How to Stop Prioritizing Everyone and Everything Else at Your Own Expense

“Agreeing to things just to keep the peace is actually a trauma response. When you do this you’re disrespecting your boundaries. No more making yourself uncomfortable for others to feel comfortable. You have control now. You run your life. Take up space and use your voice.” ~Dj Love Light

I read the text from my stepmother inviting everyone to the holiday dinner at her house, and my stomach began to churn. I did not want to attend, but I was instantly flooded with guilt at the thought of saying no.

“How to kindly decline an invite” I typed and hit search.

I felt like I should go to their dinner, even though I didn’t want to. My stepparents were always disappointed when some of us RSVPed no. Would they be mad if I said no this time? Would they ask why my family couldn’t come?

Also, my sister was coming to town for the holiday, and I didn’t want her to be disappointed that my family wasn’t there. All kinds of scenarios were playing out in my head, fueling my shame, while my guilt dug in its heels.

The following day I replied to the group, “The Montgomerys can’t make it. Have a happy holiday,” and let out a nervous sigh while I tried to let myself off the hook. I’d been so overwhelmed lately; I just needed a break.

I’ve spent most of my life being conditioned to believe that my needs do not matter. My mother got breast cancer when I was eight, and she and my stepfather kept it a secret to ‘protect’ the kids. All that did was rob me of being able to express my fears and be comforted.

I was told to put a smile on my face when we’d visit her in the hospital—“Don’t cry. You don’t want to upset your mother”—teaching me that my sadness was irrelevant, and I should focus on my mother’s happiness instead.

She died when I was twelve, and even then, as I sat in the backseat on the drive home, I was handed a tissue to wipe the tears off my face without so much as a hug or a comforting word.

When my stepfather remarried, my stepmother’s narcissism only solidified the notion that my needs were unimportant. Her kids mattered; I did not. Her feelings took priority; mine were an inconvenience. I learned that conceding to my stepparents’ wants and preferences, even at my own discomfort, equaled safety.

My stepparents were emotionally and verbally abusive. My stepfather was a screamer and used rage as a weapon. My stepmother was a narcissist with a powerful sense of entitlement and superiority. They demanded compliance.

I buried my needs and made myself small as a means of survival. I became a people-pleaser to endure the trauma. I spent decades in survival mode, never having a voice, never taking up space.

In my mid-thirties, I finally realized that the narrative I had been told, “you don’t matter,” simply wasn’t true. After years of therapy and establishing a happy, healthy family of my own, I came to understand that I do matter, and my needs are valid.

Even into my adult years, with marriage and kids, I continued to try to foster a relationship with my stepparents. I tolerated their abuse and made excuses. “That’s just how they are,” or, “We have to go; they’re family.”

I finally hit my breaking point after my stepparents stood me up for the second time. We were supposed to have lunch, and they didn’t show. It had happened the previous month as well, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt. This was the final straw.

I had spent so much time and effort trying to get them to be a part of my and my children’s lives with invitations that were ignored, all while being required to show up for them whether it worked for our schedules or not.

I decided that I would go low contact. I would no longer reach out to them and would only attend holidays or birthdays when I was available and felt like it. I did not want to go full no contact, because I still wanted to interact with my siblings and their families.

The boundaries I put in place were extremely helpful. They decreased the harm my stepparents inflicted upon me and my family. Anytime we gathered with them, and a cruel comment or snarky remark was made, I found it had lost its power. Instead of bringing me to tears, I would now say, “That’s just how they are,” with a shrug and an eye roll.

I refused to give my power away to them anymore. Their attempts to hurt me failed now. I no longer subscribe to their narrative of me.

The boundaries and reclaiming my voice are now my norm; however, I still have moments when the feeling of I don’t matter creeps back in, and I go back to my factory setting of being a people-pleaser. Trauma is tricky that way.

When I find myself in people-pleaser mode, shoving my needs aside to take care of everyone and everything else, those are the times when I need to remember how prioritizing others at my expense ends in exhaustion and resentment. I remind myself that I have control of my life, I matter, and my needs are valid.

Prioritizing your needs and developing boundaries can be daunting when you are not accustomed to using your voice and taking up space. To stop putting others’ comfort above your own, try the following.

1. Assess the situation.

  • Check in with yourself: How are you feeling? Are your needs being met?
  • If/then: If you are exhausted and your needs are not being met, then what needs to change?
  • Be mindful: What people/places are challenging for you?

2. Create an actionable plan.

  • Having my needs met looks like: going for a daily walk and saying no when I’m overwhelmed.
  • Challenging people/places: Establish boundaries and eliminate toxic environments.
  • Reminders: Be kind to yourself, respond as if you were talking with a friend, and no shaming.

3. Adjust and continue.

  • What worked: Setting a boundary of helping neighbor only when free went well.
  • What went wrong: Family getting upset with boundary caused guilt and shame.
  • Pivot: Practice giving yourself grace and remember that “No” is a complete sentence.
  • Learn: It gets easier; you can do it again; you are not responsible for other’s reactions.

The saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup” is popular for a reason. Give yourself some grace as you reclaim your value and worth. Use your voice and take up space. You matter.

About Sadie Montgomery

Sadie Montgomery was born and raised in the Midwestern United States, where she currently resides on the shore of Lake Superior with her husband and children. She is an amateur baker and a professional accountant, and she won The Best Sense of Humor award in the sixth grade. Atlas of Scars is her debut memoir. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and at sadiemontgomery.com.

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