With so many books and articles being published on the rise of narcissism (think of our culture of “selfies”), it is perhaps surprising that “putting yourself first” is my prescription for a number of clients.
Consider the dutiful friend who grudgingly agrees to “friends of friends” coming to stay for two weekday nights at a moment’s notice, despite the fact she has two young children to take to after-school activities, make dinner for, and the fact her partner will be working late. “It’s up to me to entertain and cook for them,” she tells me, before quickly adding that she should be able to handle them for the short time they’re here and it’s no problem really.
Or the corporate man who has negotiated a day off a week, who routinely faces a dreaded huge amount of paperwork on his return because his colleagues don’t realise he’s off at that time and he can’t bring himself to tell them. “It’s not a big deal really, but I am thinking about working a full day again,” he says.
Consider also the woman who works in marketing on salary who had the opportunity to do some extra work at a lucrative contract rate, but sent an invoice under-reporting the hours she worked on the project because “it seems greedy” to charge for the actual hours.
The examples keep coming – and it would seem that many of us admonish ourselves and tell ourselves to “suck it up” when we notice a pang of anger or resentment.
I would argue that unexpressed emotion is not unexpressed at all – it leaks out in indirect ways – such as in snide or snappy comments, giving people the silent treatment or, when people get fed up, bigger explosions. A recent client told me she’s known as the “fun bubbly one”, but also has a reputation as being scary and intimidating when she feels like she is completely overwhelmed by demands.
Although putting others first comes from a well-intentioned place, if you end up resentful and angry you haven’t actually done the relationship with the other person any good.
This kind of selflessness can be a problem. Many of us have grown up with the belief that it’s wrong to put ourselves first and that we shouldn’t be selfish. Indeed, when clients hear the prescription to start putting themselves first, many struggle and feel it’s a selfish view they couldn’t implement.
It would be hard to disagree that being mindful of others is one of life’s most important skills.
Having said that, I hear stories from people every day that bear testimony to the consequences of a selfless attitude, which can lead to depression, anxiety, resentment, anger, loss of relationships and friendships, tension headaches, other body pain or internalising conditions that speak of a problem. In all the cases above, the person is sacrificing their own needs because either they think they should (that is, a reasonable person would do it and they want to be reasonable); they want to be accepted, liked, approved of, respected; and/or they hate conflict. The belief that others matter more or having a history of being treated as though you exist to serve others can also be factors. Behaviours that are deemed acceptable are always being nice, polite, agreeable, not saying no and not letting people down; in short, people-pleasing.
For people who routinely put others first to their own detriment, the task is about learning to have respect for one’s own needs.
Where does this behaviour come from?
Self-sacrificing behaviour is common in families where the child has learned to care for the parent, or, if the parent is narcissistic, there is no room for the child’s needs. If the parent is depressed, addicted, unpredictable, or otherwise unavailable (for example, looking after a more needy child or older relative), the child learns that if they are a certain way (typically happy, bouncy, helpful, clever, funny) life is easier and the parent is on-side more often. They also learn what happens when they don’t engage in this behaviour: they might get yelled at, hit or ignored. The early consequences of making yourself known (asking for what you want, saying no) are somehow intentionally or unintentionally punished.
Fast forward to adulthood and what was once a creative and adaptive solution to a problem (that is, keep people happy so I can survive), becomes a default pattern of behaviour. Without some degree of self-insight, therapy or active approach to change, the pattern is set to continue across many areas of life, for life.
UK counselling psychologist Jacqui Marson calls this the curse of being lovely. In her book The Curse of Lovely: How to Break Free From the Demands of Others and Learn to Say No (2013) she writes of a paradox: “Most people would like to be known as lovely, but for these individuals, it feels like a curse … They are trapped, suffocated, and oppressed by the weight of others’ expectations … Lovelies believe that expressing their own needs will mean being rejected and not loved and they therefore suppress the expression of many important parts of themselves.”
The sadness for these people is that they are not known or seen in their entirety; often people feel that even their life partners or children benefit from this pattern and worry about what might happen if they were to change their behaviour. Mothers are especially susceptible to self-sacrificing behaviour, yet we know children benefit from mothers who model the behaviour of looking after themselves.
A line from Dr Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids (2012): “The most important parenting skill: Manage yourself.” Markham, a US clinical psychologist who focuses on helping parents build lasting connections with their children, advises parents to “take care of yourself … keep your cup full … the more you care for yourself with compassion, the more compassion you’ll have for your child.”
What can we do?
People typically decide to work on themselves (through therapy, coaching or other means) when being “lovely” is causing them more harm than good. They feel like extreme versions of themselves: either being super nice, or irritable, resentful and snappy.
In all the examples we started with, people felt something uncomfortable (a grudge, dread, guilt), but their minds quickly rationalised it and they squashed the emotion. Part of therapy is learning how to think about your feelings (what does it tell me that I’m angry about this?) and feel about your thoughts (how do I feel when I’m thinking this way?) Multiple studies have now shown that the best decisions come from an integration of both thoughts and feelings. For readers interested in this try Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman.
The first thing I get people to do is to notice emotion. Pay attention to the small, seemingly inconsequential moments of mood changes and use them as information.
If you notice emotions such as resentment, frustration and anger showing up it can often be a marker that your boundaries are being crossed. These might not show up immediately – for some, it will be after a sleepless night they’ll realise they’ve overcommitted themselves, without proper regard for the consequences.
Secondly, start small. Let’s say you are on the phone and the caller asks you to help her out this week “as a one-off” by doing some extra work. As she’s speaking, you are aware of a sinking feeling in your gut. Part of you wants to be kind and reasonable, but part of you knows that it will stress you out and put pressure on other people in turn. The more you can be aware of your own gut reaction, the better; over time you will learn to trust it.
Another strategy is developing an assertive response. This might be sharing the dilemma in a factual way and conclude: “I would really like to help out, and yet I have a prior commitment at that time, so it won’t work for me.” Learning to be assertive in a way that works for you is a key skill.
Work though the emotions that arise as part of being assertive. Sometimes it seems like you can’t win – many of us feel guilty if we stand up for what we want, and resentful if we don’t. Both feel awful and we would do anything to have them taken away. There is a skill called “mindfulness of emotion” that helps us acknowledge painful emotions and let them be there without getting caught in them, or letting them impact us too much. This is a lifelong skill and takes a lifetime’s work!
Lastly, keep hold of your values. Values-based action helps us remember why we would change these old habits – these are actions that are based on a meaningful life for you, and have more vitality/energy/purpose than those trying not to feel bad.
Acting on a value of either courage, self-respect, bravery, or authenticity by speaking your mind might be very hard in the moment, but people report a sense of liberation and freedom that comes with owning who they really are.