s a lot to take on in a day, leaving very little room to simply being you and meeting your needs.
Perhaps you are in part-time or full-time employment, and still need to spend your free time in any or all of the above roles, which can be extremely demanding and stressful.
We’ve kind of gotten used to this idea that prioritizing ourselves is selfish and that we aren’t good mothers, wives, partners, daughters, or friends if we self-indulge. Our job is to care, nurture, love, and protect our family, which means attending to all of their needs.
You could even say that we aren’t supposed to have any needs of our own when fulfilling that role, which is why many women suffer from a midlife identity crisis once their children reach adulthood. They suddenly realize that they don’t know what their role is anymore since their ‘job’ has been to look after dependents for the past 20 years, so now what?
Why making yourself a priority in life isn’t selfish?
I know that’s something you may find difficult to get your head around because it goes against everything that you have probably been taught until now. We women are brought up to be professional givers and expert multi-taskers who selflessly strive to make everyone happy, even at the expense of our own needs.
It’s no coincidence that we feel guilty when we want to take some ‘me’ time or choose to focus on ourselves instead of others. Family and friends may find it hard to accept that you need to look after yourself first and society often frowns upon women who don’t seem to be sticking to the rules in that respect.
But prioritizing yourself doesn’t mean ignoring the needs of others, having a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude, or being neglectful. It simply means making sure that you are taking enough care of yourself so that you are in good physical and emotional health. It’s not an either-or dilemma.
You can still be caring, nurturing, compassionate and helpful while seeing to your own wants and desires. In fact, it’s a must. Look at it this way: how efficient can you really be if you are running on empty?
It’s admirable to be altruistic and to want to help others because that ultimately makes us feel good too. Knowing that you have done your best to tend to a sick relative, helped out a friend, or gone out of your way to assist a colleague are all marvelous acts and no one would deny that.
But often, there is a cost, which may include forsaking your free time, changing your plans, or having to offer too much emotional support. You may push yourself to the limits, forgo your own wants and even make sacrifices that can have a negative impact on your life.
If you aren’t aware that this is going on, not only will the wear and tear eventually show in your health and well-being, but it will also have a ripple effect on the ones you are trying to take care of in the first place.
When you see it from that perspective, self-prioritizing is really about maintaining a certain regard for yourself that enables you to be your best. Self-compassion is fundamental to that, and if you want to create a good life for yourself and those who matter to you the most, you need to practice it daily. Even a boxer in a ring needs to spend some time out in the corner to have his injuries seen to, right?
Research on how health workers are affected by their jobs point to two outcomes — burnout and compassion fatigue. This is an example of how working in the caring profession can cause serious problems to those involved, but it also shows that when you are constantly seeing to the physical, emotional, or practical needs of others, eventually it will wear you down.
You could suffer from stress, a feeling of hopelessness, indifference, pessimism, and a lack of energy and motivation. If that was your full-time job, you would probably be granted sick leave in order to get better, but when it’s your life, how can you take time off from that?
As I said earlier, we women have grown up thinking that we have to give it our all and it wasn’t until very recently that we heard it’s OK to have needs, desires or demands. Even expressing those three is often hard for us though, because we don’t want any fingers pointing at us or be accused of complaining. No, we prefer to soldier on, paying little attention to what we want, because it’s not a priority. Of course, you have to learn how to master relationships.
But right now, I’d like you to look at the examples below, and decide how comfortable or uncomfortable you would be in each situation, on a scale of 1 to 5 ( 1 being perfectly OK with it and 5 being totally uncomfortable). Here goes:
1). You and your partner have been invited to a party but they become sick. You go to the party anyway.
2). Your kids are begging you to get a dog but you refuse to give in to them.
3). You spend all day Saturday shopping with friends, even though your boyfriend wanted to spend the day with you at home.
4). You arrange tennis lessons for every Sunday morning, leaving your partner to look after the kids and cook lunch.
5). Your best friend wants to borrow your new dress but you refuse to lend it to her.
6). You make the decision not to have children, even though your parents were so looking forward to being grandparents.
7). You arrange to pay for a caregiver to attend to your elderly father’s daily needs, rather than providing the care yourself.
8). You ask a neighbor to pick up your kids from school today, as you have a hair and nail appointment.
9). You refuse to work overtime this Friday, much to your boss’s dismay, because you have made plans to go to the cinema with friends.
10). You decide to have a short mini-break alone this weekend, without your partner.
I can already tell that you may find some of the above pretty uncomfortable proposals and a few of them may even be completely unthinkable. I also know why you would feel that way. How dare you choose yourself over others? That’s shameful, selfish, and downright uncaring. How could you!
Yes, this is the kind of criticism that you may believe you will hear, and no one likes to be criticized. In fact, most of us can’t imagine anything worse than being called selfish, because it goes against everything that we aspire to be. And that’s exactly why we don’t prioritize ourselves — we don’t want to be bad people.
