How to Prioritise Yourself in All Relationships (And Why!)

“The greatest gift you can give somebody is your own personal development.

I used to say, “If you will take care of me, I will take care of you.

“Now I say, I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.”

Jim Rohn

This is a difficult lesson to learn as it’s the polar opposite of what we’ve been taught for most of our lives. We’ve been raised to share, to give, to look after others. Really we’ve been raised to be caretakers, to our detriment. Many of us have been conditioned since we were toddlers to sacrifice our own needs for the benefit of others. This tendency is often so much a part of who we now believe we are; we don’t even realise when we’re engaged in this type of detrimental caretaking behaviour. But we do it often without noticing- we frequently give up our wants, our desires, our energy, our power, our ideas, our time and dreams; telling ourselves we’re doing it out of love  and compassion. But really it’s conditioning and habitual behaviour and thought processes.

If you feel like you’re drowning in the needs of others; you feel that way for a reason and you probably are.

I’m sure reading this that you can recall numerous times when took care of someone else to your detriment- perhaps it was an ex who you felt needed you so you stayed longer than you should, perhaps it was a boss who demanded ridiculous things from you and you worked and worked and worked until you burnt out – physically, emotionally or both; perhaps it’s family drama and you have been the designated mediator since you were far too young; perhaps it’s showing up in your dating life, going for guys that need to be minded, fixed or looked after- we do it because it’s familiar.

I’ve done all of these and much more.

Sacrificing my own needs for the benefit of others so trust me when I say it’s not a healthy place to be. I suppose personally the most recent challenge has been motherhood. Now I’ve done a lot of work in terms of boundaries, putting myself first etc but holy shit, a baby is a whole other story. I had pre-natal depression when I was pregnant (yep it’s a thing!) and I also ended up with post natal depression a year after Sarah was born and it hit me harder- probably because there had been warning signs for the year of detrimental caretaking which I had been ignoring. Cue burnout/breakdown and having to put myself back together again gently- with even more boundaries and self care in place so I know what I’m talking about and this is why I’m so passionate about it.

Taking care of yourself first Versus Selfishness

This is a huge fear- I don’t want to be selfish and by prioritising myself- is that not being selfish. Great question and a valid one but the answer is definitely not. If this is your fear then my guess is that you actually care deeply about others- so much so that you have made given up a lot of time and energy for them, and neglected yourself. This without a doubt leads to imbalance in relationships and can show up as bitterness, resentment, guilt, and feeling like you’re stuck. We end up hurting ourselves and sometimes even the people we care about.

You know the way when you get on a plane and the flights attendants go through the safety demonstration. Do they say ‘In case of an emergency, an oxygen mask will drop down in front of you. Please look around and make sure that everyone else is safe and has their mask secured before you look after yourself?’

No, they don’t.

Why not?

Because everyone would be dead.

So, what to do and how to turn it around:

  1. Recognise that there is a problem and how it started

This sounds strange but it’s a really important step and it is Acknowledging that you have a Problem! If you’re in denial or don’t think that there’s a problem, then you’re not going to do anything to change your behaviour. So ask yourself ‘Am I a people pleaser?’ ‘Do I give more than I get in relationships- in my love life, with friends, with family, in work?’ ‘Do I feel guilty when I try to set boundaries?’, ‘Do I feel selfish when I try to do something for myself?’

If the answer is yes to these questions, then it’s likely you’re engaging in detrimental caretaking in some areas.

  1. Decide if you want to change it

So, if you do think you have a bit of a caretaking problem- it’s totally up to you then if you want to do something to change it. But if you do, it has to be a conscious decision. And with every decision we make, our lives are defined just a little more, because decisions ultimately shape our path.

  1. Put boundaries in place

To start putting boundaries in place, you need to practice self-awareness. For example, pay close attention to the situations when you lose energy, feel a knot in your stomach, or want to cry. Identifying where you need more space, self-respect, energy or personal power is the first step.

So finish off the following statements with whatever comes to your mind.

In order to protect my time and energy, I will say yes to…….

In order to protect my time and energy, I will say no to……

People may not………..

  1. Start taking care of yourself

Start with baby steps and consciously do 2 things every day for yourself. Martha Beck came up with this idea ‘Your Catalogue of Sensory Delights’. The idea is to finish these statements by coming up with at least 5 answers for each one:

  • I love the smell of…….
  • I love the sight of…….
  • I love the sound of……
  • I love the feel of…….
  • I love the taste of……..

Then you incorporate these little pleasures into your day. They’re tailor made to you and you can mix and match them to create a really joyful and pleasurable self care experience for yourself. So for example, I love the smell of apple spiced Christmas candles, I love the sight of the ocean, I love the sound of the rain outside, I love the feel of new sheets on the bed and I love the taste of chocolate- any chocolate! Or strawberries!

Now, this is pleasure not necessarily proper self care but it’s a great starting point if you’ve been neglecting yourself.

  1. Have a plan in place to deal with your emotions

If you start to do these steps, it’s likely you’ll experience a lot of resistance from either yourself or others (Or it’s likely that you’ll create resistance! I used to pick fights with Colm when I was learning to state what I needed). But the emotions that tend to come up here are either feeling a lack of worth aka ‘I don’t deserve’, feelings of guilt or feeling you’re being selfish. Expect them and be ready to remind yourself that you’re putting on your own oxygen mask.

  1. Get Support

I know that I could not have learnt how to take care of myself without support. From my sister, my friends, from counsellors when I was feeling depressed and from my own life coaches to help me set up new habits and behaviour. You have to invest in your own personal development, it has to be important to you and having someone holding you accountable for the changes you want to make is priceless.