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How I Prioritize and Take Care of Myself Without Feeling Selfish

“I am worthy of the best things in life, and I now lovingly allow myself to accept it.” ~Louise Hay

Looking back on my life, I see that for a long time I struggled to take care of my own wants and needs and didn’t make them a priority. I used to find that very uncomfortable, and sometimes even selfish. I was a master of giving, but I faced serious obstacles to receiving.

By nature, I am a nurturer. I find tremendous joy and fulfillment in giving, so the old me used to offer plenty of time and energy to everyone else (my family, friends, and employers). I was always doing my best to please others and make them happy. I still believe there’s nothing wrong about that, and that my only mistake was treating myself as unimportant.

Several years ago, while I was working for an international corporation in Shanghai, I was assigned to organize a major team-building event for the organization. I decided to go for a Chinese food cooking class. It all went beautifully, and everyone had much fun. People were cooking, laughing, and taking pictures, while I was supervising and making sure everything went impeccably.

After the cooking class, it was time for dinner, time to eat that delicious food and enjoy a relaxing evening together. I had spent hours setting the tables, preparing different team games, and making sure this event was going to be a party to remember. And so it was, especially for me.

I will never forget that day. It was transformational; a wake-up call that shook me to the bones. My colleagues asked where I was going to sit and have dinner, and I couldn’t answer. I had been so focused on making everything perfect for everyone else that I had completely forgotten about myself.

Everyone had their seats and was ready to enjoy a nice meal, except for me. I was planning to grab some food at the end, if anything was left. I’d entertain everyone and play the master of ceremonies, even if n one had ever asked me to do that.

I was the only one responsible for that unfortunate decision to please everyone but me.

My first reaction was to blame myself. How could I have done such a thing? How could I have been so stupid? Deep inside, I felt angry with myself, and upset with my mother, as well.

Since an early age, I watched her dedicate herself to us, her family, day and night: never tired (that’s what we thought), always available and willing to help. I watched her taking care of the household and working full time, including night shifts.

I would have wanted her to teach me differently, to tell me about healthy boundaries and self-care. But that was the best she knew, and she did the best she could. Her mother had done the same thing, and so had her grandmother.

Today, I feel thankful for that precious gift. My mother taught me how to serve, nourish, and nurture from the heart. However, there was one more thing for me to learn as a grown-up woman: that self-care was not selfish, but fair. Like everyone else, I am also a person, worthy of love, care, and attention.

Today I know I needed that experience, to understand how old, inherited patterns of behavior didn’t serve me well. We can only change what we are aware of and accept to be true about ourselves, and staying in denial is a trap.

So here’s what worked well for me and helped me take much better care of myself:

1. Do more things for my heart and soul.

If I can’t find time for myself in my busy agenda, I make it. We all have twenty-four hours a day, and my wants and needs are important.

I have started to spend a higher number of hours all by myself. It doesn’t mean I’m not a social person or I don’t love the people around me. That’s how I reconnect with myself and get grounded, reflect, and recharge.

I take breaks between working hours; I am not a robot. Sometimes, I go out for a nice walk in nature. I watch a good movie or read a good book. I listen to relaxing recordings, with my eyes closed. I sometimes treat myself to a massage. I use the beautiful bed sheets and the nice towels instead of saving them for the guests, because I’m worth it.

2. Take good care of my body.

I know my body is the temple of my soul, and the only one I’ve got, so I make sure I give it nutritious foods and plenty of water. I schedule those much-needed doctor appointments and yearly health checks. I take a nap when I need rest; put my phone on silent and disconnect from the outer world for a while. Surprisingly, the world does not collapse.

3. Set healthy boundaries with the outer world.

One of the most difficult things I had to learn was how to say no to things I didn’t really want to do, without feeling selfish, guilty, or overly worried that I might hurt or upset someone else.

I struggled with this in my personal relationships (like when I saw a movie in town on a Sunday because a good friend had asked, even though my body only wanted to sleep and recharge), but not only in this area of my life.

This was a challenge at work, as well, whether I was saying yes to tasks that were not part of my job profile or volunteering to take on new projects when I already had a lot on my plate.

