Do you feel bad when you put yourself first? Here’s why you shouldn’t.
Is it selfish to put yourself first? For some people, it comes as naturally as breathing. You watch with a mix of irritation, admiration, a bit of envy, dislike and righteous opinions. The accompanying gossip may include words like selfish, egocentric, self-centered, go-getter and over-achiever to name a few. Being put in that same box is to be avoided at all costs.
Perceived selfishness is upsetting
You don’t want to put yourself first because you don’t want to hurt anybody or create difficulties for someone else. Disappointment is upsetting, so being the cause of that is not something you want. Being of service is a value of yours. You care, you are considerate and kind.
Culture plays a major role as well. The way you were raised, the stories told of what it is to be a “good girl” or a “good boy” matters. What you were taught to value, what sets your world right and what makes you feel comfortable, plays a part. The rules and norms of what is accepted and what is not, add to the mix. Not least the invisible rules of the workplace and communities you are part of.
Most of us want to be liked and people perceived as selfish rarely are. They are visible, and they are talked about, but they are not liked. And if putting yourself first means risking dislike, uncomfortable visibility or being at the center of gossip, then you are better off playing it safe. Even if you literally run out of air.
What does putting yourself first mean?
The immediate association often made is of someone stepping on others. One who is shoving people to the side to get their own needs met. Inconsiderate and uncaring. Even manipulative. Ouch… who would want that?!?
Just notice the feelings and words that come up inside of you as you think of someone who puts herself, or himself, first. Hard to admit, but the unpleasant faces of envy, jealousy, and righteousness are creeping up behind you, right?
We live in a society where it is not ok to put yourself first, yet it is all about individuality. We glorify individuality but dislike it at the same time. The paradox is hard to navigate. The myth is that we succeed at the expense of others, which means that you are a bad person if you prioritize yourself first. This creates a disconnect that we often struggle with.
There is a difference between “every man for himself”-mentality and taking responsibility for your own life, passion, and dreams. It is simply not true that success has to come at the expense of somebody else. However, it is an effective story to hold people back. It is also not true that it is unethical to put yourself first.
Put your own oxygen mask on first
You know that before a plane takes off there is a security brief. This is to keep you safe in case of an emergency. “Put your oxygen mask on first and make sure it works before helping the person next to you.” This applies even when the person next to you is your child or cannot help themselves and is for the sake of keeping you, and your fellow passengers, as safe as possible. Yet we live life as if we never need to breathe.
Try this is out: If you could help one person without your oxygen mask, but several if you put yours on first, what would you do?
For most people the answer is simple. Living accordingly is not. Even if you think that it makes sense to put yourself first, a collection of emotions and perceptions hold you back.
Sustain yourself or pouring from an empty cup
It is vitally important that you do not run out of air. You need to sustain yourself if you want to be of any value to anybody else, yourself included. Creating traction entails that you have the required means to move forward and persevere. Pouring from an empty cup never has and will never work.
It takes courage to put yourself first because we live in a world where it is frowned upon. Particularly if you are a woman, but also if you are a man. The words around it are different but being perceived as self-centered and egoistic are rarely admired character traits. The sad truth is that it is socially sanctioned to put oneself first.
What if it was not?
What if allowing yourself the space to breathe, as a metaphor, was perceived as smart? If it was valued? Imagine that it is fully accepted and respected that you do what is needed to make sure you operate at your best. That it is fully allowed and encouraged to pursue your dreams and achieve huge success and mastery. What would that be like?
I come across many women in my work as a coach who are held back by reasons ranging from the most sophisticated to plain obsolete. They are held back either by themselves or by their partners, families, friends or bosses. They are told they are pushy, greedy, wrapped up in themselves – narcissistic even. Messages like “put your children first, be responsible, let others have a chance, don’t be so self-serving” are not uncommon. In 2018 it is so outdated I could scream.
You and I can make a difference
Here is the thing though. Our society will not change unless you and I step up. It is not anybody else’s responsibility to change it for us. It is down to you and me. The prejudice around “putting yourself first” will continue as long as we allow it. We need to create a new story.
Courage, bravery and the willingness to stand in the fire and risk being unpopular and called names is part of what it takes. If you feel this is calling you, but you are afraid of what it takes, think about what is at stake. By not owning the right to step up and be respected for it, we contribute to clever ways of holding people back.
Let’s turn this around and say that it is perfectly ok to put oneself first. What is not ok is often the way in which it is done. The behaviors that go along with it often act as triggers for bystanders grinding their teeth because they did not have the courage to claim that next opportunity.
When we break out of a perceived prison it may not look pretty. Although pretty is not the point, the behavior and skillset that goes along with claiming opportunities make a difference.
The story we tell
A client of mine, Ann, battles constantly with her family to be “allowed” to pursue her dream career. She is brave, smart, ambitious and has spent the last 20 years juggling her family’s different needs with her job. Raising three children is a full job in itself, but she has also helped to make it possible for her husband to pursue his career. She has been a wonderful partner, mother, friend, a good daughter as well as having an immaculate home. She always looks stunning, is the perfect hostess and of course she works out and is a volunteer as well. Her schedule is packed and she is exhausted.
