Today I would like to invite you to explore some potential ways you may be limiting yourself. Let’s begin with a question: How many choices do you make that are “practical” while ignoring or dismissing the choices that follow your true desires? How often do you consider the preferences and opinions of someone else and allow those preferences to direct your decision rather than reaching inside and considering your own preferences and opinions? How much more fulfilled would your life be if you honor your own tastes and preferences instead of deferring to others?
Most women who struggle with the issues that bring them to this website will say that making decisions based on their own preferences is selfish: something they consider a negative characteristic. But, consider the possibility that there is a brand of selfishness that will allow you to feel so fulfilled that you are better able to attend to the needs of the others in your life for whom you are responsible. When you can be selfish, you will be giving yourself permission to refill your reserves of energy and warmth and love in a way that ensures you have more to give to others. The extent to which you can honor yourself in such a way is the extent to which you gain value as a woman.
When you habitually negate your own needs to the “back burner,” everyone loses because you run the risk of becoming so “burnt out” that you can give to no one. I am suggesting that when you make the choice as often as possible to make the choices that serve your own emotional, mental, spiritual and physical well-being you make choices that are better overall.
When we begin exploring how the reserves from which we nurture others get refilled or ignored, more questions emerge, forcing us to explore the limits we place upon ourselves. We cannot begin to consider the possibility of paying more attention to personal needs without calling into question the demands – real or imagined – imposed upon us by others. For example, who says that women should place their needs second to the desires of their children, or their partners, or their parents, or their church leaders, or their employers? With these questions, I am certainly not suggesting anarchy or hedonism! But, maybe I am suggesting personal rebellion against the internalized rules we create that limit us. We must begin to question whether the rules we accept actually represent our own values or the values we think others would prefer us to have. For example, do you resist telling your partner what you need, thinking they do not care enough to listen or that they might not agree? Will our parents actually reject us if we make independent choices that they may not have selected for themselves? If we complete a church assignment in our own creative style, does that mean it will not be acceptable to the church leaders? If we live our life in a way that is consistent with our belief system, but different from what other members of our congregation would do, does that make us wrong? Do we really need to forfeit our vacation time at work just because “everybody else does”? To test these perceptions and answer these questions for yourself, you must value yourself. I would like to encourage you to value yourself at least as much as you value the others in your life.
My suggestion is that when there are competing needs, you should at least consult your own feelings and needs before sacrificing yourself to the point of exhaustion and depression.
One of my favorite ways to illustrate this point is to ask young mothers when they eat. Young mothers often eat after everyone else has eaten. Sometimes, that does not allow any time at all for mom to eat because as soon as the family has eaten, they are off and running to other activities. In her efforts to keep up and to make sure everyone is happy and attended to, mom leaves even her most basic nutritional needs unfulfilled. If you are not a young mother or a newly-wed, the question still applies. Eating is one of the most basic needs we have, yet we often let a myriad of other concerns get in the way of attending to this very basic self-care. Some may say: I do not have a problem with not eating; I have a problem with eating too much!! In response, I have the same question: When do you eat? Most likely, you eat as a result of not considering your own needs when confronted with a conflict between your needs and others’ needs. Then, you eat as a way of dealing with that disappointment and frustration. This is why disordered eating is one of the hallmarks of disordered relationships. Overeating, just as under eating, is very often a result of poor self-care when confronted with conflicting needs. To correct it, pay more attention to yourself. It works.
I provided counseling to one young mother who could not understand why she was feeling so tired and depressed. She had always wanted to be a mother and was happy to fulfill that role. She adored her children, but sometimes felt resentment toward them. She sought my assistance to help her understand why, when she had the life she desired, she was depressed. One of the first things we discovered was that she believed that in order to be a “good mother,” she should sacrifice her own needs to provide for the happiness of her family. I asked her when she eats. She explained that she really did not have time to eat. Then, she described the schedule of feeding her one and four year old little girls and that it was a challenge to keep both children busy and happy throughout the day. Then, at the end of the day, she would serve an evening meal to her husband and children, while she was constantly getting up from her meal at the table to do things like clean spilled milk, get the salt, or pick up a dropped utensil. By the time her family was finished eating, she rarely had finished her meal. But, her husband was home, so he played with the children while she ate alone. I taught her to make sure she ate regularly throughout the day while sitting down. She learned that by teaching her children to wait for her to satisfy her need for nutrition, she was training her children to understand that mommy needs to eat and that it is okay for mommy to take care of mommy. By learning this, she taught her daughters by example and transmitted to them some very important lessons about the role of a woman within her family. It is training that will prevent her daughters from feeling the same resentment and depression that their mother suffered. Something amazing happened when this young mother realized that her habit of leaving herself last to the point that sometimes she went an entire day without eating a meal left her feeling tired, resentful and often sick. She began to understand that “good mother” and “mother whose needs are last to be fulfilled” are not synonymous! It was a victory when she came back to my office to report that she was sitting down to eat regular meals, even if it meant that her family had to wait for her. She was delighted to find how much more patient and loving she felt and how her resentments were resolved by simply attending to her own needs.
So, along with the need to resist definitions that are imposed upon us by others, emancipation also involves making sure we are not always the last one in line. To do that, we must be willing to confront our own beliefs about what others expect of us. That means that we have to confront within ourselves the fear that we will risk disapproval by others if they are not cooperative with our need to become more of a priority in our own lives. We must be courageous enough to face those possibilities and confront them, rather than numbing ourselves and doing nothing to value ourselves.
to listen as Tamara discusses what happens when you mistake taking care of your personal needs with selfishness.
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.
In cooperation with 2bsisters, Tamara is in the process of making her recovery curriculum for domestic violence survivors available via a protected online format. This curriculum is for victims who have not yet been able to escape, those who have recently escaped and those who have been independent for a time but still need to strengthen themselves as survivors.