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Why We Put Ourselves Last & Why Self-Care Should Be a Priority

“Be there for others, but never leave yourself behind.” ~Dodinsky

Sometimes, when we’re feeling stressed and running around taking care of everybody else, the healthiest thing we can do is to stop and consider how we can take care of ourselves.

While this seems obvious to some people, many of us struggle with the idea of putting ourselves first. We were raised to think we should always put others before ourselves and ignore our own needs—that it is somehow arrogant or self-centered, and not a nice thing to do.

So, why is self-care not held in high regard as the essential practice that it is for our well-being?

Here, I take a look at some misconceptions that hold us back from looking after the most important person in our lives, explore why self-care is better for others around us, and share my own list of self-care commitments, as somebody who has struggled with this in the past.

1. We think self-care means being selfish. 

Taking care of ourselves is the opposite of being selfish, as it strengthens us and enables us to support our loved ones better. We are no use to anyone if our energy is depleted because we have given every last bit of it away. Self-care is an antidote to stress, as it builds resilience so we can better cope with challenges.

Just think how they tell us to put on our oxygen mask first on an airplane before we help others. Yes, absolutely support others, but nurture yourself first.

2. We confuse “rescuing” with caring.

We often sacrifice self-care because we’re too busy trying to save everyone else. But people have to learn their own lessons in life, however painful that is. Who are you to decide that you know what is right for them? Now that is selfish, as it’s based on your own desires for them, which may not truly be in their best interests.

The way we can really help is to focus on ourselves and stop trying to run others’ lives. While we think we’re caring by “rescuing” them from unpleasant experiences in their lives, we are denying them the opportunity to face their own challenges, and grow stronger or learn a lesson from doing so.

This has been a hard truth for me to face, as I always thought I was being nice and caring. It’s even tougher to accept now that a close family member of mine is very ill, mostly caused by their own actions. I have an overwhelming desire to help, and have tried on numerous occasions, but I now realize that they have to want to change.

By rescuing them every time, out of what we believe is love, the rest of the family are enabling this person to stay feeling helpless, and we are burning ourselves out with stress.

I don’t mean we should never help people, but there is a difference between providing support for somebody who asks and taking it upon ourselves to save somebody and make their life turn out in a way that we think it should.

3. We are accustomed to relationships based on neediness, not real love.

We often fall in love with the idea of being in love, because we watch Hollywood films that portray love as dramatic and needing to be with somebody 24/7.

When we give from this place, we give too much, because we believe we have to die for that person and other such dramatic statements. As Ernest Hemmingway wrote in Men Without Women, “The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much and forgetting that you are special too.”

Instead of spending our every waking hour thinking about that other person and forgetting ourselves, we (and our partners!) would be better served by focusing on ourselves. This way, we’ll be able to give from a place of wholeness, without expecting anything in return or feeling resentful.

As Rollo May said, “Love is generally confused with dependence; but in point of fact, you can only love in proportion to your capacity for independence.” If we take care of ourselves, we are more independent, less needy of getting attention or affection, and more capable of truly connecting with another human being.

4. We don’t realize we teach people how to treat us.

We teach people how to treat us by our own actions and attitude toward ourselves. By putting signs out there that you are a rescuer and will sacrifice yourself to help others, you attract the sort of people who want to be rescued and for whom it has to be all about them—not a balanced relationship.

Then, you have made it a self-fulfilling prophecy, by effectively bringing about what you always complain that you attract: people who take advantage of your good nature.

Here, it is useful to question whether they have really taken everything we have or if we have voluntarily given it all to them. Yes, they have played a part, but we can’t change them. We only have control over our own actions, so what part did we play?

Also, although this can be hard to hear, there is always a pay-off for us. Is it that you always get to be the “nice guy” or the “victim”? Take a long hard look now…

5. We expect others to take care of us.

While we might believe that our actions are purely altruistic and caring, are we actually expecting something in return?

I have previously been guilty of giving everything and believing I was being nice, but then feeling resentful when they inevitably didn’t give back in equal measure.

I complained to my friends that this or that person didn’t give me enough (and, in some cases, I wouldn’t have been wrong!) It’s easy to complain about what others aren’t doing. It’s hard to accept that we have chosen to give all our love to them and keep none for ourselves, expecting them to fill a gap they couldn’t fill, because it was our own self-esteem that was missing.

Yes, somebody may take advantage of your caring nature, but if you lie down to be walked on, you can’t be surprised when people treat you like a doormat. Your self-care is your responsibility, nobody else’s.

6. We don’t realize our worth.

Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that we think others are worth more than us. If we are confident in our love for ourselves and treat ourselves as if we are worthy, then that is what we will attract back.

Yes, I’m afraid it comes down to that whole self-love thing again! There is a reason why this is a cliché, though, because the key to meaningful relationships really is to love ourselves first.

So, What Does Self-Care Look Like?

Self-care is essential for us all, but looks different from person to person. We are all individuals with different preferences. Listen to your inner voice to find out what makes you content. Sometimes we can’t even hear our own inner voice because we are so busy anticipating the needs of those we care about, so you might have to listen carefully at first.

Below is my own personal list of self-care practices. I hope it gives you some inspiration for ways to take care of yourself.

