Is it selfish to put yourself first?

Do you often put yourself last because you feel guilty?

Do you find it difficult to enjoy yourself without first taking care of other people’s needs?

When we are babies, we put ourselves first.

Babies need love and affection. They need to be fed when they are hungry, to sleep when they are tried, and be soothed when they are afraid. When they cry for our attention, we don’t judge the babies as selfish. We know that they need to be taken care of to survive.

Now that we are adults, we still have the same needs. We still get hungry, tired, and afraid too But somehow our needs aren’t as important anymore. Ever since we have the ability to take care of our needs, instead of taking care of ourselves, we are taught to take care of other people first.

If you are the eldest in your family, you are most likely tasked to take care of your younger siblings. If you have narcissistic parents, you grow up learning to fulfill their needs, wishes, and expectations first. Some of our parents also attempt to induce guilt in us so that we do what we are told. We feel bad when they are upset and this becomes our habit of interacting with others too.

So how do we start putting ourselves first again without feeling the guilt and selfishness? Let’s start with the reasons why we should do it.

Why You Should Put Yourself First Instead of Others?

It’s the Best Gift You Can Give to the World.

Putting yourself first doesn’t just benefit you. It benefits everyone and everything else too.

When you are healthy, it reduces the burden of your spouse and your family to take care of you. You are also able to serve and contribute to other people better when you are energetic and nourished.

When you take care of your emotions and you are happy, your relationships will get better too. People around you don’t get hurt by your occasion outbursts of anger, frustration, or stress. Instead, others will find it more enjoyable to be around you when you bring joy and presence to your relationships.

The world rejoices when you are at your best

By being the best version of yourself, you have more to offer and give the world. Rather than showing up with an exhausted, burnout self, you bring positive energy, compassion, and peace to the world. You inspire the people around you to do the same and be the best version of themselves.

Furthermore, it’s only when you love yourself that you truly know how to love others. When you put yourself first, you are not waiting for someone else to fill you up. You give because you are already in abundance of love and overflowing with love.

You Can Only Control Yourself.

There is no guarantee that when you put other people first, you will be able to serve or please them.

As a tutor, I used to come up with strategies and study plans to help my students. But most of them don’t listen and I quickly realized that I was wasting my time and effort. I can’t force others to do what’s I think is good for them. They have the freedom to choose their own actions and they have to face the consequences of their choices, be it positive or negative. I can only control my own actions.

It’s exhausting and ineffective putting others as the priority.

Everyone thinks differently. We all have different priorities and opinions on what we think is good for us. When we put other people before us, it can be rather frustrating especially when our values are conflicting to theirs or when we don’t know exactly what they want.

Instead of helping the other person, we become controlling and too involved in other people’s lives. We want to dictate their choices and actions based on the values we have. This not only irritates the other person but it is also ineffective.

The only person that we can possibly understand the best is ourselves and the only person we can control is also ourselves. We are the best person to serve our own needs. And they are the best people to serve their needs. Putting ourselves first is far more effective than putting others first. We get ourselves confused and disorientated in life when we act according to other people’s needs.

Give Other People the Chance to Grow.

When you are putting other people first over yourself, you are stealing their opportunity to grow. If you are always so ready to help, why would they need to learn how to take care of themselves?

In fact, they will expect you to always be there for them when they needed something. And when you aren’t available, they might resent you or feel disappointed.

Sometimes, helping people creates a sense of entitlement in the other party. They expect you to sacrifice your needs for them all the time because whenever you put them first, you are sending them the message that their needs are more important than yours. You are teaching them how to treat you and rely on you.

They can put on their own oxygen mask.

Why do you need to help them?

Whenever you take an airplane, the air stewards and stewardess instruct you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then help others if there is a crisis. If you can’t breathe, how can you help others? This is a great reminder to put ourselves first.

But do you realize how ridiculous it is to help others put on their oxygen mask first? When you are in a crisis, the oxygen mask is right in front of you, you don’t go over to your spouse and help them put on their mask while they do the same for you. It looks romantic. But mind you, you are in a crisis! Wouldn’t it be easier for both of you to put on the masks right in front of you?

