What to Do If You Have a Hard Time Putting Yourself First

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No matter how often someone tells you to “put your own oxygen mask on” before helping others, putting yourself first is tough. Let’s face it, prioritizing yourself was probably complicated in 2018 and 2019. Post-2020? It’s almost laughable. How do you put yourself first when it feels like you’re living through multiple disasters? How do you say, “I deserve more than this,” when people are suffering everywhere? The short answer: It’s hard but necessary work—and therapists have some tips to make it easier.

The “oxygen mask” metaphor is a cliché because it’s true. No matter how uncomfortable it might be, you have to find ways (or even moments) to prioritize yourself. And even if you know it’s necessary to rest, make time for self-care, or put boundaries around toxic situations, doing it can feel unfamiliar or downright wrong. In the aftermath of setting a boundary, you might wonder: Who do I think I am to assert my needs, or, What makes me think I deserve what I’m asking?

Prioritizing yourself can be “a little bit like swimming upstream,” emotionally focused therapy trainer Robert Allan, Ph.D., LMFT, an assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Colorado, Denver, tells SELF. Why? If you’re a parent or caregiver, the root of your hesitation might be a tear-streaked face or loved one who requires ongoing care and attention. But often—whether you are a caregiver or just, you know, an adult human—it’s more complicated than one person or relationship. You might have gendered expectations (think “good women put other people first”) that make it hard to prioritize yourself, Dr. Allan says. There might also be cultural norms around hard work (i.e., rest is equivalent to laziness) or specific family ideals around showing up for one another (like “love means never saying no”). These beliefs can make it harder to be unapologetic about your needs and desires. So if putting yourself first feels even slightly unpleasant, please know that you’re not alone.

Tried-and-true emotional regulation tactics, like journaling, can help you manage your guilt or other feelings, but Dr. Allan has another suggestion: Enlist a designated person who can say, “You taking care of yourself is something I want for you.” He explains, “It’s good to have people in your life who love, care, and support you.”Cultivating a community that wants what you want for yourself can help you hold yourself accountable when it comes to putting yourself first.

Setting boundaries or expressing needs may feel like drawing a line in the sand: On one side, we stand alone with the things we want. On the other, it can seem as though there are pissed off people who need us to forget ourselves. Whether that’s playing out IRL or in your mind, Dr. Allan’s advice allows you to assert needs and remain connected to people who love you. By tapping a few friends or family members who encourage you to prioritize yourself, you can normalize addressing your needs without apology. This might help you feel more empowered to make yourself a priority instead of “having to stamp your feet,” Dr. Allan explains. If you already know the perfect person to help you with this, here are a few ways they might help out:

 

1. Talk to your person before you set a boundary.

If setting a boundary or expressing a need requires difficult conversations with loved ones, check in with your cheerleader beforehand to get a little ego boost. It’s okay to enter the conversation by saying, “I need you to give me a pep talk,” or “I know I’m catastrophizing a little, but can you listen to a few of my fears?” Even though one pep talk might not make the impending conversation easier, it could help remind you that you’re not irrational for having needs.

 

2. Celebrate with your person once you’ve expressed your needs.

In almost every SELF story I’ve written about boundary setting, therapists mention that other people might have strong feelings about your choices. The same is true if you’re stating a need. Just because someone doesn’t agree with your boundary or desire doesn’t mean it’s any less valid, Emily Jamea, Ph.D., LMFT, previously told SELF. So if you’ve told your partner that you need more space and they didn’t take it well, it’s okay to touch base with a cheerleader, who might lovingly remind you that your partner’s feelings are just that—their emotions.

 

3. Check in with your person when you need an in-the-moment reminder.

You’ve asserted yourself, carved out the necessary time you need for self-care, but in the middle of your nighttime soak, you’re questioning your intentions. Is this self-indulgent? Do I deserve this? Is self-care an excuse to be a terrible person? Instead of immediately jumping out of the tub to apologize for seemingly abandoning your responsibilities, try to finish relaxing, then once you’re out of the bath (or done with whichever calming activity speaks to you), send a text or call the person you’ve designated to remind you that you’re allowed to put yourself front and center. (Maybe they can send you a voice message that you can replay again and again.)

Ultimately, asking someone to support you as you learn to prioritize yourself is such a gentle way of working through complicated feelings. So often, self-care and healing sound like things done in isolation—as if they require you to withdraw from those who love you. In actuality, you deserve support even when you question whether you’re worthy.

So if you’re looking for a sign that you’re allowed to soak five minutes longer, carve out time to see a therapist, splurge on socially distant staycation amenities, or just say no to something you don’t want to do, consider this your sign. And if you know that it will be hard to follow through on prioritizing yourself, ask someone to remind you that you’re worth it. Because, obviously, you are.

 

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