I Always Put Myself First. And No, That Doesn’t Make Me Selfish.
If a friend or family member needed me for something – anything – I always said yes. Until my mental health said no, for me.
I always put myself before others.
You might think this makes me selfish. It does not. My number one priority in live is looking after number one and there’s nothing anyone can say that would make me change my mind.
Don’t want to go to a party? I won’t. Don’t have time to chat on the phone to a girlfriend for an hour? Bye bye phone call. Too tired to visit family? Nap time!
“But Liiiiiiz,” I hear you say, “sometimes you have to put others first, you egotistical jerk. Think about the children (and all the other people in the world who aren’t you)!” (I know you wouldn’t call me a jerk in real life but I’m making a point here damn it!) And the truth is I do think about other people, which is exactly why I need to put myself first. Before you get your pitchforks out, let me explain.
I didn’t always used to put myself before others. If anyone else needed me, or even just wanted me, I’d say yes. Yes to meeting a girlfriend at coffee last minute to lament her love life; yes to going to the family reunion in the middle of exams; yes to getting in the car in a flash to help with a first date outfit “emergency”. If a friend or family member needed my shoulder to cry on, house to crash at, or ear to talk off it was always yes, yes, yes.
Until my mental health said no for me. After years and years of putting others first I had a mental breakdown which was probably the least fun thing that has ever happened to me in my life #understatement. The depression and anxiety I had been pushing to the side to make sure that I was there for others filled my life and I nearly drowned in it.
Because when you give everything to everyone else, you have nothing left for yourself. I had been running on empty and finally the engine just gave out.
And do you know what my first feeling was at realising I wasn’t well? Guilt. I felt guilty that those who surrounded me weren’t getting the best version of me. I felt guilty that I couldn’t help my friends when they called. I felt guilty about the burden I was placing on everyone else by having diminished capacity.
I was sick, I had bled myself emotionally dry, I needed rest but I felt guilty if I had to say no to people. How fucked is that?
In the midst of my life crisis I spoke to my darling mother, who also happens to be a psychologist. Over the years, she’d watched me handing out little pieces of myself with little concern of how I would get that piece back. And she fretted about me, not because she was my mom but because she was the same and she also learnt the hard way that constant selflessness wasn’t sustainable.
And, as mothers are wont to do (especially when they’re shrinks) she imparted this little piece of wisdom that has never left my mind.
“You can try to chop down a tree with a blunt axe and it will eventually work, but it will take much longer and be much more of a strain than with a sharp axe,” she explained.
“A lot of people think it takes too much time to sharpen the axe, time they think they don’t have, so they just keep chopping away at a job that becomes more difficult and more painful the duller the axe gets.
“Take the time to sharpen the axe, Liz.”
That’s my mom for you, just blowing my damn brain wide open as casually as if she’d just told me dinner was ready.
What she was saying is that you’re the axe in your own life, and not taking time for self-care (sharpening the axe) can make everything else in your life a whole lot harder. So many people push through exhaustion both mental and physical because they think they don’t have time to rest, recuperate and put themselves first. But if you take time to sharpen the axe – whether that be through relaxing, saying no to invites, or whatever else it is you need to recharge – you’ll be able to function at a much higher capacity. People think they don’t have time to recharge or practice self-care because it takes too long, but it’s a fallacy. The very act of taking time out for yourself ensures you get other things done quicker and better than if you’d just pushed through.
Meaning (drumroll please)… putting yourself first actually makes you better at helping others.
Yeah, it was a revelation for me, too.
So from that moment on, I resolved to always put myself first so that when others needed me I could be functioning at my optimum levels. But how would I cope with the guilt that came with saying no to people? Or even to spending time doing nothing?
In the past, whenever I’d sat down to watch Netflix, or read a book, or did some gardening, all the other jobs I was neglecting would swim around my brain, making it impossible to actually rest at all. I’d always felt like I should be doing something more productive.
But now I knew that taking time out was productive. I just had to convince my anxious mind of that. I started scheduling “me time” in my diary in the same way I would pop in an appointment or deadline. That time would be blockout chill time in which to do whatever I pleased. And as small a change as that sounded, it actually worked. I didn’t feel like I should be doing other things because those other things were scheduled for other times. This was “me time” goddamnit, and I would use that time to be awesome, happy in the knowledge that self-care time would only make me more awesome for all those other things.
I started saying no to family gatherings in weeks that were already packed. I started being honest and telling friends when I was run down instead of dragging myself to events that, in the grand scheme of things probably didn’t matter. I started making sure my needs were being met, so that I could better meet others’ needs when I needed to.
That’s definitely not to say I abandoned people in their hour of need just because I wanted to watch the latest episode of Bachelor in Paradise (P.S. how bad/good is that show?!). If someone was in crisis I will be there for them, no questions.
But I will always make sure that I am looked after first, and have some of me left to give before I go. Because I am no use to anyone as a blunt axe.
Images: Elizabeth Best, Pexels.
Comment: How do you make sure you practice self-care?