Taking Care of Ourselves First is NOT Selfish

The predominant message in these United States is backwards.  We preach that others should come first.  We lather on guilt and judgments of selfishness if we prioritize what we want ahead of others.  We praise moms and dads who focus on their children above all else.  We praise wives who sacrifice their own needs to honor their spouse.  We praise husbands who prioritize their families.  In my humble opinion, we’ve got this all wrong.

In order to have a healthy and whole family, we must first be healthy and whole ourselves.  After we have met our needs, then we can focus on the needs of our primary relationship – the adult relationship.  And finally, in the end, come the kids.

The biggest resistance I receive to this message comes from well-intentioned, caring people who voice some version of the Golden Rule or Christianity’s Second Greatest Commandment:  Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, or Love your neighbor as yourself.  And, yes, I think we should be caring and mindful of the needs of others.  We do need to be loving and compassionate.  But, we’ve twisted these axioms to mean we should put others before ourselves, when, in fact, that’s not what these say.  In truth, these words pre-suppose that we love ourselves.  They pre-suppose that we take care of ourselves.  They encourage equally caring for ourselves and for others, treating ourselves well and then also treating others well.

I would estimate that at least 70% of my time in the therapy room is spent encouraging people to prioritize their own needs.  So many caregivers and put-others-first-ers become depressed and anxious.  They become emotionally drained and empty.  But, feel guilt, judgment, shame if they try to remedy the situation and actually fill themselves up first.  So much time is spent re-writing the messages that having your own needs met is selfish.  It would be great if we could raise a generation in which we don’t have to re-write these messages.

And how do we do that, you might be wondering?

We model healthy self-care.  We show them what it looks like to be caring and generous to others, while also (and foremost) prioritizing our own well-being first.  Our kids follow what we do.  We can spend all the time in the world giving them appropriate affirmations and being generous to them and teaching them emotion regulation and all those fantastic skills to create healthy and whole individuals.  But, those actions only teach our kids how to parent or how to treat others.  They learn how to take care of themselves by watching how we take care of ourselves.  If we want our kids to actually be full and well in the future, we must prioritize our own fullness and wellness in the present.

And here’s another upside – when we are well, we are better parents.  We can be more giving.  We can spread more joy.  We are better people.  If I have not had my own alone time, my patience is short and my family get the scraps of me.  If I prioritize my own needs, take that precious time to rejuvenate, my family get the full version of me.  They get all of me.  They get the best me.

I understand this is totally tricky to do when we have young kids.  I understand that this is nearly impossible to do when we have fringy kids.  We can operate on a day-to-day, crisis-to-crisis basis when our kids have higher needs.  They demand a LOT from us.  And in the midst of those rough stretches when the demands feel unending and we are living in survival mode, it becomes easy to neglect ourselves.  We barely have enough focus to make it through breakfast, let alone remember to take time out for our own needs. 

Ironically, the times when we least feel capable of taking me-time, are the times when we most need it.  Your child will be okay if you leave for an afternoon.  Substitute caregivers will make it through, as well.  I’m not gonna lie, there may be some unintentional retaliative melting down upon your return, so plan ahead for that and be sure to do something totally rejuvenating!

I’m not great at this.  Case in point, it’s after midnight while I’m sitting here writing this post.  So, yes, feel free to call me a hypocrite.  I prefer to claim the fact that I, like everyone, am a work in progress.  I’m not yet fully and completely enlightened.  But, I know I get closer when I take care of myself.