You’ve been staring at a screen all day, you didn’t take a lunch break, you’re already late for yoga class, and you have a pile of papers to read before tomorrow’s 9 a.m. meeting. Just as you’re getting in the elevator to leave, your BFF texts: Can u meet for a drink? I really need to talk.
Uh oh. You’ve turned her down a couple times this month, and you know she’s going through a tough time. Do you skip yoga because you’re a good friend? Set tomorrow’s alarm an hour earlier to skim those docs over breakfast? Or do you just tell your friend (again): Sorry. I love u. But I have a ton of work and really can't tonight.
Balancing our own needs with those of our loved ones can be tricky. Too much people-pleasing can foster depression and anxiety (not to mention resentment!), while a complete disregard for others just makes us narcissistic jerks. Add technology to the mix, and the desires, preferences, and requests of everyone else can feel endless, muddying the already-fraught decision of when (and how) to prioritize your own agenda.
Knowing when to put your needs first—and which ones should take precedence—is a constant and ongoing process between yourself and others.
“Knowing when to put your needs first—and which ones should take precedence—is a constant and ongoing process between yourself and others,” says psychotherapist Beverly Amsel, Ph.D. Of course, this doesn’t mean demanding what you want every single moment. Nor does it mean driving yourself to illness or injury to avoid the anxiety of asserting yourself.
Rather, putting yourself first means considering what the consequences would be if you didn’t give a particular want or need top priority, and acting accordingly, explains clinical psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. In fact, you may find that meeting your own needs first enables you to meet others needs more effectively.
Sure, there will always be exceptions to prioritizing your goals (e.g., you go out to run four miles, but your jogging buddy falls and breaks his leg… well, you don’t just keep going). But there are some situations where you just gotta do you.
6 Times It's OK to Prioritize Yourself
1. You’re sick.
This should come as no surprise. But try telling that to the estimated 55 percent of flu victims who brought their symptoms to the office in 2015. For the sake of your own immune system—not to mention everyone else’s—rest assured you’re better off calling in sick to work and declining social invitations when under the weather. Health comes first. Especially your own.
2. You're hangry.
No one’s encouraging you to dash out of a meeting just because your stomach’s rumbling. But when you’re famished, and all you can think of is chocolate cake, it's OK to feed yourself ASAP so you can function properly.
Seriously though, hanger is a legit concern. When our blood sugar dips, we’re more likely to lash out at others, make poorer decisions, and feel less capable of handling stress. Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples. Bushman BJ, Dewall CN, Pond RS. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2014, Apr.;111(17):1091-6490. The physiology of willpower: linking blood glucose to self-control. Gailliot MT, Baumeister RF. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, 2008, Jun.;11(4):1088-8683.
So consider keeping yourself fueled priority uno if you want to be your best self. And if you’ve got too many demands on your proverbial plate to actually prep a real one, have one of these 43 portable meals you can literally eat on the go or one of these 21 energy-boosting (and still portable!) snacks on hand to make sure your blood sugar doesn’t drop into the danger zone.
3. You're totally exhausted.
You know you’re not at your best when you’re tired. Science has your back on this one. Sleep deprivation can impair our memory, our mood, and overall health. Not getting enough zzzs also makes us more likely to be hostile and lose our cool in the face of minor frustrations.
On days where you can barely keep your eyes open, getting to bed at a decent hour needs to come before staying for another after-work happy hour, texting late into the night with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or tackling that backlog of personal e-mails overflowing your inbox. (Have trouble dozing off? Try one of these 27 ways to fall asleep, stat.)
4. You're under pressure at work.
Everyone’s career entails seasons of crazy and seasons of calm, says Chip Espinoza, Ph.D., co-author of Millennials@Work: The 7 Skills Every Twenty-Something Needs to Overcome Roadblocks and Achieve Greatness at Work. When you’ve just landed a new gig, you're facing a deadline, or the boss is breathing down your neck more than usual, work may have to take precedence over saying yes to another social outing, Espinoza says. “Be open with your loved ones about the tension you feel between wanting to spend time with them but needing to work,” he adds.
To gauge whether personal connections or professional success should take top tier on your to-do list, think of it this way: “If your family and friends aren’t inviting you to spend time with them as often as they used to, move them up on your agenda,” Espinoza says. Same goes for times you’re burnt out by your job and need to refill that emotional well of yours. However, if you've missed some deadlines, or your boss doesn't remember your name, put work first, he adds.
