We’ve all heard the common air travel safety phrase: you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting anyone around you. In other words, you can’t help other people if you’re not taking care of yourself first.
It’s an incredibly over-used metaphor, but for a good reason. We all get the wisdom in that instruction, especially if the aircraft we’re on loses pressure, and we have just a few seconds to get that air mask on before we pass out. All of a sudden, taking care of ourselves – and anyone else nearby who might depend on us – is a matter of life and death. When it’s that clear-cut, we’re happy to follow instructions.
So why can’t we do this in our everyday lives? Why are we all struggling so much with too many responsibilities and expectations? Why are we over-burdening ourselves without feeling like we can take even a few minutes to replenish and focus on our own well-being? What’s going on?
This question has been on my mind a lot lately. On the surface, it makes no sense. Yes, we live in a busy world these days. But we also have access to every single piece of research, information, and advice that’s been published throughout human history. We have all of that at our fingertips. There’s no shortage of help and support available to us if we want it. All we have to do is decide we’re ready, and it’s ours.
So, why aren’t we using all of that helpful advice to focus on ourselves for a little while?
Why don’t we craft a customized morning routine that will kick off every day with peace and serenity?
Why don’t we communicate with our partners in healthy and loving ways?
Why can’t we stop yelling at our kids?
Why can’t we be those Pinterest moms we’re all so jealous of?
Well, first of all, there’s not a universal explanation for everyone. We’re all different people. We’re motivated by different things. We’re afraid of different things. The reasons we struggle to put ourselves first are unique to each of us.
I’ve done a lot of personal development work over the years, and I’ve discovered a few reasons why I personally have a hard time putting myself first. I don’t see a lot of these reasons included in the broader conversations around self-care and burnout and living a healthy life, but they come up frequently in the work I do with working parents.
So, today I wanted to share some of what holds me back from putting myself first, in case one or two of these reasons resonate with you. These aren’t your typical “I don’t have enough time” explanations. We’re going to dig a little deeper today.
I will say that I struggle with some of these more than others today. Some of these things held me back in my twenties, and now they’re not as big a problem. Other things still come up often for me. Some of these reasons have been harder for me to let go of than others.
Understanding on a deeper level what I was truly getting out of not taking care of myself has played a crucial role in my own personal journey of escaping burnout. Identifying what holds me back on a more subconscious level has been the key to not letting those things prevent me from living the kind of life I truly want.
Here are some of the real reasons why I’ve had such a hard time putting myself first over the years, and still do sometimes.
I’m a recovering codependent.
First of all, I’m a recovering codependent. Codependency is one of those words that I think we all hear in general conversation but isn’t understood. I started with this one, because it’s been the one that causes me the most issues in my life, and it’s also the one that’s most ingrained in the fabric of who I am. Which means it’s been the hardest one for me to overcome. It’s my default mode, and I consciously have to remind myself to make choices that often aren’t comfortable or natural for me, like putting myself first.
You’ll probably find a lot of different definitions of codependency out there, but here’s one that resonates with me, which I discovered in an article by Medical News Today:
The codependent person is only happy when making extreme sacrifices for their partner. They feel they must be needed by the other person to have any purpose. The codependent has no personal identity, interests, or values outside of their codependent relationship.
I’ve been exposed to a fair amount of drama and intensity in my life, which caused me to focus on what was happening outside of and around me, rather than on my inner world. Over time I learned that I needed to manipulate situations so they wouldn’t get out of control. I did things like tell people I loved what I thought they wanted to hear, rather than being truthful about how I was actually feeling. I anticipated others’ needs very early. I offered solutions to other people’s problems. I tried to help them deal with their problems, even when those problems had nothing to do with me, and really couldn’t be solved by me. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t have the amount of control I thought I did, but I was obsessed with trying to control the situations around me for a very long time.
Helping people around me get through their turbulent lives became my only identity. I didn’t know anything outside of that until I was in my 30s. When other people were happy, I felt good. When the people I loved were sad, I felt the need to fix it, and I would sacrifice anything in my own life to do that. When other people were struggling, I wholeheartedly believed it was my fault. When other people were self-destructing, I knew saving them was the only way to make sure I was okay. My own needs really had nothing to do with it at all. I couldn’t even think about my own needs until the people around me were okay (and they were never totally okay).
I’ve done a lot of years of therapy, self-reflection, and research on codependency. Now that I’ve done that self-discovery, I’m much more aware of my red flags around codependency, so I don’t fall into that trap nearly as much. My relationships have really shifted a lot over the last ten years or so, but my default mode is still, and probably always will be, to make sure everyone around me is doing well before I even start thinking of myself. It’s something I always have to keep an eye on, and it’s one of the most important parts of avoiding burnout for me.
I hate confrontation.
Another reason why I have a hard time putting myself first is that I hate confrontation. For so many years, it seemed safer just to do whatever other people wanted so I could avoid conflict. Sacrificing my own needs in favor of maintaining the peace with the people around me was a tradeoff I was usually willing to make. As long as I was agreeable and putting others first, I didn’t have to face confrontation.