Now is her time to take big and bold steps in pursuing her dream and take her career to the next level. She feels she has given everything to her family over many years and now she wants to do something for herself. There is a hunger in her to use her talents, achieve a sense of mastery, and to make a difference in the world. She is uncertain if she has what it takes, but she wants to give it an honest try and her very best.
When Ann decided to pursue her career, the whole family system was impacted. Her partner became insecure and her mother scolded her for not having a spotless house anymore. Among many things, she was told she was selfish, not a good mother, that she acted silly and that her dream was a far-fetched fantasy.
A new story
Ann came to coaching because she wanted to find the courage to put herself first. She is not alone. When putting yourself first you must fight the norms and rules of society as well as the nametags you and others put on you. That is easier said than done. Apart from the courage, it takes stamina, willpower, and skills. Add to that a solid network of people reminding you that what you do is ok and who can cheer you on.
You need a new story. Repeat to yourself and remind yourself of why you do what you do. Commit and persevere until it becomes second nature. And no, putting yourself first does not mean stepping on others. That story needs to change! Woman do not need to have made sacrifices to earn the right to put themselves first.
You change – the system changes
When one part of a system change, like Ann wanting to pursue her career and subsequently changing priorities, the rest of the system was impacted. The ripple effect can cause anything from a gentle wave to a devastating tsunami. Ann’s choices triggered long kept beliefs, established rules and the dynamics of the family system to change.
Her mother’s resentment of not being allowed her own career was triggered as well as her whole belief system of what a woman is supposed to be and do. Her husband was triggered for many reasons, not least because the household chores were divided differently. Jealousy entered the game as his wife was out and about where he had no control. Her friends were negative because she had less time and capacity to listen to never-ending stories of gossip and complaints.
Not all bad
Her children, however, cheered her on feeling liberated and uplifted by the changes they saw. They were super proud of their mom! At work, she landed contracts she had never dared dreamed of and paved the way for new opportunities and growth for herself as well as the company.
Her husband, mother and her friends had their own individual work to do. That did not mean that Ann should hold back and stop herself moving forward in life. How easy it is to avoid self-reflection by calling what others do as selfish and egocentric.
Ann keeps at it. A new story is created as she is no longer willing to hold herself back. Her hunger for growth, contribution and to make a difference at a larger scale are her drivers.
She is thrilled to the core by what she has accomplished but struggles daily with her own insecurity about whether it is right to spend so much time at work. Every single day until it has become second nature will she need to remind herself of her new story and that it is ok to put herself first. When in doubt she asks: Is what I am telling myself true? If so, what else is true? And if so, who do I want to be?
In our coaching sessions, we also worked on the impact her changes had on her family. Understanding how to communicate without accusations and complaints were important elements in our conversations. Having compassion and to practice listening without moving to defend herself was essential.
Building the capacity to listen for the dream behind the complaints and criticism allowed her to meet her husband’s insecurity in a way that rebuilt their relationship instead of tearing it apart.
Putting yourself first might mean saying “no” more often. A clear “no” can mean setting up boundaries and not giving in to other people’s wishes. This is a big edge for many of us. It correlates with our need to be liked and talked well about. A wise person once told me “it is not your business what other people think.” That is a useful reminder when fear comes sneaking along. Another way to look at it is: when you say “no” to putting yourself first, what are you then saying “yes” to?
You are next!
Our insecurity in putting ourselves first is often a reflection of the reactions of the people around us. We want to be liked and most of us don’t want to rock the boat.
What will you need to tell yourself to change your story and put yourself first?
Think about who you want to be. From the deepest, most honest place in you. Who do you choose to be?
When an answer comes up, look again and ask: “What is the behavior and mindset such a person has? Or the values, attitude, and actions that go along with it? What kind of emotional support will I need from myself and others?” Find powerful perspectives to step into. Decide what you are no longer willing to tolerate.
Change your story, change your life
Do you still feel bad when you think about putting yourself first? I have to admit it is not always easy, nor does it always feel like the right thing to do. When those feelings and thoughts show up I remind myself to check in with my story.
Why do I need and want to put myself first? What is the impact on me and on the systems I am part of? Where do I need to be proactive and considerate? I remind myself that it is not selfish and that it is ok to be uncomfortable. When I put myself first I am stepping into new, unknown territory.
At the same time, we need to recognize that it is hard to navigate the paradox of glorified individuality, and the ruling normative ideas, that self-sacrifice equals being a good person. Paving new ground can be hard work and is not easily done!
Once you know this you are part of the solution. You have the possibility to create a new, more powerful story.
In the end, it comes down to an honest conversation with yourself. In what areas of your life do you need to put yourself first? Who do you choose to be to do so? What are you no longer willing to tolerate?
Change your story, put yourself first, change your life and lead by example!