When you keep putting others first, you are showing them that they don’t have the ability to take care of themselves and that they need to rely on you. You are doubting their ability to put on their own masks. Even if they can’t resolve their problems, shouldn’t they be given a chance to learn, to fumble, and to grow? You don’t have to put all your attention on them and prioritize their problems over yours.

How to Put Yourself First Without Feeling Guilty and Selfish

1. Understand the meaning of putting yourself first.

First and foremost, people feel guilty and selfish due to their misconception of what the term “putting yourself first” means. Putting yourself first doesn’t mean that you only care about yourself and you ignore everyone around you. It doesn’t mean that other people are not important.

It just means that you prioritize yourself over others. There is an order in which you serve. When you wake up in the morning, you serve your needs before you serve others. Prioritization isn’t about how important a person is to you; it’s more about the order of operation.

Having an order of operation is crucial because you can’t please everyone at the same time. You can only give your undivided attention to one person or one task at a time. So we have to choose wisely, prioritizing the most effective person to serve, which as mentioned above, is none other than ourselves.

Also, putting yourself first doesn’t mean putting your ego first.

It’s not about satisfying your egoic desires such as earning that million dollars, buying the new car or house, and dining at that exquisite restaurant. These desires can be important but it’s not the definition of putting yourself first.

The word “self” in “yourself” is not referring to your ego. Putting yourself first is about paying attention to the alignment of your body, mind, and soul. 

  • Is your body tired? Do you need a rest?
  • Is your mind full of clutter? How can you be more mindful?
  • How are you feeling right now? How can you make yourself feel better?
  • What is your soul calling you to be or do at this moment?

You are checking in to see if your body, mind, and soul are at peace and joyful. If you are aware that they aren’t aligned, you immediately make some changes to center yourself again. It’s more about caring for yourself deeply than acquiring superficial pleasures. This is what putting yourself first really means.

2. Understand why you feel selfish.

A reason why many of us feel selfish for putting ourselves first is that we carry this toxic shame from our childhood. Our parents taught us that it’s not okay to be happy when other people are sad. We are made to feel bad when we don’t consider other people’s perspectives first. It’s as though that when we focus on our happiness, we are depriving another person of being happy.

This limiting belief is far from being the truth. When you take care of yourself, other people can do the same. You are not stopping others from putting themselves first. In fact, some might be inspired to do the same after seeing how much love and respect you have for yourself.

You are not taking anything away from anybody.

So how is that selfish?

If you believe that you need to deprive others to put yourself first, then you are acting from a place of ego. You are not in alignment with your body, mind, and soul. Deep down inside, people don’t feel joy when you are denying others of their happiness. This is not what putting yourself first entails.

However, there are some circumstances we might think that we are selfish and depriving others when actually we are not. The word “selfish” is merely a self-judgment on our character which is conditioned since childhood and further aggravated by the shaming from others as we grow up.

We are taught to believe that other people have control of our time, not us. Our parents want us to spend time with them during the weekend, our bosses want us to work late, our spouses want us to go shopping with them. We feel bad if we don’t oblige. But in reality, we are responsible for our own time and we get to decide how we want to spend our time. It’s the same for others.

If you really don’t want to do something, don’t do it. Why are we judging ourselves as selfish for how we use our time?

3. Deal with your unworthiness issues.

One reason why we would rather put other people first instead of ourselves is that it’s uncomfortable to focus on ourselves. When we focus on other people, we don’t have to do any self-reflection and deal with our own unworthiness issues.

It’s easier to look at other people’s hurt feelings and try to help them with theirs than turning inward and face our own hurt feelings, our shame, our guilt, and etc. Putting others first is an escape from our wounded selves. Subconsciously, we feel that we don’t matter as much as other people and their needs are more important than ours.

We want to be this selfless hero that we see in the movie because helping others makes us feel good and worthy. It gives us validation and approval. But the world doesn’t need you to sacrifice all the time. When you do sacrifice like a fireman rushing into a burning building to save someone, it comes from an instinctual level to act. It’s without ego. It’s not for pride or to help you resolve your low self-esteem issues. There’s a difference.