But one day, I decided to speak up for myself and see what happened. Surprisingly, everything was just fine when I started telling people what I needed.

To me, setting healthy boundaries was a learned practice, and here’s where I am today:

If it sounds like a “should,” I don’t do it. I have learned how to say no to things I don’t really want to do without fearing I might disappoint others.

Saying no doesn’t mean I dislike or reject the other person. I know I can’t disappoint anyone. People disappoint themselves with the expectations they set for whom they want me to be and what they expect me to do. It’s always about them, and it has zero to do with me. If they truly love me, they would understand.

It’s not my job to please others, and I don’t feel like I owe anyone any explanations or apologies for the way I am spending my precious time, and with whom. We always choose how much we give.

Setting boundaries in a relationship might look selfish to the outer world. In reality, it is a form of self-respect, self-love, and self-care.

4. Stop fighting for perfection.

Years ago, I almost got burnt out at work. I was working ten hours a day as a rule, plus weekends. I couldn’t sleep well, and I generally spent my weekend time recovering from stress through overeating.

One day, I collapsed. I often saw my colleagues leaving the office after the normal working hours, while I was doing overtime on a regular basis. I blamed myself for being less intelligent than my peers, thinking that my brain couldn’t handle my assignments at the same speed. In other words, I thought I was stupid.

I had a chat with my manager about my workload, and that was transformational. I told him it felt too hard to handle. I will never forget that manager’s words:

“Sara, I do appreciate your hard work, and I’m very pleased to have you on my team. However, I want you to know that I only expect you to run the daily business. I have never asked you for perfection, but for good enough.”

That was mind blowing. For the first time ever, I came to understand that “good enough” had never been part of my repertoire. I couldn’t define what that was. I wanted things to do everything perfectly so no one could hurt me or blame anything on my performance. I was an overachiever, identifying my human worth through my professional results and achievements.

I was raising the bar so high that my body couldn’t cope with the expectations I had set for myself any longer. Nobody else was responsible for my situation, but me.

So here’s what I’ve learned from that experience: The need for perfection is energy consuming, and it can be exhausting for both body and soul. If this sounds familiar to you, please know that you will never get rid of perfectionism till you learn how to be okay with good enough.

Today I do the best I know and be the best I can be in every situation, and I aim for progress instead of perfection. I have learned to embrace my mistakes as much-needed opportunities for growth. I know am not a Superwoman, and that we all have good and bad days.

5. Let go of the “do it all” mentality.

In a society that values human worth through how well we do things in life (based on individual results, goals, and achievements), most of us have forgotten just to be. Everyone is in a hurry, doing something or running somewhere. Many of us have even started to feel guilty for doing nothing.

But here’s what I believe: Doing nothing doesn’t necessary mean I’m lazy. As long as it comes from an empowering place of choice—my own choosing—doing nothing is an action!

6. Love and approve of myself, as I am.

I’ll be brutally honest with this one: I often used to put other people’s needs above my own not because I genuinely wanted to help others. In many cases, I did it because I wanted people to like me. I wanted to be seen as someone who could handle everything in my private life and career so that people would perceive me as invincible, irreplaceable, and strong. Especially at work, I wanted to feel important, valuable, and needed.

This came along with a very strong need for control, as I thought that would allow me to trust that I’d always be included in my group of friends, safe and never abandoned. According to Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, we all have a basic need to feel a sense of belonging to a group or community. However, if the cost is living behind a mask and having a hidden agenda, our relationships can become inauthentic, unhealthy, and even toxic.

Looking back on my past, I realize that I often used others as an instrument of self-validation. I spent so much of my precious time trying to please others that I didn’t have any energy to focus on myself and what I truly wanted.

I needed others to fill my void and help me avoid myself. Focusing on other people was a way for me to escape my own flaws and limitations. I used to associate this behavior with the extroverted side of my personality, but today I know that was a lie.

Once I learned to approve of myself unconditionally and treat myself as if I were my own best friend, I didn’t need others to validate me. Though I still need to be loved and appreciated, I am not needy for approval any longer. And I no longer try to control how people perceive me, as I know they’ll always see me filtered through their own lenses.

