Putting yourself first doesn’t mean being selfish or neglecting others. You can also be there for others more fully by caring for yourself.
Does the thought of putting yourself first conjure images of self-centered villains like Regina George in Mean Girls or Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada?
The truth is that prioritizing your physical, emotional, and mental health could be one of the best things you do for yourself and everyone else. It’s like that airplane oxygen mask analogy: When you put on your own mask first, you can help secure your neighbor’s.
If you’re used to giving, giving, giving, you might initially feel uncomfy about putting yourself first. But you got this!
Keep reading to learn why self-prioritization is so tough, plus how to start setting boundaries and becoming the main character of your life.
On the most basic level, putting yourself first means prioritizing self-love.
“Treating yourself with love causes a positive ripple effect,” says licensed social worker Kimberly Parker, Ph.D.
In a family, she says, it might look like a parent putting themself first to truly show up for their partner and kids. By tending to your needs first, you’re able to care for the fam (or friends!) out of *love* instead of obligation, resentment, or even guilt.
In a 2019 study, for example, researchers found that student nurses sometimes neglect their own well-being while training to look after others. This *reduced* their effectiveness when providing care to patients.
Bottom line? Prioritizing yourself first can improve your:
- mental health and well-being
- work life
- day-to-day productivity
- sense of meaning, purpose, and happiness
So many reasons!
A 2022 review boiled down the most common reasons people struggle with self-care:
- attachment to unhealthy behaviors
- lack of motivation
- problems deciding when to begin
- problems maintaining the healthy behavior
- not knowing the right time to ask for help
- life events that interfere with healthy behaviors
- illness and other health related-factors
Then there’s this:
Prioritizing is challenging if you’re used to neglecting your needs to look out for someone else’s. Centering yourself might even feel — gasp! — selfish.
Parker says folks with a “giver personality” (you know the ones) easily fall prey to cycles of guilt and shame. Some might feel that if they don’t sacrifice *all* of themselves, they’ll be viewed as a bad person.
But there’s a false dichotomy at play here. Parker says the dictionary defines “selflessness” as being *un*selfish — in other words, not *only* caring for yourself. There’s a middle ground between being a doormat and an egotistical diva.
When you release the guilt, shame, and impossible standards you set for yourself, you’re finally able to give yourself the respect and compassion you deserve. And if prioritizing yourself dredges up major guilt and shame, take that as a sign that you *need* to reassess your boundaries and start taking better care of yourself.
In a 2021 review, researchers defined self-care as “the ability to care for oneself through awareness, self-control, and self-reliance in order to achieve, maintain, or promote optimal health and well-being.”
Here are a few ways to start doing this:
- Daily self-check-ins: How are you doing? How are you feeling? What are *your* needs? These might sound like simple questions, but we tend to ask them to others instead of ourselves.
- Pencil in what lifts you up: Make a list of things you love to do or that make you feel happy or relaxed. Then schedule in time to do these things – even if it means saying no to something else.
- Set healthy boundaries:Take stock of the people in your life and how you feel around them. You can still love people and need space from them!
Parker encourages clients to create their own “Assertive Bill of Rights” — no law degree required. For example, you might declare that you “have the right to say no and not feel guilty about it.” (Truth.)
She says that writing out your rules and safeguards for self-care is especially important for those who struggle to set boundaries for themselves or others.
Tbh, releasing lingering guilt and shame about self-care is a whole life’s work.
Parker goes back to the point of selfishness vs. selflessness. “Many of my clients do not know the difference,” she says.
If you’re still struggling to find the pocket of balance between selfishness vs. selflessness, she has some recommendations:
- Do a “mind map”: This involves mapping out the thoughts, feelings, and visuals connected to your guilt and shame. How do these feelings affect the rest of your life?
- Pinpoint triggering situations: Dig deep to identify times when you’ve felt guilt or shame. What triggered those feelings?
- Be willing to revisit the past: Identify the stages/ages when you felt the most guilt and shame. “Many times, these feelings are attached to unhealed parts of the self at different stages of life,” Parker says.
- Consider therapy: A pro can help you identify, release, and heal these patterns. (Strapped for cash? We’ve also compiled these affordable alternatives to therapy.)
- Write it out: Consider journaling. Parker gives clients homework where they have convos with their emotions as if they were real entities. For example, you might ask your sadness: “Why are you here? What do you want with me? Are you from the past or the present?” Parker says these questions unlock healthy self-talk. She also says your body *will* answer you.
- Try some meditation activities: Deep breathing exercises and therapeutic music like binaural beats can help you with the self-care bit and calm racing thoughts. Mindfulness = thriving and living your #bestlife.
Putting yourself first simply means not neglecting your own needs. When you care for your own physical, emotional, and mental well-being, you’re better set up to take care of others, too.
To get started, be kind to yourself! Then set healthy boundaries, care for your well-being, and make time for what you love. If you’re struggling, consider therapy or an affordable or free mental health resource.