Know that you matter and you deserve to put yourself first.

Even though I don’t perceive putting yourself first as selfish or self-centered, but if you do, then be selfish. It’s okay. As a child, you are taught to put other people’s needs over yours. Now, it’s time to give your inner child the attention and love it has always been wanting.

Learn to be more comfortable with spending time with yourself and do things that you love. You are just as important and deserving as everyone else. Don’t underestimate other people’s ability to take care of themselves. By making them appear weaker in your mind, you are actually making yourself look more superior and important, which is another way that you use to feel worthy.

By doing so, you are going down the path of codependency. A better way to feel worthy is to examine your own issues and face them courageously. And you can only do this by putting yourself first.

4. Let go of what other people think of you.

When you think that self-care is selfish, this is mostly a result of your own self-perception and self-judgment. Even if you think that other people will think that you are selfish, this perception also comes from you. It doesn’t come from others. You are forming a perception of how other people will think of you based on your belief system. We have a tendency to judge ourselves more than other people judge us. People are usually too immersed in their own drama to think about you.

Of course, there will be people who will say that you are selfish when you put yourself first. These people are usually those who have gotten so used to getting your attention and their needs met by you. They feel lost or uncomfortable when you stop putting them first.

People usually don’t like changes, especially changes that are not initiated by them. When you have been taking care of them so well and suddenly you don’t do it or don’t help as frequent anymore, the people around you might not be able to cope or they will resist your change and growth. They want you to stay at a level that is familiar to them.

Expect and accept resistance.

Guilt-tripping is just a way for them to make themselves feel comfortable. It has nothing to do with you. When they say that you are selfish, what they are actually saying is they have needs and they want you to meet their needs for them.

Your habit of putting them first and their habit of relying on you is difficult to change overnight. But you have to be firm and allow them to ease into this change gradually. You have to show them that you can’t be controlled no matter what they think of you. They will soon realize that their tactics such as pleading, playing the victim, guilt-tripping and etc won’t work.

They will either start to lose their sense of entitlement and accept what is or your relationship with them might change. Subsequently, they might distance themselves from you and look for someone else to get their needs met. But whatever the case is, know that this is for the better. Keeping yourself at status quo and not growing doesn’t serve you, them or anybody.

5. Encourage your spouse and your family to put themselves first too.

Putting yourself first doesn’t mean that you are putting others last. There is no last in your list. There is only next. After you have taken care of your own needs, you can move on to help others, one by one.

But this order of operation is not only tasks-based; it’s also consideration-based. When you have to make a decision, you have to consider your own feelings and values first. You don’t think about what other people value because this is their job. Instead of doing their job for them, encourage them to put themselves first too.

When you are single, it’s much easier to put yourself first than when you are married or have a family. When you have a partner, you have to consider your spouse’s point of view too. However, it’s still about putting yourself first. Only when both parties know what is best for them individually that they can come together and discuss what’s best for them as a couple.

If you don’t put yourself first, you don’t know what you want out of the relationship and later you might find yourself feeling resentful when your needs aren’t met in your relationship.

It doesn’t mean that it’s either you OR them. It’s you AND them.

Putting yourself first doesn’t mean that you always get exactly what you want. In a relationship, it’s about considering what you want and finding innovative ways and solutions to address the desires of both parties. You have to consider what the other person can or cannot do, or what they are willing and unwilling to do. Then, tweak what you want accordingly.

If you have a newborn baby at home. It is understandable that babies can’t take care of their own needs and it’s your responsibility to take care of them. You can’t leave them alone. But what if you are feeling tired and you need a break? You can always ask your spouse to help you. And if your spouse is tired too, then you can turn to your relatives for help or hire a babysitter to take care of your baby instead. Don’t try to do everything yourself.

However, if you have an adult child and they can take care of their own needs, then allow them to do so. Don’t underestimate their ability to care for themselves. Instead, encourage them to be responsible for themselves.

You don’t want to do things for others just because you feel guilty. If you want to care for others, care with love and not with guilt. You will know how to care with love when you put yourself first and care for yourself with love.


Featured Photo Credit: Chris Ford / Ocean Breeze

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