Once I began to take care of myself—body, mind, and soul—I started to feel happier and more balanced, energized, and alive. Investing in my self-care was the best decision I could ever make, and a life changing one.

And now, I would like to hear from you. Have you ever felt like taking care of yourself and prioritizing your heart’s desires was selfish? Do you also tend to put other people’s wants and needs before your own? And why do you think that is?

About Sara Fabian

Sara Fabian is a women’s career and empowerment coach and inspirational speaker, on a mission to help professional women to discover their unique strengths, gifts and talents, boost their confidence, find their calling and live a meaningful life of purpose. For weekly inspiration, subscribe to her free newsletter at sarafabiancoaching.com or follow her on Facebook.

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  • Sarahlh2201

    This story definitely resonates with me. I have sought the approval of others for as long as I can remember. When it came to my family I never felt like I matched their expectation of me, I felt like I was a constant disappointment and every decision I made for myself was met with judgement and disapproval. I’ve been searching for acceptance my whole life. I know I have made poor decisions sometimes… knowing that It would upset my family because I needed to feel their unconditional love. But I never got it. I just felt like an embarrassment to them. I have gone out of my way to fulfil the needs of others when sometimes they have not deserved it just so that they would like me, think I was selfless, strong and invincible, to make myself indispensable, able to cope with anything as these are qualities that I admire. Unfortunately I have not learned to be kind to myself or to love myself enough to learn when to say no. I’m more worried about hurting their feelings or letting them down. The guilt that comes with denying someone else’s needs overwhelms me so I remain dutiful but then feel unappreciated, taken for granted, angry and ashamed of myself as I wish I felt more deserving of better treatment.

  • Marsha Lutsky Hoak

    I started saying “No” once in awhile to a few people (casual friends) because they were expecting me to drive them around all the time, anywhere and any time of day, and not offering to pay gas or at least half of it. I would do it once, and suddenly it was expected all the time even though they had cars. I lost those friends. It was very hard to accept and I blamed myself for not being the one everyone depends on for years. My life style had changed (I retired) and my income level had changed but none of them cared. Meanwhile, they found other friends to accommodate them and one of them was mutual. She came by my house one day (years ago) and said she goes to see the large pines up north east of San Francisco every year. It soothes her soul. She offered to take the lady I use to drive around and the lady accepted. They made it up to Morro Bay (near Hearst Castle) and the lady (who’s a shopaholic) spent a lot of her money. She told our mutual friend she wasn’t bothered about going further north to the trees and would be happy to head home. The mutual friend refused and said to me “It was my gas, my hotels and my vacation and I paid it all. She didn’t contribute so I told her I wasn’t ruining my vacation and she had to go with me. She did. I am so glad that wasn’t me. I suddenly realized that the lady does that to everyone and I wasn’t being selfish. Hard lessons to learn in life huh?

  • Sara Fabian

    Thank you for sharing, Marsha. Yes, everything is a learning…One transformational thing I learned in life is that we always choose how much we give and to whom. Blessings!

  • Sara Fabian

    Thank you for sharing your life experience, Sarah. That must have been tough to handle, and unconditional love is a very rare gift for many. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn self-care, and saying no to things we don’t really want to do is a matter of self respect (to me, at least). Self-care is not selfish; it’s nothing but fair. You are also a person, worthy of love, care and attention. Blessings!

  • Lise

    The need for approval just hit the nail on the head for me. I had to be honest with myself and ask am I doing it to help or for appreciation. And putting others first is also approval and appreciation. Self–love, self-care and setting healthy boundries is something I’m learning and practing, as well as saying no 🙂

  • Lisa Guzman

    Sarah: Just wanted to say you are enough!! Totally and completely accepted as you are!! Your a beautiful, amazing person with wonderful qualities and a heart of kindness! Love yourself, appreciate yourself, be kind to yourself, let go of all false guilt that weighs you down robs your joy and takes your smile away!!! You are not a victim of circumstance!! Experiences that we face in life give us clues to what may or may not be working and its ok we can change them for the better!!! The good news is you are free to rewrite your life story all over again and you can and you will!! Have a wonderful life!! I believe in you!!!
    Blessings!! Lisa Guzman

  • Sara Fabian

    Thank you for your comment, Lise. Learning self-care takes some practice but it’s so much worth it! Blessings!

