How I Stopped Putting Everyone Else’s Needs Above My Own

“Never feel sorry for choosing yourself.” ~Unknown

I was eleven years old, possibly twelve, the day I first discovered my mother’s betrayal. I assume she didn’t hear me when I walked in the door after school. The distant voices in the finished basement room of our home drew me in. My mother’s voice was soft as she spoke to her friend. What was she hiding that she didn’t want me to hear?

I leaned in a little bit closer to the opening of the stairs… She was talking about a man she’d met. Her voice changed when she spoke of him. The tone of dreamy wonder when you discover something that makes your heart race. She talked about the way they touched and how she felt being with him.

I felt my body go weak. I could not tell if it was sorrow or rage. All I knew was, she had lied to me.

Several months prior, my parents had announced their divorce. My mother told me the decision was my father’s choice. She told me he was the one breaking up our family. She told me she wanted nothing more than to stay with us and be together.

And now I heard her revealing that was not true. She wanted to leave. She was not choosing me. She was choosing him.

Since I was nine months old, my mother had been in and out of doctor’s offices, hospitals, psychiatrist’s and therapist’s offices trying to find the cure of her mental and emotional instability.

When I was a young child, she began to share her frustrations and sorrows with me. I became her support and the keeper of her pain. She had nicknamed me her “little psychiatrist.” It was my job to help her. I had to. I needed her stable so I could survive.

I don’t remember when or if she told us that she was seeing someone. I just remember she was gone a lot after that day. She spent her time with her new boyfriend out of the house. As the parentified child who she had inadvertently made her caretaker, it felt like she was betraying me. She left me for him.

I was no longer the chosen one—he was.

I hated him for it. When my mother moved in with him, I refused to meet him. I didn’t want to get to know or like this man she left me for.

I saw them one day in the parking lot outside of a shopping plaza. I watched them walking together and hid behind a large concrete pillar so they wouldn’t see me. The friend I was with asked if I wanted to say hello. I scowled at the thought. I despised him.

Within the same year, his own compromised mental health spiraled, and they broke up. He moved out of their apartment. I didn’t know why or what happened. I only knew my mother was sad. Shortly after their breakup, he took his own life. From what we heard, he had done so in a disturbingly torturous way. It was clear his self-loathing and pain was deep.

My mother was devastated. She mourned the loss of her love and the traumatic way he exited. She stopped taking her medication, and her own mental health began to spiral. My father received a phone call that her car had been abandoned several states away. I’m unsure what she was doing there, but she had some issues and took a taxi back home.

He later received a call stating that my mother had been arrested for playing her music too loud in her apartment. Perhaps to drown out the voices in her head. She was later taken to the hospital without her consent and was admitted due to her mental instability.

After several days of attempting to rebalance her brain chemistry with medication, my mother began to sound grounded again. The family decided she would move in with her parents a few states away from us and live with them until she was stable again.

A few days after Christmas she called me to tell me how sad she was. She grieved her dead boyfriend. I was short with her. I was still angry for her betrayal. I didn’t want to continue being used as her therapist. The imbalance in our relationship was significant, and my resentment was huge.

I loved her, but I could not fall back into the role of being her support without any support back. It was life-sucking. And I didn’t care that he was dead. She chose him over me. I was fine with him being gone.

I don’t recall feeling any guilt when I got off the phone that day. I felt good that I had chosen myself and put a boundary in place to not get sucked into her sorrow. I was fourteen years old, less than a week shy of fifteen. I just wanted to be a kid.

The next day, my mother chose to make more decisions for me and for herself. These were more final. She told her parents she was taking a nap and intentionally overdosed on the medication meant to save her. She died quietly to relieve herself from her pain and left me forever.

That choice—my own and hers—would change the course of my life.

The day my mother freed herself from this world was the same day I learned to become imprisoned in mine. I was imprinted with a fear that would dictate my life. I became quietly terrified of hurting other people. I feared their discomfort and feeling it was my fault. From that day forward I would live with the silent fear of choosing myself.

My rational mind told me it was not my fault. I did not open the bottle. I did not force her to swallow the pills. I did not end her life. But I also did not save it.

I learned that day that creating a boundary to preserve myself not only was unsafe, it was dangerous. When I chose me, people not only could or would abandon me, they could die.

Of course, I never saw this in my teenage mind. Nor did I see it in my twenties, thirties or the beginning of my forties. I only saw my big, loving heart give myself away over and over again at the cost of myself.

I felt my body tighten up when I feared someone would be mad at me. I heard myself use words to make things okay in situations that were not okay. I said yes far too many times when my heart screamed no. All because I was afraid to choose myself.

The pattern and fear only strengthened with time. I learned to squirm my way out of hurting others and discovered passive-aggressive and deceptive approaches to get my needs met. My body shook in situations where conflict seemed imminent, and I learned to avoid that too.