The idea that women are natural carers and nurturers is deeply ingrained in many societies and, traditionally, that is the role they have been given.
The expectation was that women can offer their services from morning till night without needing any care in return and it’s a concept that has been handed down from one generation to the next.
Many of us are learning to overcome this mindset as we forge our own paths in our professional and family lives but there is still some hesitancy when it comes to challenging this role of full-time carer. It’s almost as if we feel that we are betraying the ones we love, and in doing so, we betray ourselves instead.
But, hold on a minute. Didn’t we say that taking care of your own needs is important? That means doing what is best for you so you can ultimately be your best for others.
If your partner is sick with something like a common cold, what point is there in you staying home? Why would you feel guilty about going to the party without them?
No matter how much you love dogs, you know more than anyone the amount of time and attention they need. If your kids aren’t old enough to handle that responsibility, what’s so wrong with refusing their wishes?
You love having an all-girls shopping day out, and would much prefer that instead of spending all day at home. Is that so bad?
As for those tennis lessons, don’t you deserve some time off from your domestic and parenting duties once a week?
Regarding that new dress, you haven’t even worn it yet so refusing to lend it out seems perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it?
Your life choices are yours alone, and although it may go against your parent’s desires when you decide not to have children, you have to stay true to your values, don’t you?
The strain of having to look after your elderly father may just be too much for you to handle. It’s fine to pass on that responsibility to someone else who is also a professional, isn’t it?
Asking for help with your kids when you need it isn’t such a bad thing, and wanting to look your best doesn’t make you selfish or vain, right?
Valuing your free time, even if your boss doesn’t, is very important and you don’t need to feel that you have let him down by refusing to work overtime, do you?
Spending any time alone can be just what you need to recharge and we could all do with more of that, so why would the idea of going on a mini-break alone present such a problem?
Maybe you would feel OK about doing some of the above, or perhaps you believe that several of them are just darn wrong. Whatever your beliefs are, I’m not trying to change them or to challenge your values.
What I would like to do is ask you to consider what aspects of your life may be draining you or harming your well-being. Can you do that?
Often, many of the problems we are trying to cope with have to do with that running on the empty syndrome. Giving too much of our time and energy to others can leave us feeling drained, tired, frustrated, and discontent.
Part of that is because we haven’t learned to say ‘no’, but mostly it’s about our misconceptions surrounding what we should or shouldn’t be doing. There are several reasons for that, and like most things, a lot of them stem from how we were brought up and what expectations have been placed on us.
But, as you know, we can change and it’s never too late to do a mental reboot and view life differently.
How do you draw the line between acting selfishly and living a happy life?
How easy is it to draw the line between acting selfishly and living a life that brings you contentment and happiness? How do you balance looking after yourself with being a good partner, friend, mother, or colleague?
You may feel confused about that, or the line seems blurry, which means that you find it difficult to self-prioritize. Below are a few questions that you may want to ask yourself to help you to gain clarity:
1). Do you feel depleted, exhausted?
2). How energetic do you feel and how often do you do things that you enjoy?
3). How often do you think that you ‘should’ help someone else, even though you don’t feel like it?
4). How often do you go through the motions of helping although not fully engaging in a meaningful way?
5). How often do you feel recharged by what you do?
6). How often do you take a break from your responsibilities?
7). How often do you go above and beyond to satisfy the needs of others? And here are some more to think about:
8). Do you want to be the perfect mother, chef, chauffeur, coach, cleaner, lover, partner?
9). Do you feel that you have made personal sacrifices in order to make others content?
10). Do you complain a lot about not being happy?
11). Do you feel guilty when you don’t give 100% of your time and energy to others?
12). Do you occasionally have stress-related outbursts?
All of the above are normal habits of many women; learned ways of behaving, thinking, and feeling that we have adopted along the way and, like all habits, they can be broken. It’s a wonderful thing to be kind, generous, and caring, but when we lose touch with our own desires, wants, and needs, there is a fallout and our quality of life is affected.
In that respect, it’s good to be ‘selfish’ now and again, if that means putting yourself first so you are better able to help others. That’s the concept that you have to get your head around, and once you understand that self-care and self-compassion can make you happier, you will be able to enjoy life more with your loved ones.
They say that charity begins at home and, in this case, so does self-love. With some small changes to your daily routine, you can begin to see the benefits of tending more to your needs and prioritizing yourself.
Best Ways To Incorporate Self-Care
Start introducing the tips below into your life gradually and note how you feel after a few weeks. As you begin to adopt new habits, you will feel a renewed sense of energy and contentment, while still being the caring, loving woman that everyone knows you are.