That also meant I didn’t have personal boundaries. Over time, I inevitably felt exploited by other people. Avoiding conflict backfired for me. I would bottle up my thoughts and emotions, and then when I couldn’t take it anymore, it would all come out in one big burst.
I’ve learned over the years that it is SO much healthier for me to, number one, set and enforce my boundaries. But I also have to take a deep breath, and address issues with the people around me as soon as there’s a whisper of resentment on my part. I know from experience that waiting until that problem festers and gains steam is NEVER productive. When the problem is small, I can bring it up more calmly and rationally, and I can also keep the focus on finding a solution with the other person. Even knowing this, I’m always initially tempted to give in to whoever wants something from me. I have to make sure I’m checking myself when I make commitments, to make sure I’m not just avoiding some kind of confrontation.
There are tiny humans who rely on me for survival.
As a mom, I have two little guys who literally rely on me for survival. That’s hard to set that aside, just so I can indulge in a bit of self-care (this is how it sounds in my head). I’m constantly in awe of how much they’re both learning, and I love that I get to be such a huge part of that. But with 2- and 6-year-old kids, I’m still very much in the fog of motherhood. Some days, they need so much from me that I forget I exist apart from their needs. I actively have to remind myself that it’s not selfish to take a few minutes away to eat my first meal of the day at 5:00 PM.
The other night I was out at a restaurant working on my book, and I finished up my first draft a little early. Instead of heading home to help my husband with bedtime, I did a quick check of movie times down the street. As luck would have it, an early premiere of the new Downton Abbey movie was starting in 15 minutes. I grabbed the last available seat and hightailed it over there.
It felt luxurious to take two hours to watch a movie I knew my husband would have no interest in. I sat there alone with my champagne and enjoyed myself for a couple of hours. At that moment, my little guys were taken care of, and I was happy. I came home feeling like a new person. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my kids’ well-being will improve if I put myself first.
Ignoring my own needs to focus on someone else’s just feels easier sometimes.
As a recovering perfectionist, workaholic, and codependent, putting other people first allows me to avoid dealing with my own issues. When something is going wrong in my own life, or I need to deal with a negative situation, it can feel good to turn off my stuff and instead become the expert on someone else. If I’m focusing on other people, I can critique and analyze and evaluate them and their life. It’s often much clearer to me how other people are failing and what they need to change.
Putting myself first requires taking the focus off everyone around me, and shining that light back on myself. I know I can’t simultaneously take care of my own needs while actively avoiding my own needs. It can take a lot of courage to face the things I’m not happy about in my life. But I know now it’s the only way through the pain. And now that I’m on the other side of the healing, I don’t have as much to deal with. It’s a lot more manageable now.
I get to feel superior.
This is related to the last point. If I’m helping someone else, then I must really have my act together, right? That’s the story I used to tell myself. My identity was all wrapped up in being the one who had her life together. I got a huge ego boost when I helped other people with their drama and emotional issues or their crisis of the moment.
I got to feel like a savior. I got to pretend that my life was perfect because we weren’t focusing on my life – we were focusing on theirs. I liked that feeling, and I incorrectly believed that it would protect me from critique from others. I didn’t have to be vulnerable or honest or open – it wasn’t about me, after all. It was all about them. They were the one who was struggling and had a bunch of problems. Let’s just keep our attention over there. That was much safer than being someone who had issues of her own.
I’ve since learned that putting my own needs first is tied to letting go of my savior complex. It’s not my job to judge or fix other people. My job is to make sure my life is working, and that requires keeping my focus within.
I like making other people feel good.
The last reason why it’s sometimes hard to put myself first isn’t quite as unhealthy as the other reasons: I just feel good about myself when I’m helping other people feel better in their lives.
When someone needs something from me, I often have to do that split-second of mental math to decide whether I would instead feel good helping someone else out, or whether adding that thing to my plate might overwhelm me to the point where I sacrifice my needs.
Sometimes that can be a hard call to make.
There are a lot of times when I’m feeling good and have the extra space in my life to support those around me. In those cases, it truly fills me up to be of service. I’m not sacrificing myself at all in those situations. In fact, I’m contributing to my health and well-being by putting others first.
We’re social animals, and I do believe being part of a happy family and a healthy society revolves around all of us helping each other when we can. It’s just sometimes hard to tell which commitments might overwhelm me, and which ones are okay to take on. There’s a fine balance, and at times I make the wrong call. But other times, especially if I’ve been doing the work to put myself first when necessary, I have plenty of energy to spare for other people. And that’s when everyone wins.
This is my list… what’s yours?
There are just some of the reasons why I have trouble putting myself first. This list is unique to my life. It may or may not sound familiar to you. You may have a whole other list of reasons why it’s hard to put yourself first in your life. It may take some self-exploration to figure it out, but it’s well worth the effort.
This article has been adapted from an article originally published on www.argenalinstitute.com.