I commit to:

1. Being fully in and embracing the present moment—mindful living

2. Preparing and eating three healthy meals a day, avoiding sugar fixes

3. Getting outside every day

4. Exercising every day

5. Doing something I enjoy every day—being creative

6. Spending time with positive people

7. Setting healthy boundaries—saying no more often

8. Identifying negative self-talk and changing it to positive

9. Pausing before reacting—do I really want to do this?

10. Getting one thing done every day, and celebrating this achievement

11. Looking after my health, body, skin, hair, teeth—regular appointments

12. Being grateful—starting each day with at least three things I am thankful for

13. Regular yoga and meditation

14. Laughing more and starting the day with a smile

15. Singing or dancing whenever possible

16. Having more fun and taking life less seriously

17. Treating myself with love and compassion—being my own best friend

18. Focusing on myself and prioritizing my needs—not focusing on the lives of others

19. Spending time alone and being still every day

20. Being my authentic self, not what others want me to be

21. Listening to my inner voice/intuition and doing what feels right for me

22. Avoiding over-analyzing a situation

23. Limiting my time on Facebook

24. Not worrying about what other people think about me

25. Getting a good sleep every night

26. Being patient with myself

27. My self-development, no matter how challenging

What’s your most important self-care practice?

About Jo Ritchie

After working in the corporate world for seventeen years, Jo redesigned her life to follow her bliss. She now travels the world running workshops and retreats and speaking about her experiences. Jo uses her background in martial arts, with her training in yoga teaching, coaching, and NLP, to help others find their power within. Visit her at joritchie.com and followyourblissblog.com.

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  • Shira Taylor Gura

    Beautiful article. Thank you.

  • isabellea

    Thank you for this article, I have been trying to work on this although I have made some progress I still have some way to go. I will take your list as a reference to help me get further along.
    .

  • Cynthia Williams

    Wonderful article, I love your list. This article was me all over. Thank you, I am loving this journey.

  • Aelio

    Great article! The whole “love yourself” thing may seem cliché and really simple to some but it is so very true. Many do struggle with loving themselves *points at self*. Sometimes it seems so simple it’s like “that wont help, what does that mean?” And thats how you know you really need it haha. I also loved the list at the end. Thank you for sharing.

  • Jo

    Thank you for your feedback. I am so glad this resonated with you

  • Jo

    Thank you Cynthia. That is lovely to hear. Great to enjoy the journey. Pleased to connect with you

  • Jo

    Hi Isabelle. I hope this list helps you as you go along. Great that you are doing the work – I really acknowledge you for that. Not everyone is so brave. Awareness is more than half the battle

  • Jo

    You are so very welcome Shira. Thank you for your feedback. I really appreciate it. I love connecting with people and hearing back that this has resonated with you just Maltese my day!

  • Cynthia Williams

    I feel the same Jo. It is always a blessing to connect with people who understand the process.

  • c’estmonfacondevivre :3

    Another reminder that I need to focus more o3n myself. My best friend who is 17 Years old dates guy after guy everytime after a breakup. She had a very hard past and wants a guy to love and accept her. She is dating a guy whose ex cheated on him. It pains me to see her with him. They’ve been dating for 11 months. A part of me tells her to just let things be and let her learn her lesson that a guy can’t save her and another part of me can’t help but feel annoyed when i see her with him. But I will focus more on myself. I do care a lot about her and hope that she loves and accepts herself one day but I am not comfortable with her dating again. (She’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is depressed) despite how I feel, I remind myself that it’s her choice, and I can’t run her life. But I want to stop thinking about her choices. Do you know how I can stop?

  • Bullyinglte

    Well your list has more than enough to cover all the self-care I do and so many of the things I work on. The hardest is to give up how we talk to ourselves. Do we call ourselves stupid, incapable of doing things, a loser? So many do and I know as I was one of them. Once I started to self-care, an amazing thing happened. I started a company, wrote a book, and started going to the gym. Today I feel great. Sure, some days not so much, but I now believe I can do anything I put my mind to. So can everyone else. It’s all our choice!

  • Jo

    I wholeheartedly agree! The language we use with ourself is so very important. If we can train ourself to speak in the voice of a loving friend, rather than an inner critic, it makes all the difference. I am so pleased to hear that you are creating such wonderful things in your life with your attitude and with all the self-care you have done. Great result

  • Nik Poplavsky

    Absolutely agree with you, Jo, about giving but then being upset when people don’t seem to care. I’ve been there and wasn’t happy. Getting over it took a lot of time. But then I read a book called ‘Give and take’ where Adam Grant shows how givers can fall behind but also get ahead. That changed my perspective on being helpful to others.

  • Jo

    It’s so nice that you care so much for your friend. It can be hard when we see what look like destructive patterns in the lives of those we care about. The key phrase that really stood out for me as wise and self-aware was when you said you know you have to focus on yourself. It’s so true that we cannot change people and it’s not our job to do so. It’s their journey, however hard it can be for us to watch, and they need to walk it themselves to get the learnings that are right for them. If you focus on yourself, then you will not need to concern yourself with what your friend is doing. In fact, by trying to encourage her to do what you think is right for her, you would be denying her of the chance to face a challenge, learn and grow from it. You sound like you are a good friend to have

  • c’estmonfacondevivre :3

    Thank You for your kind words. 🙂

  • Jo

    Thanks Nik. I appreciate the feedback, as well as the book recommendation. I will check it out. Good luck in your journey 🙂

  • Sarah

    Narcissists love themselves, then why they are not good in relationships and destroy the life of others?

  • Helen Thornley

    They don’t love themselves, they hate themselves. That’s why they have to live their life through lies – because they can’t bare the truth of who they are. They suck the life, love and energy out of everyone around them because they hate themselves so much they cannot create life, love and energy for themselves. They convince themselves, by believing their own lies, that they are better than everyone else. This is not self love.