Is Your Number One Priority You?

Has Putting Others First Become A Habit of Self-Neglect?

In the last issue we explored how our earliest memories of vulnerability and our innate dependency on others for survival resulted in the development of a ‘Social Self’. This self is the person we constructed in order to please our care-takers and ensure our best chance of survival, love and acceptance. We constantly learned to adapt our behaviours and actions in ways that would conform, gain approval and avoid punishment or rejection. Although this conditioning was extremely helpful in guaranteeing our position in the family and dodging the wooden spoon or naughty corner (at least most of the time!), it did mean that in essence, we became ‘wired to people-please.’

This wiring to people-please, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, is often a driving force behind our personal choices and the main source of our inner conflict, indecision and guilt. To examine this ‘need to please,’ recall the last significant decision you made for yourself. Did you consider how others might be impacted by your choice?  Did you think about how they could react to your choice? Did you worry about how others might judge your choice? With all this deliberation over the responses, reactions and opinions of others,  did the choice really end up being yours?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with considering other people in your choices. Being considerate, respectful and mindful of how your actions will affect others is integral to human compassion and required for societal order andharmony. If however, you have gone to the extreme of making choices purely on the basis of how others will respond, react to or judge you, there’s a good chance you are putting the needs and wants of others before your own. If you have continually prioritised others’ needs then you may have formed a habit of self-neglect.

When your continual and primary focus is on the needs of other people you begin to lose touch with yourself. It becomes difficult to know what it is you need or want or what would make you feel happy or fulfilled – you lose the feeling of connection with yourself. This disconnection impacts your intuition, decision-making and sense of personal fulfilment, you’re no longer able to identify what makes you happy, let alone feel it. Why are we so obsessed with pleasing others yet so careless when it comes to pleasing ourselves?  

This carelessness stems from failing to outgrow the need to people please. In our adult years, we are no longer fully dependent on our families for survival, nor are we at the mercy of our parents or teachers’ for permission or approval, yet most of us still make choices with an intrinsic fear of judgement. While this fear of judgement is both irrational and unfounded (we often have no evidence that we are being judged) it is also delusional. The most absurd thing about continuing to fear the judgement of others is that we are perpetuating the illusion that this judgement is external when it isn’t.

While we think that we are being driven by the need to please others, we are really being driven by the need to abide by our own rules and expectations of who we “should” be and how we “should” behave. These were the rules we decided on to feel secure and loved – the rules that are no longer relevant. While we think that others are judging us, we are actually just projecting versions of our self-judgement on to them.

For example, I am constantly surprised by how much energy I invest into my Golden Retriever’s judgement of my choices. For the record, my dog Rupert can’t talk (despite his obvious wisdom), yet I am incessantly asking him questions with the hope of relieving myself of judgements:

Rupert, I am really tired today is it OK if we just go to the crappy park for a quick walk? (Please tell me that I am not lazy & uncaring)

Rupert, I forgot to go shopping are these leftovers enough? (Please tell me that I am not lazy,  forgetful & uncaring)

Rupert, I have to go to work, do you mind if I leave you alone all day? (I have to go to work to prove that I am not lazy! You understand don’t you!? I am not selfish…am I?)

It has occurred to me that such levels of caring consideration are, besides bordering on insanity, completely pointless. No matter what choice I make, he doesn’t judge me – I DO! No matter how bored or sad he looks, he’s still not judging me, he is simply experiencing boredom or sadness, he’s having an emotion, not mentally judging me or the situation. What I am really doing is constantly judging myself. And yes, this is true for our interactions with talking humans too! Even when people do judge you explicitly, it is only ever a problem if you agree with it and decide to take it on board and self-judge. It’s yourself-judge that holds the power and it is the self-judge and only ever the self-judge which initiates self-criticism, self-punishment and guilt.

Perhaps it is easier to make others a priority because that’s when we stop judging ourselves. Then we can avoid feeling guilty and can pride ourselves on how thoughtful, caring, unselfish and ‘good’ we are…let’s ask Rupert (my head chatter):

Rupert, I took you to the awesome park and walked you for a whole hour (I am dog owner of the year! You are so lucky to have me!)

Rupert, I went to the Butcher’s especially so I could get you that bone you love ( I am so thoughtful and kind! You are so lucky to have me!)

Rupert, I bought you this cool new tag, it was so expensive, but you’re worth it (I am so generous and caring, you are so lucky to have me and this expensive tag…but you MUST show your gratitude by NOT losing it in the creek)

Yes, the head chatter is decidedly better when we are doing things for other people, but what happens when other people don’t appreciate the sacrifices we make for them? The guilt that we are avoiding feeling by putting others first quickly turns into anger, blame and resentment towards others for not acknowledging or appreciating us!  Uh-oh. The self-judge starts judging others for being so ungrateful,  inconsiderate and selfish. Note that these are exactly the same judgements the self-judge is using to stop you putting yourself first!

It seems that our own self-judgement has created a no-win situation in which we perceive that putting others first will make us feel better about ourselves,  yet it keeps us in servitude to guilt, resentment and self-neglect. When you honour yourself, make yourself a priority, meet your needs and nurture yourself you are connected to yourself. When you are connected to yourself you are much better placed to connect with others, to nurture and support them. You are not in servitude to pleasing others, you are free to please both yourself and others. It is no longer an either/or situation, making your needs a priority does not automatically mean that you don’t care about others, it is about ensuring that you care for both – yourself and others. 

It’s really nice to be kind, generous, giving and thoughtful, but it is time to stop reserving these behaviours for other people. Are you being kind, generous, giving and thoughtful to yourself? If you are not making yourself a priority, who is?