5 Reasons Putting Yourself First Is The Opposite Of Selfish
There is a huge myth in our culture that it's time to shake up — the idea that putting yourself first is selfish.
When you love another person (whether it's your partner, a family member or friend), you prioritize thinking about their desires, needs, interests, proclivities and so on, right? This makes sense: we want to make those we love happy; we want to make them feel heard and understood. But loving others doesn't mean that you can't love yourself, too. In fact, perhaps we should all try to cultivate more love for ourselves than we do for others.
What do I mean by that? Well, loving ourselves — by taking care of ourselves first and foremost — ensures that our care for others ultimately can come from a place of inner abundance, a feeling of already being taken care of from within. As a result, we become more giving partners, family members, friends and beyond.
Part of the cultural problem is that most people, perhaps unconsciously, associate the idea of loving others with forgetting about ourselves. Because of this dynamic, we often build up resentments and frustrations that go undiscussed (and can actually end up hurting the people around us without even realizing It).
The long and short of this: in order to be and give your best, you have to start putting yourself first. Yes, that's right. Over your partner, kids, boss, friends, family, dog, cat, imaginary friend … there is no one that benefits from you being in second place. Here's why you need to move yourself to that #1 spot:
The people you love the most love you too.
Your loved ones want to see you happy and healthy. Think about all the relationships that you are a part of and how much better they are when the other person is feeling their best emotionally, physically and mentally. Think about how you feel when you sleep sufficiently each night, regularly exercise, eat healthy food, see friends and family on a regular basis, engage in stimulating work. The list goes on.
By contrast, when you become too far spent and no longer have your full energy, your irritability affects the people you love, not just your own well-being. When you direct partial attention toward yourself, you start to show up in all facets of your life as a partial version of yourself. Your loved ones will feel that, and your relationships will ultimately suffer.
When you're burned out, you simply can't enjoy the good moments in life.
Being overworked, wrecked with anxiety, stress or exhaustion can make everything feel like a chore — even the good stuff like dinner plans with friends or trying to read a good book. Why? Because you need a break. Even though that concert should be a lot of fun, you simply can't be fully present and give your positive energy to the situation if you're running on empty.
When burnout happens, you deplete your serotonin and other "happy hormones" by just trying to keep yourself going. You no longer have the brain chemistry to be happy just being, let alone to enjoy the show or whatever other fun activity you may have planned. Sometimes, saying "no" to seemingly fun plans with friends and family means saying "yes" to your overall happiness (and those of your loved ones), even when it seems counterintuitive.
Resting isn't an option, it's a requirement.
There is never a shortage of "to do list" items to complete, invitations to accept and commitments to make. It's naturally to want to say "yes" to all of it. To people-please. To avoid conflict. To be "nice." The reasons are infinite, which is exactly why it's time for all of us to stop it.
Our psychology and physiology are intimately interconnected. When you don't rest and give yourself a break, your body goes into survival mode, your cortisol levels increase, exacerbating your stress1 — and burnout becomes a vicious cycle. This means pulling in reinforcements from parts of our brain reserved for things like love, connection and contentment. When you overextend one part of you, everything (and everyone) suffers.
It's OK to politely decline loved ones and say you have other plans, even if those plans are with your couch.
Pushing yourself past your personal thresholds can make you physically sick.
Stress, anxiety, and exhaustion wreak havoc on your physiology2. Stress is our internal alarm system that tells us that we are approaching troubled ground. Evolutionarily, stress prepped our body for challenges by pulling in extra resources so that we could survive the problem that was ahead of us. When we need it, stress is a good thing; however, now that so many people are living in a chronic state of anxiety, our bodies are overworking themselves to death.
Stress causes a chain reaction that pulls resources from your mind and body that are meant for use elsewhere. While the internal stress response is supposed to be a temporary emergency occurrence, an overabundance of stress and overuse of our central nervous system and hormones causes our immune systems to suffer. Stress invites sickness and disease to settle in.
Energy transfers to the ones you love.
People feel the energy you bring to every situation. If you are happy, they will observe that. If you are angry, they will feel that, too. Your emotions don't even have to be that extreme for your loved ones to absorb this energy. So recognize that power, subtle as it may be at times.
If you are standing alone in your kitchen and your best friend or a family member walks in, they will pick up on what kind of mood you are in instantly. It's becoming normal to see children testing high in cortisol levels just barely into their teens because they have absorbed the stress of their well-meaning parents.
The best thing you can do for your loved ones is to be the healthiest and happiest self you can be. Sometimes, that means saying no. Sometimes that "no" may disappoint others. But most important of all is listening to the wisdom of your body and your mood. Taking time for yourself serves everyone around you. Trust me, you'll thank me later.
Tracy Thomas, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in Fresno, CA who specializes in emotional sensitivity. She has spent over 20 years helping people live more intuitively, strategically and intentionally. Her unique methodology has been featured in SHAPE, Women’s Health Magazine, Men’s Health Magazine, and SELF, among others.