Why do we feel guilty putting ourselves first?
Women are often seen as etch-a-sketches. We’re treated like blank canvases for others; our parents write their expectations, our children doodle and if they run out of space, go straight to the walls, our partners write chores, our friends write secrets, our dates write their fantasies in romantic prose, our bosses graph their quarterly goals, until there’s just a small corner on the left for us to write “Self-Care Sunday.” Our purpose seems to be intrinsically tied to those around us. We aren’t just individuals because the patriarchal society we exist in tries to tell us we are here to serve others. We are mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, colleagues before we are our own person.
We are reminded of our responsibility to others all the time, from the age-old stigma of being single to the contradiction of motherhood, an expectation in our personal lives that doesn’t go unpunished in our professional lives. While women can absolutely find themselves, and their purpose, within the threads of these relationships, how often does prioritizing ourselves get tinged with guilt? Do you take time to cater to your own needs? When was the last time you allowed yourself to be selfish and not worry about the needs of those around you? The fact that we shy away from these questions points to a very obvious and collective lack of balance in our lives; it is important to be there for others but it’s almost impossible to do so if we cannot meet our own needs first.
Women who are able to put themselves first are generally happier and more successful. The first reason is that they cultivate an unconditional self worth. This self worth persists even if the people we hold so close to us let us down or do not mirror it back to us. This self worth persists even if the world around us doesn’t recognize it. This self worth insulates us from lack of confidence, from fearing failure, from fruitlessly trying to gain other people’s approval and forgetting our own.
Prioritizing this pursuit is the antidote, as Adia Gooden puts it, to “self criticism, shame, unhealthy behavior, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.” Prioritizing yourself can be broken down into specific actions that will uphold the idea that we are worthy simply because we exist, not because of any other external validation.
According to Gooden, the ways to maintain this unconditional self worth are by:
- Forgiving yourself, reflecting on past mistakes, acknowledging the pain you experienced and take the lessons to build a better you
- Practicing self acceptance despite the world telling you that your body, your job, and your personality is not enough. Focus on the things you like about yourself and embrace your quirks.
- Being there for yourself when life gets difficult. Stop yourself from engaging in harsh self criticism, acknowledge how you’re feeling and offer yourself some comfort. Say kind and soothing affirmations to yourself.
Only after we prioritize the need for unconditional self worth can we start changing the world around us to serve a higher calling. When Michelle Obama told Barbara Walters in 2011 that she put herself as the highest on her priority list, it seemed radical coming from a woman whose job at the time was to be a devoted First Lady of the United States. She then explained that it was just practical.
“It’s something that I found I needed to do for quite some time, even before the presidency. And I found it other women, in a similar situated balancing career family, trying to do it all and a lot of times we just slip pretty low on our own priority list because we’re so busy caring for everyone else. And one of the things that I want to model for my girls is investing in themselves as much as they invest in others.” Obama listed working out and spending time with her girlfriends as ways she invests in herself. According to PeaceHealth.org, other ways to prioritize yourself include:
- Taking a break from news and social media that induces constant anxiety. Limit yourself to information from legitimate, official sources so as to avoid speculation, rumors, and information clouding your judgment of the world
- Being intentional about physical, mental emotional and spiritual self care
- Eat healthy foods
- Take pauses throughout your day to foster inner peace. Spend time in nature, garden, spend 10-15 minutes doing yoga or a guided meditation.
- Exercise outdoors whenever you can
- Drink plenty of water
- Get at least 6-8 hours of sleep
Oprah explains that the real work is to “figure out where your power base is and to work on the alignment of personality with the real reason why you’re here.” There isn’t room for selflessness when you’re trying to understand your reason for existence, a calling that is greater than any one moment or person in your life. Rather, prioritizing yourself is an arduous exercise of self-reflection so that you can fully express who you really are to the rest of the world. “Fill yourself up and keep your cup full. I used to be afraid of [being called arrogant]. I embrace it now. I consider it a compliment that I am full of myself. My cup runneth over, I have so much to offer and so much to give. I am not afraid of honoring myself. It’s miraculous when you think about it.”
Let’s heed the advice of our eternal saviors, Oprah and Michelle, and honor ourselves. Let’s strive be so authentically attuned to our own needs that we have the wisdom, and capacity, to help others achieve the same.
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