One of the views I’ve heard a lot over the years is that “I need to make my family/ my job/ whatever my first priority!” Essentially, it’s the idea that everyone else’s needs and wants should come before yours. That’s very noble and self-effacing, and also a little stupid, in my opinion. It’s touted as the ideal and it’s generally accepted that if you put yourself before others, you are greedy and selfish. Really? Let’s take a look at that!
I used to put others before me all the time with my job, with my family, with pretty much everything in my life. If I’m tired, I’ll just push through and get this project done at the office and so I’ll get home at 8:30 instead of 7:30. I’ll just handle it. I’ll run my mom’s errands because she asked me and so what if I have to make a special trip to whatever store and then drive over to her place (also out of my way) so she doesn’t have to come pick up what I got for her. I’ll just take care of it. I was taking care of everything and everyone but me. That was a spectacularly bad idea! Not just bad– spectacularly bad! Why? Because if you are in really sorry shape, how can you take care of anything or anyone else? If you are too sick, too tired, too burnt out and not functioning well, you are not going to do anything well at all! My former boss from hell frankly expected me to put my job and her needs before myself and if I didn’t, I was just a bad employee and a bad person in general (and she made sure I knew how disappointed she was with me!) So I was always exhausted and fuzzy-brained and eating badly (and feeling awful as a result) so I could take care of whatever she wanted done. I was so burnt out, stressed out and poorly nourished I was literally killing myself. What did it get me? Nothing good! A lot of sleepless nights and poor self-esteem. What did it get her and my job and everyone else in my life? Nothing good there either! A lot of nasty recriminations. (FYI: she was so concerned about my health because ‘what am I going to do if you die?’ Not kidding here! That should have been a huge clue!)
If you want to take care of others, you need to take care of yourself first! You can’t help them if you need help too. I remember coming home from that job from hell usually close to 8:00 p.m., exhausted and burnt out. I’d eat whatever I’d gotten at the drive-thru and just collapse in my bed. I was so much fun to be around. I was too tired to play with my pets or do any housework. My weekends were split between sleeping and catching up on everything at home I didn’t get done during the week. So my friends and family didn’t see a lot of me either. My life was such a joyless existence and it was because I was putting everyone else’s needs before mine. I was so busy taking care of everyone else, I didn’t have any time or energy to take care of me. My boss would nag me that I needed a hair cut or I never took any time to do my nails (she was very much into vanity) and I would think “when do I have time to get any of that done?” I’d joke with my dog’s groomer that my dog gets to the “salon” more than I do. Taking care of my pet was one thing I didn’t skimp on because he was a long haired dog- ’nuff said! Even then, it was one more ‘person’ I was putting before me.
You are not selfish or greedy for putting yourself first. Think of it like this: if you see someone drowning and you know you can’t swim, are you just going to jump in with him? All you are going to do is drown alongside him! You are no help at all and now, you’ve gotten yourself in trouble too! Let’s say someone at the office asks for help with a big project and you have five projects waiting on your desk- you are already swamped. “Sure, Bill, I’ll help with your project” because you want to be a good co-worker. So now, you still have your five projects and part of Bill’s that you have clamoring for your time. How much time and energy do you have to devote to Bill’s project? How great a job will you be able to do? So if you miss the deadline on his project, he’s going to look bad and be pretty angry at you, and if you do manage to get it done, and-shocker here- you didn’t do a fabulous job, he’s still going to look bad and be unhappy with you. Even if you do a fabulous job, he and his project look great, but what about your projects? Did you miss your deadlines and blow your projects to help out Bill? If so, you may not be his co-worker much longer!
Managing your own time and energy isn’t being greedy; it’s being responsible. If you are a parent, you know sometimes being responsible can make you unpopular but it’s a fact of life! As a parent, even if your child really wants to do all the activities and clubs, you know she may not have enough time for them, for schoolwork and for family and rest. Are you just going to say yes because it’s what she wants and then let her get burned out? Of course not! As her parent, it’s your job to do what’s best for her! Sometimes doing what’s best for others means that you have to take care of yourself too. If you are supposed to take the kids and their friends out on a playdate on Saturday and you start feeling a little sick or worn out on Wednesday, maybe you have to tell the kids or family that you need to get to bed early that night. Your spouse might have to fix dinner: sorry, hon, but I’m not up to it tonight! If you really are still sick on Saturday, Jeff’s mom might have to sub for you or you might have to cancel the playdate. I’m okay, you tell yourself; the kids are really looking forward to this trip. Do you want a sick/ medicated parent driving your kid someplace or giving your kid the flu (or something worse)? I know I don’t! It’s not good for you and it’s not good for them. How much fun are you going to be on the trip anyway? And what happens if you get worse? You might have to cut the trip short, or worse, you might have to have someone come pick up you and the kids to drive you all home. No inconvenience there! Wouldn’t it just be easier to handle this before it turns into a disaster? How popular are you going to be with the kids and their parents? And this includes your own kid, who is probably going to be embarrassed that you made him ‘look bad’ in front of his friends.
