Anyone get this message growing up: “Think of yourself first!”? What, nobody? In fact, most of us learned the very opposite – “How selfish to put yourself before others! Put others’ needs first.”
Isn’t putting others before ourselves a selfless act? It seems to make sense, but here’s the problem:
When we give before we have a full tank, we just empty our reserves.
A car goes nowhere without gas. We do no good when we give from nothing. The lesson we’re missing is not that it’s a bad idea to give to others, but that giving when we don’t have the energy leads to negative consequences.
When we give on an empty energy tank, we drain our resources – physical, mental, and emotional. Rather than feel good for the effort, we end up resentful, angry, frustrated, and self-pitying.
But filling our own energy means thinking of ourselves first. It means taking care of our needs, and making sure we are emotionally stable, physically comfortable, and mentally calm before we give anything to anybody.
How do we get around the ingrained belief that this is heresy – not only selfish but socially unacceptable?
I’ll tell you how I made the switch:
I realized that when I said yes to doing something with a friend that I didn’t feel like doing, I was acting from the wrong motivations. I thought I was doing it for them and their enjoyment. Yet when I showed up, I tended to be in a bad mood, didn’t enjoy myself, and had trouble hiding my attitude. My energy was not great, and whether my friend picked up on it consciously or not, it was going to affect our relationship. At the very least I walked away resentful.
How much better to be honest with them, reschedule for a better time, and do what I really want to with that time? I found that when I attended to my needs first, I ended up with a better mood and attitude to bring to the next interaction with someone else.
In the beginning, taking care of our own needs is slow and incremental – identifying what they are, understanding how to meet them, taking the right actions to feel comfortable. At first, putting ourselves first feels uncomfortable and selfish. But ultimately, self-care leads to true altruism.
1. the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism).
—Random House Dictionary
Taking care of our own needs – physical, mental, emotional – puts us in a place of comfort and safety. From there, we are able to think of others without being threatened or needy. We give from a place of fullness, not emptiness. From a sincere desire to help, not from obligation. We give without expectation of reciprocation and walk away without resentment.
Love yourself and you will be more capable of loving others.
Of course, we also need to learn the balance of meeting our needs comfortably versus going overboard. As they say, moderation in all things.
I have a need for solitude. Yet I live with my family and several pets. I have an extended family and work obligations. If I work day after day, always put my children or spouse’s needs before mine, and leave myself no down time or writing space, I become irritable and grumpy. I get resentful of others in my space and I feel depressed or angry about all the tasks I am taking on for others.
When I make sure I have a night a week or a weekend day to myself, to read, to garden, to walk, whatever I feel like – I feel refreshed. I want to help my family, I enjoy making calls or doing errands for them, and I feel good inside. I enjoy their appreciation but I don’t need it. I am giving because I have enough, and now want to help someone else. This kind of giving feels good.
If I took a week off in the middle of my child’s prep for a big event, or backed out of showing up for a friend’s performance to take a night off, that would feel selfish. The balance comes from considering my needs and others, and making time and space for myself in the proper context.
Caring is a cycle. We must have a source for caring energy, and that comes from taking care of ourselves first. Only then can we pass it along. When we give it to ourselves by addressing our needs first, we are in a position to pass that care along to someone else who needs a little help. We feel good and continue to take care of our needs, increasing the amount of care we are capable of sharing. Ideally, others are doing the same.
What can you do today to identify and care for one of your needs? Does it feel good? Do you feel freed up to help someone else without expectation of return? Share your experience.
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