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Why Not Taking Care of Yourself Is Selfish

It is impossible to care for others with pure generosity if you have not first met the needs of your body, mind and soul.

Photo credit: curiouslittlekid.com

Hi, my name is Sarah, and I am a Recovering Mother. For years, I was Everyone Else’s Mom, but I never took care of myself. I thought this was noble. I assumed this meant I sacrificed more than others. I believed having my phone on 24/7 sent the message I cared more for others than I did myself.

It was so bad that during the safety message on a flight, when the flight attendant reminded all of us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we help our seatmates. I thought, How selfish. I wish I was joking.

In my mind, I was such a good person. But why was I so tired and resentful?

It’s because I was a mother to everyone else but myself. Instead of nurturing myself first so I could care for others with true altruism, no strings attached, I sought to heal others so they might turn and help me.

It was a transactional love, a love that hoped for something in return. A neglected soul cannot love unconditionally, even if she wanted to.

This unmet need grew into an addiction, my illness. The more I helped others, the sicker I got. My soul in chaos and disarray, I frantically wondered when someone would come take care of me the way I cared for others.

I grew bitter. I felt no one saw me. But still I served. Because someone would come eventually, right?

It took me 32 years to learn no one was coming.

Driving home from work one afternoon, I silently griped to myself about all the work I was doing and how no one else worked as hard as me. I am so tired, I thought, as the long list of my many contributions to the world unfurled before me for the millionth time. This list was my proof that I was more loving and sacrificial than most people. But this list was also the reason I was one of the angriest people I knew.

I wondered when someone was going to pay attention to me and give me what I need since I take care of everyone else.

Out of nowhere, a disconcerting thought occurred to me. “Sarah, no one is going to take care of you. There is no mother coming with chicken soup. If you don’t take care of you, no one will.”

Ouch.

The truth stung, forcing me to reckon with it. I replayed the words again. “If you don’t take care of you, no one will.” The message was not that I was alone in the big, cruel world. It was a reminder to be responsible for myself. My faux selflessness was getting called out as selfishness. And it hurt.

After all, as a therapist, my training taught me I am in control of and responsible for myself. I aim to model life as a self-controlled person who knows when to say “Yes” and “No” to others by taking ownership of the state of my soul. Yet this habit of caring for others before I cared for myself flew beneath the radar of my awareness for years.

That day I learned a person who is not in control of herself, who compulsively says “Yes”, and believes sacrifice without self-care is noble, this person is imprisoned by her own unmet needs.

So to all you Recovering Mothers out there, the ones who say “Yes” when they mean “No” and are waiting for someone to take care of them, put on your oxygen mask first because it is impossible to care for others with pure generosity, seeking nothing in return, if you have not first met the needs of your own body, mind and soul.

Stop demanding others care for you by taking care of everyone but yourself. If you need something, say something. Allow a trusted partner, friend or mentor access to encourage and support you, but don’t make them guess what you need. Be responsible for the state of your body, mind and soul, your whole self, because, dear Mother, no one else will be. 

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