By Leila Ehsan
I hate to admit it, but I am terrible at putting myself first, despite the fact that this is to my detriment. In an age where self-care is constantly discussed in the media and on social networks, where information on means of practicing self-care is available at the touch of our fingers, I still have not managed to completely hack prioritizing myself. But as they say, admission is the first step in recovery.
One of the things I’m willing to confess is that I’m a perfectionist about school. School takes priority over most things; whenever I find school stressful, my room looks like the Tasmanian devil passed through. While that does not seem like the worst problem to have, it is not conducive to self-care. Another habit I can admit to is helping other people before I help myself. I tend to sacrifice precious sleep to help my sibling finish the homework they procrastinated on even though that’s their responsibility.
While this sounds generous, it does not help me get rest or my sibling learn a valuable lesson about time management and personal accountability. I also become like the irritable lion from the cave scene in Aladdin, wondering “who disturbs my slumber”? Ultimately, that would be me, myself, and I. I often promise myself I will quit these behaviors, but alas, I do not.
While I have not fully mastered my habits, I try to understand if this is a common phenomenon and why we do the things that we do that lead us to put ourselves last. While the following explanations and recommendations might not be universally applicable, the mere existence of the plethora of resources dedicated to these issues points to the fact that this is a ubiquitous issue.
In Get Out of Your Own Way, written by psychotherapist Mark Goulston M.D. and spiritual counselor Philip Goldberg, the authors contend that self-defeating behavior is one of the most pervasive reasons why people seek therapy. It is a vexing phenomenon to be aware of the need for change yet not know how to, or to be unable to, commit to actions that will serve you better.
They believe that this behavior is a coping mechanism that cannot provide lasting relief. By practicing awareness in the moments in which we must confront our habits and a creating system of self-reward, they claim, we can overcome our habits. I personally find it helpful to know that this problem is common, but I have to wonder: what is the root of the problem?
Part of the answer lies in societal drivers of behavior. In an analysis of about 42,000 American, Canadian, and British students, it was found that modern-day students are most likely to exhibit perfectionist tendencies — including perceived excessive expectations, unrealistic expectations of others, and irrational desire to be perfect. While their theory, that social media, and competition are drivers for perfectionism in students, has not been tested, perhaps the knowledge that we live in a hyper-competitive era can be used as motivation to cope with it.
I also have pondered whether my upbringing has affected my habits. I come from a family of immigrants, which I believe weighs upon my sense of self and my behavior. My own experience finds that both of my heritages come with an overwhelming sense of duty. This seems to be echoed among immigrant communities: according to a study conducted at CUNY, immigrant families have strong emotional bonds and emphasize familial responsibility.
Even when children feel burdened by their parents’ expectations, there is an overpowering sense of responsibility that emanates from the notion of parental sacrifice. On one hand, those with a bigger sense of familial responsibility report better well-being. On the other hand, Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, notes that boundaries upheld with care can make for better personal health and family dynamics.
I love following habit guru Gretchen Rubin on LinkedIn because she is one of the few authors who tackles why we struggle. In her book Better than Before, she explains that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to understanding where our habits originate. Rather, we all need to independently inventory our own tendencies to find solutions. Rubin offers a framework to sort oneself into a category of behavioral patterns. I find that I fall into the Obliger category.
Obligers, who are among the most common behavioral types, have a proclivity towards taking care of everyone but themselves because they respond to external stimuli. As counterintuitive as it sounds, overcoming Obliger tendencies requires me to stop viewing my habits as my Achilles heel and start using them as strengths. For example, because I am competitive, it was easier for me to find structures of external accountability to meet my goal of learning photography. If I didn’t sign up for a class at the local community college, I would not have cultivated the love and talent for photography that I now have.
Within my own schemes of external accountability, where is the balance? How can I take photography for fun without obsessing over the grade because I’m motivated by academic success? How can I get sleep while also helping my sibling? In my experience, I have to beat perfectionism by equipping myself to do so within my accountability structure. I was finding it difficult to get over the need to get an A in my photography class, so I decided to take the class pass/fail in order to hold myself accountable without needing to worry about performance.
With my sibling, I am giving myself a time limit for helping them. I find myself happier and more helpful when I do this. A sleep performance app might be useful for me so I can meet my sleep needs while also being available to help. I have also suggested that they enroll in a study skills course so they can learn how to balance their time.
It seems to me that self-care is a muscle that must be continuously strengthened. I constantly ask myself if I’m securing my own mask before helping someone else, or if I am using my perfectionism to my own disservice. Here’s one last admission that I hope readers find helpful: I’ve found that the sillier the means of reminding oneself to practice self-care, the more likely you’ll remember. I have developed a goofy habit of wearing bracelets with rainbow-colored beads that contain messages to myself. I use beads only in the Cyrillic script, so most people cannot read what they say. Of course, I still have to make sure that I actually wear the bracelets every day, but it helps the 70% percent of the time in which I do.
This article was originally published on Witted Roots.