What I didn’t see was that this avoidance had a high price. I was living a life where I was scared to be myself.

On the outside I played the part. The woman who had it all together. Vocal, passionate, confident, and ambitious. But on the inside, I held in more secrets than I knew what to do with. I wasn’t living as me. My fear of being judged and rejected or not having my needs met was silently ruling my life.

So many have developed this fear over time. Starting with our own insecurities of not feeling good enough and then having multiple experiences that solidified this belief. The experiences and memories differ, but the feelings accompanying them are very much the same.

The fear of choosing ourselves, our desires, our truths, all deeply hidden under the masks of “I’m fine. It’s fine.” When in reality, we learn to give way more than we receive and wonder why we live unsatisfied, resentful, and with chronic disappointment. Nothing ever feels enough, and if it does, it’s short-lived.

The memories and feelings become imprints in our bodies and in our minds that convince us we can’t trust ourselves. That we can’t trust others. That we must stay in control in order to keep us safe. We learn to manipulate situations and people to save ourselves from the opinions and judgments outside of us. We learn to protect ourselves by giving in, in order to not feel the pain of being left out.

We shelter ourselves with lies that we are indifferent or it’s not a big deal in order to shield ourselves from the truth that we want more. We crave more, but we are too scared to ask for it. The repercussions feel too risky. The fear of loneliness too great.

In the end, our fear of choosing ourselves even convinces us we can live with less. That we are meant to live with less, and we need to be grateful for whatever that is.

Do we? Why?

What if we learned to own our fear? What if we accepted that we were scared, and it was reasonable? What would happen if we acknowledged to our partners, families, friends, and even strangers that we, too, were scared of not being good enough? Of being discarded, rejected, and left behind.

What would it be like if we shared our stories and exposed our insecurities to free them instead of locking them up to be hidden in the dark shadows of ourselves?

I’m so curious.

Where in your past can you see that choosing yourself left a mark? What silenced you, shamed you, discouraged you from choosing your needs over another’s? When were you rejected for not doing what someone else wanted you to do? And how has that fear dictated your life?

Choosing ourselves starts with awareness. Looking at the ways you keep quiet out of fear or don’t make choices that include your needs. Seeing where this fear shows up in your life gives you the opportunity to change it. The more you see it, the more you can make another choice.

Start with looking at the areas of life where you hold on to the most resentment and anger. Who or what situations frustrate you? Anger often indicates where imbalances lie or when a boundary has been crossed. It shows us where we feel powerless.

Make a list of the situations that annoy you and then ask yourself, what’s in your control and what’s not? What can you directly address or ask for help with?

Note the ways you may be manipulating others to get your needs met in those situations and how that feels. Note also what you may be avoiding and why.

How would it feel to be more direct and assertive? What feelings or fears come up for you?

Then start with one small thing you could do differently. Include who you could ask for help with this step, if anyone.

As for me, I have found myself in situations where I lied or remained silent to avoid being judged, in an attempt to manipulate how others see me. I have felt my body cringe with sadness and shame each time. It doesn’t matter how big or small the lie, it assaults my body the same.

I have learned that speaking my truth, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant, saves my body from feeling abused by the secrets it must keep. Choosing me is choosing self-honesty; identifying what is true for me and what is not based on the way my body responds. I am not in control of others’ judgments of me, but I am in control of the way I continue to set myself up to judge myself.

I have also found myself agreeing to do things I didn’t want to do in order to win the approval of others, then becoming resentful toward them because I refused to speak up for myself.

Choosing me in these scenarios is honoring the fact that I will still be scared to ask for what I need, as my fears are real and valid, but asking anyway, even when the stakes feel high. It’s scary to feel that someone may abandon us if we choose ourselves, but it’s scarier to lose ourselves to earn a love built on a brittle foundation of fear.

l cannot control the past where I have left myself behind, but I can control today, the way I forgive myself for falling victim to my human fear, and the way I choose to love myself moving forward. When I choose me, I have more love to give to others. Today I can take a small step toward change.

Taking these small steps and building on them will help us to show ourselves that we can make progress in bite size amounts and prove to ourselves we are going to be okay. The small bites are digestible and give us proof that we can do it. This helps us build our ability to do more over time, while also decreasing our fear.

If we look at our past, we will see the majority of our big fears do not come to fruition, and if they did, we survived them and gained knowledge or strength in the process.

It’s not the action holding us back, but the memory of the discomfort we still live with. The more we move through these fears, the more that discomfort will decrease, and the more we will trust that we will be okay no matter what.

About Lynn Reilly

Lynn Reilly is a licensed professional counselor, master energy therapist, and author of the self-care book 30 Days to Me and the children's book The Secret to Beating the Dragon. You can subscribe to her insights and benefit from her 15-minute trust practices to live more fully on livingwithserendipity.com as well as follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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