  • Lily

    I have learned that you however you start in any relationship you better start it wisely because whatever you start giving somebody in the beginning is what they are going to expect later on

  • Sara Fabian

    Hi Lily, I love this saying:No expectations, no disappointment. Unfortunately, unconditional love in personal relationships is a rare gift to many. Blessings!

  • Louise Brinklow

    I could have written the first part of your story. Unfortunately I am only just getting around to the middle part – where I make the decisions about what I do and don’t do depending on how I feel about them. Its hard – family members can’t understand the change. Sometimes I need to do something for me before I help you…..
    I have felt incredibly frustrated in the past about feeling so responsible for everything. It made me feel very angry and bitter at times.
    Everyone expects me to organise, help and pick up the pieces. I’m always there for them – the one steady rock they can always rely on – and I like to be this person – but it eventually means burn-out!
    About 18 months ago I started to practice yoga. Before too long I decided to be more careful about what I ate – to look after myself. I think these things have had a huge impact on me.
    I am important and need to look after myself.
    I need to be strong and healthy in mind and body to enable me to be there for my family but also to be there for myself too.
    Thank you for this piece – I too have reflected my mother with my behaviour but I think it will help enormously on this journey and has given me more food for thought as to the reason WHY I am this person.

  • lv2terp

    Wonderful post!!!! Thank you for sharing this message, and great insight and tips! 🙂

  • Mejiro

    Thank you for this article. It’s hard to put oneself first when choices made in one’s own best interests usually result in others’ hurt feelings (i.e. eloping because a wedding was only for the benefit of others and not for the actual couple; moving to a distant country to pursue lifelong dreams; quitting a job because the employer kept asking for more without any sort of pay increase; refusing to continue to entertain a “friendship” when all it was was constant sacrificing for the other person and not receiving anything meaningful in return). I was called “selfish” for all of these things. (And I believed that I was indeed selfish for making these choices for myself, and I felt like a bad person.) And then I read, “I know I can’t disappoint anyone. People disappoint themselves with the expectations they set for whom they want me to be and what they expect me to do. It’s always about them, and it has zero to do with me. If they truly love me, they would understand.” This was tough to read and process. I know it’s the truth, but it’s going to take a while to fully incorporate this into my way of thinking.

  • Antoinettexx

    I personally do no relate entirely to your article because I’ve always focused more on myself haha. However I do relate to the idea of balancing how much we do for others with how much we do for ourselves. As we live life, we go through experiences that teach us more about balance. I am amazed at your transformation and what you’ve learnt and I hope you continue to take good care of yourself 🙂

  • Sara Fabian

    Thank you so much for sharing, Louise! Glad to hear you’ve decided to go for a few major changes in your life, that serve you well. Self-care is a learned practice for many and so much worth it! Unfortunately, living authentically is an act of courage and I find it impossible to do that without having to disappoint others. Many people use others as an instrument to fulfill their own needs, setting expectations, and that’s the ultimate source of their disappointment. It’s always their story. Blessings!

  • Sara Fabian

    I’m glad it helps. Blessings!

  • Sara Fabian

    Very brave decisions! It is very true that transformation takes time and practice. Living authentically is a choice we’re making and yes, we always choose how much to give and to whom. Thank you for sharing! Blessings!

  • Sara Fabian

    Thank you. I agree, every experience is a new step at school of life:) Blessings!

  • Akshita Agrawal

    Hi Sara, aptly written article capturing all the emotions of a self-love dubious person. Every point mentioned in the article is relatable and these forms an enormous challenge in daily life. The worst part is this builds an unintentional voluntary expectations from others and self too which upon unfulfillment leads to anxiety, depression and self-guilt. often we tend to miss on opportunities and later regret for no greater good

  • Sara Fabian

    Thank you for your comment! I think we can never control the way other people feel, act or think but we are in full charge of our own emotions. Setting healthy boundaries with the outer world doesn’t always come along with depression or self-guilt. The was we feel, act or think is a matter of personal choice we are making. Blessings!

  • Frank

    Thank you for your post. I needed to hear this at this point in my life.