“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” ~Maya Angelou
Growing up in Africa, I was told that the virtue and worth of a woman lies in her ability to take care of everyone around her; that a woman was considered good or worthy when everyone around her was happy and pleased with her. I took this advice to heart, especially since I watched my mother meet this standard to a T. Putting everyone else, including strangers, above herself.
Most of the Things We Learn as Kids Shape Us
As a kid, I was taught how to cook, clean, and care for others. As a teenager, I got a lot of practice caring for my younger siblings; at first, it was great, being a caregiver, being the one who everyone went to when they needed something. I loved being needed, and I relished in the label I was given as dependable.
Family, friends, and even strangers knew that I was the go-to girl for whatever they wanted. If I couldn’t help them with whatever they needed, I would find someone who could. I was determined to never leave anyone high and dry. I loved being needed, and if anyone needed me, I believed that I was their last resort.
The Joy of Giving
You see, one thing about giving is that it feels good… until it doesn’t. The moment you get to a place where giving doesn’t feel good anymore, it means that you need to turn the giving around and start giving to yourself. But how does someone who is addicted to being needed realize this?
When helping people started feeling more exhausting than exhilarating, my first instinct was to give more because I believed that the more I gave to others, the more I would receive from them. But that was not the case. The more I gave, the less I received, and this prompted me to label most of my friends as bad friends because I wasn’t getting as much as I was giving to them.
When I became isolated from cutting friends off because they were “bad” to me, I realized the problem wasn’t that I was not getting as much as I was giving; the problem was that I was giving to everyone but myself. I had put myself in the back burner and abandoned myself. How can I abandon myself and not expect others to abandon me?
The Guilt That Comes with Giving to Yourself
Realizing my deep-seated issues was easy, but addressing them was a whole other thing. Because I was conditioned to believe that my worth was in pleasing others, I always said yes to everyone who needed my help; saying no was extremely difficult.
This was because I was suppressed by intense guilt and ended up caving in to finding help for the person at my own expense. Everything changed for me when a former classmate said to me out of the blue: “You are nobody’s last resort.”
You are nobody’s last resort, no matter how bad it is. If you cannot help someone with their problem, another person will. And more importantly, it’s not your responsibility to ensure they get the help they need—it’s theirs.
This was a turning point in my life because now I knew that telling someone no because I needed the time to invest in my own needs did not mean that they were never going to get help.
The guilt was still there, but little by little, I persevered in choosing myself over and over again. I started with little things, like saying no to helping a friend walk their dog to stay at home, to take a long bath and read a book (I enjoy reading). And over time I was able to get better at saying no to larger requests that would have been draining and would have negatively impacted my mental health.
Give to Yourself and You Won’t Expect Too Much From Others
Slowly but surely, I learned that my worth is determined by me and me alone—by how much love and care I direct toward myself. Guilt still visits me sometimes, but it is not as intense as it used to be.
I know now it is better to feel guilty for taking care of yourself than to expect others to anticipate your needs and take care of you. News flash: if you don’t take care of yourself from the inside out, no one will.
Don’t get me wrong, I still take care of my loved ones and help others as well as I can, but I now do it from a complete place, a place of wholeness, knowing that I will be fine whether they invest in me or not.
I don’t expect much from people, and I don’t get disappointed much because I have learned to prioritize myself. Frankly speaking, I have noticed that the people around me enjoy me more now that I am not a self-righteous person who resents her giving and selflessness.
“I give and give and give, and what do I get? Nothing.” If you have heard yourself say or think these words, then you are expecting people to make you happy just because you are bending over backwards to make them happy. If you keep bending backwards to make others happy, one day you will break your back. A broken back is very painful to bear, take note.
Life’s a Journey, Not a Race
This is not an overnight process; it will take time and patience. I have learned that part of taking care of myself is being nice to myself, whether I’m making progress or not. I’m done talking down to myself. Everything I wouldn’t do or say to another person, I’ve vowed never to do or say to myself.
There is no glory in stomping all over yourself to please the world, there is no glory in self-deprecation and self-hate. It is not humble to call yourself terrible names or to live in suffering because you don’t want to hurt some else’s feeling or because you want to be called a nice/polite person.
Our feelings and needs matter as much as anyone else’s, but we can only honor them if we recognize this and prioritize them.