“If the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, place your own mask on your face before assisting others around you.”
I’ve heard these instructions a hundred times, on a hundred flights. Usually, I wasn’t really paying attention to them. I was flipping through a magazine, or turning off my electronic devices, or chatting with the person in the next seat. It took years for me to realize the importance of this message.
I come from a long line of caregivers. I was raised to believe that to be “a woman” meant to selflessly take care of everyone around you. It meant to go without so your kids can have everything they want. It meant keeping the peace in your relationships by bending over backward to make the other person happy.
It meant sacrificing every moment of every day to make sure other people’s needs were met.
It wasn’t until recent years that I realized how unhealthy this way of thinking was. Since then, I have become incredibly selfish. Rather, that’s how I would have described myself back then. I have learned (the hard way) how important self-care is.
The years I spent putting myself at the bottom of my priority list were some of the least happy years of my life. I was exhausted, overweight, unfulfilled, bored, and often stressed out, irritable, and just generally unhappy. I had given up my power, my identity, my dreams—what did I have left?
I was doing everything I could to win the love, acceptance, and approval that had been denied me in my youth. I believed that the needs of others were more important than mine, because they were more important than me. I would just keep repeating that pattern until I learned to see my own worth.
I had to realize that my happiness, wellbeing, and fulfillment were my responsibility. No one else could make my life work. I had to find a way to do that for myself. It became necessary for me to begin putting myself first.
These are a few things I have learned as a recovering people pleaser:
I have needs. I have basic physical needs, like nutrition, hydration, sleep, exercise, sex. I have emotional needs—space to be who I am, time for creative expression, meaningful connections with people. I have spiritual needs—time for silence, time to connect with nature, time to align with myself. These are not optional. They are not wants, they are needs. It is my responsibility to make sure my needs are met without apologies, or excuses, or guilt.
I am not superwoman. Because I have basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs that must be met, I have to create boundaries that support me in making those needs my first priority. This means that I have to be careful not to give too much of myself away. Because, the moment I start neglecting my needs to care for someone else, I’m doing a disservice to both of us. When we fail to care for ourselves first it creates feelings of resentment in our relationships.
It sends the message to the other person that they no longer have to worry about taking care of themselves, because you have decided to shoulder their burdens for them. It’s impossible to have harmony and balance in these relationships, because there are feelings of dependency, obligation, guilt, and fear—love cannot live in-between such things.
I have the power to choose where to invest my time and energy. I used to live in a reactive way, taking on every problem that life presented, piling more and more on my to-do list, and just barely surviving the days. A large part of my healing came with the realization that I could choose to let go of all the things that were not supporting my greatest good. I began to identify the people, habits, possessions, and patterns that were draining me and eliminating them. I began to identify the things that made me feel good, and spent more time doing them.
I know this sounds very basic, but when you’ve been living unconsciously- it’s huge. I was so lost, I didn’t even know what felt good to my soul anymore. I was just busy doing all the junk I thought I had to do.
I learned how to check in with myself.
Our emotions are a powerful way to gauge how well we are meeting our needs. When we are stressed, tired, unhappy, unfulfilled—those feelings let us know that it’s time to make some adjustments. Tuning into my solar plexus was also very powerful. I learned to ask my body for guidance.
If my gut says something is good for me, I know it’s always good. If my gut says no, I don’t do it.
Most importantly, I learned to give myself permission to put myself at the top of my list.
Sometimes, I need to decline a Friday night invitation, and spend two hours in my bathtub instead. Sometimes, I need to pass on a girls’ day out so I can sit in my favorite coffee shop and write all day. Sometimes, I need to say no to margaritas after work so I can go to yoga, or dance, or prepare myself a healthy meal at home.
Sometimes I don’t have time to make cookies for the bake sale, or whatever the request is today, and that is okay.
I used to consider it a personal failure if I couldn’t meet such demands. I later realized that the only person I was truly failing was myself. Doing those things out of feelings of obligation didn’t bring me any joy. It was just another item on my list of stuff that added stress to my life. Learning to say no was pivotal in my quest for happiness.
After moving myself to the top of my priority list, I realized that I had been suffocating myself unintentionally. I was running around without my oxygen mask, trying to put masks on everyone else. It’s like I couldn’t see that they had the ability to put their own masks on the whole time. How would they learn to care for themselves if they were never given the opportunity to do so?
If they chose not to put their mask on, that was their choice to make. It’s not easy to watch the people you care about struggle. But, I had to learn to let them choose for themselves without interfering.
I realized that no one was going to make sure my needs were met. It was something only I could do. And, once I had taken care of me, I could give to others in a healthy way- but not one minute sooner.
When we begin to make our needs our first priority, life just flows. I never imagined how happy and full my heart could be when I was stuck in my people pleasing patterns. I learned that to truly love myself meant that it was my duty to take care of me- mind, body and spirit. As a result, I am happier and healthier than I have ever been. My relationships are peaceful and supportive. And, I have plenty of time and energy to do everything on my list, because I now control the list instead of letting it control me.
Author: Renée Dubeau
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Flickr/Maria Morri