What It Means To Put Yourself First (And Why It Can Be So Hard)
So many of us—especially those of us from racialized backgrounds—tend to put others first. We may not have been prioritized by others, or we may have grown up in communal settings where putting ourselves first felt selfish.
So, we then move through life trying to be selfless and accommodating, and avoid being demanding or aggressive. We don’t allow ourselves to be the central figure in our own lives because we likely don’t know how to do so.
What It Looks Like When You Don’t Prioritize Yourself
Not being able to prioritize yourself can come up for you in seemingly small ways:
- Saying no to tea or coffee that a host has offered to make for you
- Not asking someone to help you bring in the groceries
- Always letting someone else pick the restaurant
It can also show up in bigger ways:
- Hiding your pain to avoid making someone feel guilty for hurting you
- Helping everyone around you at the expense of overworking yourself
- Compromising your identity to suit someone else’s standards
You might already start to notice some patterns with these examples.
First, we have a need or desire but are unable to claim it. Maybe we really do want that coffee, but think it would burden our host to make it (even though they offered).
And second, we are unable to draw a boundary around ourselves and end up getting hurt. Maybe we are completely drained and tired, but feel guilty if we don’t help someone who we think needs us.
I want to draw your attention to something very important in these scenarios: you can’t read the mind of the other person and they can’t read yours. Rather than assume you are a burden on others, can you let yourself believe that people mean it when they offer to help or take care of you? And conversely, can you practice understanding that people won’t know what you need or how you feel if you don’t express it to them?
What Happens When You Don’t Put Yourself First
When we don’t prioritize ourselves, it can create tension with others. Our needs and desires are not being met and we may start to feel resentment. It might lead to burnout or miscommunications. In this way, not only is putting ourselves first not selfish, it’s actually a critical practice for maintaining our relationships with others.
Not putting ourselves first can also compromise our relationships with ourselves. If we aren’t prioritizing ourselves, our self-worth and even our sense of self can be negatively impacted. If we aren’t being true to ourselves and honouring our needs, how can we possibly live our best lives?
You deserve to take up the space you need, to ask for what you want, and to set boundaries when necessary. These things are not a sign of weakness or neediness – they are a sign of strength and self-respect. Prioritizing yourself, especially in a society that may have pushed you to the margins, is an act of radical self-compassion.
Why Is It So Hard to Take Up Space?
If you want to re-centre yourself in your own life and learn to prioritize your needs, it may be helpful to first understand why this is a struggle for you. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Have I learned to be hyper-independent and not rely on others?
- When I’ve asserted myself in the past (or even as a child), have I been silenced?
- Am I worried that asking for what I need will lead to judgement or rejection?
- Does putting myself first make me feel guilty or like I am a burden to others?
- Do I believe that I deserve to have my needs and desires met?
Contemplating these questions might reveal some truths for you, or they could indicate there is another reason not listed here.
If you’re hoping to further explore the underlying beliefs and experiences that are preventing you from prioritizing yourself, it could be helpful to seek support from a therapist. They can provide you with tools and strategies to prioritize your needs confidently, and help you develop healthy boundaries and communication skills that will allow you to advocate for yourself in a way that feels authentic to who you are.
Prioritizing your needs is a self-compassion practice. Essentially, you are loving yourself and taking time and space to express that love. If you are able to treat yourself with kindness and understanding, you can cultivate a greater sense of self-worth, which can help you to live a more fulfilling and satisfying life.
I’ll leave you with an affirmation: “I am allowed to have needs, my needs are important, and they deserve to be met.”
Until next time!
Zainib Abdullah is the founder, executive director, and a psychotherapist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. Her approach to healing incorporates various therapeutic modalities. She works from a client-centred, anti-racist/oppressive/colonial & trauma-informed framework. As a yoga teacher and student in the lineage of Classical Yoga, she further incorporates mindfulness based therapies to support clients in accessing greater connectedness to their inner wisdom and peace.