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  • Writer's pictureJosh Killam, LPC

Putting Yourself First

One of the most challenging questions I am confronted with is, "what do I do when putting myself first might hurt or neglect someone important to me?" For example, how should a parent decide between ensuring they are emotionally safe or attending to their child's needs? Or showing up for a family member or a partner when you feel empty? Humans are great at caring for others, most of us anyway. Some of us do it by caretaking and nurturing—others by providing stability and security for those that depend on us. However, caring for and attending to others comes at a cost.

I believe relationships are a core pillar for a meaningful life. They are what can brighten our day or allow us to feel useful or meaningful. Relationships are how we know we belong and feel remembered. Humans have a deep sense of belonging. Being helpful and receiving help in relationships is vital to fulfilling this need. I am not saying that relationships need be evenly balanced. There are several ways relationships can be one-sided and still healthy. This is about being conscious of the trade-offs of giving ourselves to others.

There are emotional trade-offs in the most significant relationships you possess. I intend to point out how important it is to be mindful of this trade-off. Know in your mind what it will cost you to show up for your family in the way that you choose or by obligation. This is often the message of "Self Care." Although, in my opinion, they leave out the most crucial part of the message: asking a few questions. What part of you needs the care? What has been given that needs replenishing? What parts of you have depleted that need replenishing? These questions are vital when considering how to take care of your needs.

When discussing this process with my clients, I often use the "oxygen mask" analogy. To help the child who needs you, you must be able to breathe. If you cannot breathe, you cannot help. The follow-up is often "what about my relationship? I can't do that for myself because it will hurt my partner or hurt my kids." As a parent, I am the first to relate to this sentiment. Are we not, as parents, meant to sacrifice our needs for our children? Is that not what an intimate relationship is? In some ways, yes, I agree wholeheartedly. But what is the cost?

To identify the cost, we must answer a different question first. What is the trade-off for putting your partner and children first all the time? There is usually a long list of conscious trade-offs that we go through. Most of which are entirely reasonable trade-offs. However, we inevitably come to the part of the list that, when looked at closely, you learn how deep your suffering is. There is now an awareness of the cost you pay to show up for others. The next step is wrestling with the conflict that comes with this awareness.

Most of us will shy away from this internal conflict because it is too overwhelming to endure. Yet, what it would mean to put ourselves first feels so deeply betraying to our relationships that we must not. I want to share a brief story about a client that feels appropriate here. A young woman who reached out struggling with severe anxiety and a lack of direction or meaning in life. After many hours of courageous work, she could identify a core area of her life from which her symptoms seemed to originate. During one of our conversations, she said, quite unexpectedly, "I would feel less burdened if I wasn't relied on by my family always." It was a shock to us both that this statement came up so spontaneously.

The rest of our work focused on the deep fear that "she must never leave her family no matter what." We explored those trade-offs that she had previously been unaware of. From both sides! For my client to contemplate the choice to estrange herself from her family would come with trade-offs. Meaning she would suffer in ways she had not before. Her focus became how to be consciously aware of her trade-offs and choose, with open eyes, what would be best for her.

No path leads to a complete cessation of suffering. When we resolve a symptom, there is often another that pops up unrelated. It is how we navigate a meaningful life. Balancing what we need with what we are giving away is crucial to having a fulfilling life. Be conscious of your trade-offs. Be courageous enough to be honest with yourself about what you need and can give to others. No matter how vital caring for others is to you, if your cup is not full, you cannot show up for others as your best self, period. If all you have to give is 60%, then 60% is all you will provide, no matter how badly you want to give them 100% of yourself. Please do it for yourself and your relationships. You both deserve it.

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