Bracing yourself in advance of an anticipated stress period at work can also be a factor when itemizing your needs. For some, this means scheduling more social activities. For others, it’s doubling up on quiet time to head into hectic days with a calmer mind. Either way, alert your loved ones accordingly.
And remember: "Support from family and friends may be as powerful as anything you can do for yourself," Espinoza says. (Even if that support means respecting your need to just have a quiet night alone!)
5. You feel like you're being taken advantage of.
We’ve all encountered people who don’t return favors or who expect more than their fair share of our time, attention, and energy. And the closer we are with someone (or the more we want them to like us), the more we might be willing to give, Amsel says. But there comes a point when saying "yes" ends up making us feel worse—either because we’ve gone against our own morals or because we feel coerced—and we need to pay attention to this, Amsel adds.
Often, exploitative others are expert manipulators at making us feel guilty for not cowing to their every wish, says George Simon, Ph.D., author of Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing. Tune in to your gut feelings in these cases, Simon advises: Don’t oblige them just because they’re pressuring you or playing on your own insecurities to get what they want. (“C’mon, you never have enough fun,” “Don’t be lame,” “You always leave me hanging,” “I really think you owe me,” etc.)
6. You've made a commitment to yourself.
If you’ve made a promise to get to that yoga class, get to the gym, or allot yourself one quiet night in to recharge, stick to it, Seltzer says.
No, this isn’t a free pass to spend hours avoiding a higher-up’s requests during work hours because you’re on the elliptical. Nor does it mean ignoring the people in your life who mean something to you for days on end because you're binge-watching the new season of Transparent.
Seltzer reminds us that commitments—no matter who we make them to—always need to factor in reality (which includes a consideration of what’s reasonably expected of us, how our behavior will make others feel, and what other obligations we’ve got on our plate). But, he says, giving yourself at least as much time and attention as you afford others is crucial to feeling—and being—your best.
Pro tip: Communicate to your coworkers, friends, family, or anyone else who may be expecting to hear from you when and for approximately how long you’ll be out of pocket, Seltzer advises. This way, they’ll have a clearer understanding of when it's best to reach out to you and when to expect a response—without jumping to the conclusion you’re purposefully blowing them off.
How to Say It (Nicely)
Yes, clarifying what’s at the top of your personal agenda is a great start. But if you’d like to maintain healthy relationships (at work and at home), aggressively demanding what you’ve decided you’re entitled to is not the best strategy.
Instead, you’re going to have to practice the art of being assertive, says Seltzer. This means voicing your wants, needs, thoughts, or feelings—without making the person you’re speaking to feel defensive.
Some folks with a more, shall we say, difficult disposition may accuse you of being selfish no matter how kindly you communicate your boundaries. But for the most part, Seltzer assures us, provided you say what you need confidently, compassionately, and without being overly self-righteous, most people are totally going to get it.
These phrases tell people you’ve just got some other priorities at the moment, politely and effectively:
- "I'm really sorry, but tonight just can't work for me because I need to catch up on some sleep / be home to feed my dog / get my shopping done before 5, so I can make dinner for my family."
- "Hey love, I’m so eager to catch up with you, but right now really isn’t a good time for me. Can I follow up with you later this week? We’re overdue for a catch-up, I know!"
- "Hi [name], I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, but I’m really not feeling well and will be unable to attend [event]. Please know that I’m there in spirit."
- For more ideas, here's how to say no in 10 common scenarios.
Gut Check, Please?
Finally, if you're worried you’re coming off as too selfish, Amsel recommends checking in with a close friend. “If you’re feeling like people just aren’t reacting to you with warmth and understanding, it could be that you need to make some changes in how you’re communicating,” she says.
If it’s a work issue, set up a meeting with human resources or your manager to see if your concerns are legit—and find a happy medium between what’s expected of you on the job and what you’d rather your days look like.
Yes, it’s important to support your friends, follow through on family commitments, and impress the boss. But when doing so consistently takes precedence over your health and overall happiness, you’re bound to encounter problems. In some cases, your needs just have to come first—so it's crucial to learn how to negotiate skillfully to ensure they're met.