It’s wonderful knowing that people depend on you and view you as reliable and good at what you do, whether it’s taking care of business or taking care of your family. It’s means you’re a responsible and conscientious person, but sometimes saying no is the responsible thing to do. Take your coworker Bill: he asks for help and you say ‘sorry, no. I’ve got too much on my plate right now.’ He moves on to Sarah, who says yes and three weeks later, he and Sarah did a great job on his project, you had more time to work on your own and you all look good. Suppose you are too sick to take the kids on their trip and you call Jeff’s mom, who is able to take them; you stay home getting over your flu and the kids have a great time- no disasters and no sick kids later on. It’s not the end of the world when you say no. Even if they are begging because “no one else can do it,” if you are already stretched to the limit (or more than you feel comfortable handling), then do the responsible thing and say ‘no.’
We all know there are times when sometimes you have to bite the bullet and stretch yourself; so maybe you stay late a few nights to get all your projects done and help Bill out, or you cancel something else on your schedule so you can get the extra rest and take the kids out on Saturday. You make some allowances. The difference here is that if these are exceptions rather than the rule, so you have that little extra in your tank to get you over this overload. This was what I was not doing! Instead of staying late a couple of nights a month to take care of my boss’s needs, I was doing it just about every night. Getting home on time was the exception and staying late was the norm. This is why you say no the rest of the time: so when you really do have to take on the extra duties, you have that energy to give! If you’ve got nothing left to give because you are always swamped and always running hither and yon and always doing for everyone else but you, then when it comes time to help someone else out who really needs the help and has no one else to lend a hand, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel!
Your energy, time and attention are much like a bank account: if it’s invested and managed wisely, it grows and when you need the extra cash, there’s something there to draw on, but if you are constantly overspending, when you need some extra cash, the account is empty and, unlike cash, you can’t really borrow time, attention and energy from someone else! All you can do is ask for help, or better yet- tell them no. You aren’t Superman or Wonder Woman and there’s a limit to your resources. If you are a responsible adult, then do the responsible thing. A friend of my mom has a daughter Sarah who is living away from home for the first time and managing her own finances for the first time, and she called my mom a couple of weeks ago to ask if she could borrow some money. She was broke and she had no groceries; instead of buying groceries, she’d gone to a local Indian casino and gambled it away. Sarah was not happy to get a lecture about managing her money better or moving back home until she was a little more mature: she insisted she was a responsible independent adult! Gambling the grocery money isn’t responsible and asking for a handout because of it isn’t being responsible. It’s easy to see how irresponsible that is in Sarah’s situation, but how many of us do the same thing with our time, energy and attention? We fritter them away on other people (or on our own versions of the ‘casinos’ called tv, Facebook and Twitter, etc.) and when we open the metaphorical fridge door, we find it bare because we’ve got nothing left to spend.
If we are going to be the responsible, reliable, conscientious co-worker, employee, friend and parent, it means we need to manage our resources in a responsible manner. It means that sometimes we have to say no. It means that we have to make sure we are in a position to help out when someone truly needs help by first taking care of ourselves. The irony is that most of us have no problem telling ourselves no. We are used to denying ourselves the extra hour of sleep, the piece of chocolate cake, the night out at the movies or whatever we want to buy at the stores. Self-denial is something to which we are very accustomed, but denying someone else access to our time and energy is something we find a lot harder. Odds are Bill won’t be offended if you tell him you’re already stretched too thin (he might even appreciate it since you won’t botch his project!) and the parents of your kid’s friends will probably appreciate your not sharing your flu with their kids! Saying no is a lot harder than most of us think, but like every other healthy habit we are working on, it takes practice and the more you do it, the easier it gets, especially when your reserves start to grow! You start to have more energy and things that used to drain you aren’t so difficult anymore. Eventually, when you’ve sufficiently replenished your account, when someone asks for help again, you’ll have the reserves available to give them the help they need. It was a long time before I was able to help anyone after I left the job from hell, because I literally had nothing left to give anyone, even to myself. I thought I was being conscientious, reliable and helpful but in reality I wasn’t helping anyone, least of all myself.