1. Make time for yourself
Whether it’s ten minutes a day, an hour, or longer, get used to dedicating some time to yourself on a daily basis. Rather than slowing you down from all the things you have to do, this will enable you to feel stronger.
In that time, do something that helps you to focus on yourself, be it walking, meditation, or writing in your journal. Anything that nourishes your inner you is fine.
2. Give yourself a pat on the back
When you acknowledge your achievements, you will feel a greater sense of joy and pride. Whatever tasks you have completed, tell yourself ‘well done’ because you handle a lot and deserve praise for that.
There’s no need to dwell on what you haven’t done as that will only make you feel discontented and disappointed in yourself.
3. Create SMART personal tasks
Set yourself three personal tasks that you want to do each day and make sure that they are specific, manageable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. If three seems like too many, reduce that number to two.
They should be things that add to your self-care such as a five-minute workout, a facial, reading a chapter of a book, going for a short walk. Anything that is done for pure pleasure is worth doing often!
4. Eat for happiness
The food you eat turns into energy, so choose wisely when you go to the supermarket. Avoid buying over-processed, fatty foods with artificial preservatives, no matter how difficult that may be.
Fill your cart with fresh produce and begin eating more healthily, which is a great way to spoil yourself and boost your immune system.
5. Stop trying to multitask
The only one who truly appreciates your multitasking skills is you, and at great cost to your stress levels. Instead of trying to do everything simultaneously, focus on doing one thing at a time. No one expects you to be perfect so stop telling yourself that they do and remember to add your SMART tasks to your day — they are equally important.
6. Sleep soundly
After running around all day tending to the needs of others, you may find that stress prevents you from having a good night’s sleep when you finally go to bed.
You need to adopt a sleeping routine that works to your advantage and this includes no screen time for at least one hour before bed, not eating heavy meals late at night, or consuming stimulants such as tea or coffee. Aim to get 7-8 hours’ sleep and you can even have a lie-in at weekends — you are allowed!
7. Spoil yourself
Believe me, it is perfectly fine to indulge yourself now and again and it doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. Treating yourself to something simple can boost your mood and it’s a way of honoring yourself.
You can pick up a few flowers on your way home or sit down to your favorite dessert. Whatever it is, know that you deserve some small pleasure in life without feeling guilty about it.
The above examples are easy habits that you can start introducing to your life and they won’t disrupt your daily responsibilities. But making yourself a priority isn’t just about easy hacks. It also requires you to have a conversation with yourself about what is important to you, what problems you are facing and finding ways to alter your perspectives.
Here is where writing down how you feel can really help. You could invest in a journal, which is a great way to express yourself and it also gives you the chance to chart your progress over time.
Any old notebook will do but why not buy yourself a fancy one and enjoy writing in it even more? Go on, treat yourself.
You can begin by making a list of what makes you happy. It could be spending time with friends, walking along the beach, traveling, going to concerts, staying home and watching movies, or even mountain biking.
Just write down whatever comes into your head and after that, consider how often you do those things.
Next, write down how you feel when doing any of these activities. Do you feel free, content, excited, relaxed, pumped? These are all positive vibes that can release stress and more than that; these are all feelings that you need to experience in life.
They bring wholeness and richness to your very being and help you to nurture more self-esteem and inner balance. It can’t all be about meeting the demands, needs, and wants of others at the expense of your own well-being. Let’s face it; if you feel better about yourself, you will project that to others around you too.
Another thing that you can include in your journal is a list of some of the occasions when you have said yes to someone when you would much rather have said no.
As you write them down, think about how you felt when you agreed to them. It’s a common habit, as we don’t wish to disappoint, let down, or come across as mean. You may, for example, have canceled a night at the theater because your friend just broke up with her boyfriend and wanted a shoulder to cry on.
It could be that you had agreed to order pizza because your partner fancied it when you would have much rather preferred to eat Chinese. No big deal, you may say, but if you make a habit of being a ‘yes’ person all the time, you are actually saying ‘no’ to your own desires or wants.
This is something I have already mentioned earlier in the book, but it really is OK to say ‘no’ sometimes. You will thank yourself for it and, in reality, you are showing others that you too have needs that should be met.
There is nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make you mean, selfish, uncaring, neglectful, inconsiderate, self-centered, egotistical, thoughtless, insensitive, or uncharitable. It makes you human.
I think that, deep down inside, you know that you need to value yourself more. You need to make yourself a priority, and you need to introduce and maintain boundaries. You are a caring person, so please begin with yourself. You can be big-hearted, generous, and kind whilst protecting your own needs. If people are draining your energy or disregarding your boundaries, you need to think about how to reset that balance for your own sake.
Free up more time for yourself, honor your own needs more often, encourage others to begin treating you with more respect, ask for help when you feel overwhelmed, and love yourself more.
When I pour into myself, I can shine my light onto others.