By Dr. Lori Monaco
Something I struggled with terribly at the start of my personal transformation was realizing that in order for me to move along the path to become the person I was always meant to be, I had to put myself first. I never put myself first, ever, in all my 45 years of life. Okay, I mean I might have had a few times where I chose myself in a situation, but believe me, it was followed by horrible bouts of guilt and in the end, I succumbed to the feeling and took myself out of the top position. I chuck that up to my Italian Catholic upbringing where the guilt is instilled at an early age…although I have many a Jewish friend that love to compete with me at whose mom was better at it!
Of course, looking back, I realized that putting others first is a very destructive and limiting belief mostly to do with low self-worth, but it was a bit more than just that. I was raised in an environment where you never put yourself first. Everyone goes in front of you; your kids, your spouse, friends, but especially your family. This behavior is often referred to as a Martyr Complex. I never thought anything of it until I hit rock bottom and had to really take a long hard look at my life as it had been. I realized that I had made a terrible mistake believing that way. I put everyone first because it was “the right thing to do” and that I had an “obligation” as a woman…a wife…and a mom. What it did was filled me with feelings of resentment, anger, and frustration because I felt I was often easily manipulated and taken advantage of. I loved being there for my family and friends, but deep down, I knew I didn’t always want to be putting others first. There were so many times I felt emotionally and mentally spent and it did at some point, begin to affect my health. In an “ah-ha” moment that occurred as I was coming out of a major suicide level depression, I realized that belief…was the biggest crock of shit…ever! To change that belief…would take some time, but thank goodness, not too long.
After reorganizing the “people” priority list of my life, I put myself at the top and the incredible insight I gained from doing so is nothing short of miraculous. Now before some of you reading this start getting up in arms by the fact that I…as a Mom…put myself above my children, let me explain why this is so vitally important. In doing so, I will use a metaphor. Let’s say that you own a delivery business. You are a new business, building up and you have one delivery truck. You are busy…which is great, and you are very aware that the success of your business rests very strongly on the one delivery truck that you have. So…you do what makes sense, you take good care of the truck, you maintain it, you put quality gas in it and you don’t abuse it when you drive it. You made the truck a top priority for your business. Obviously, in this example, the truck refers to you. You did get that right?! Just kidding! Okay, now, think of it this way, if you are the head of your household, and the success of your household relies heavily on you, wouldn’t it make sense to put yourself at the top because without you…the household would suffer greatly? Understand something…in personal transformation, there’s a difference between putting yourself first in a mindful way, and the opposite which is putting yourself first in a selfish way. The terms most associated with this being self-absorbed, self-indulgent, or self-serving. Prioritizing yourself and putting yourself at the top of the list…by no means…is done in a selfish manner! Here’s another example…think about when you are on a jet and the flight attendant is going over the safety instructions. When the cabin pressure drops, the oxygen masks come down, and if an adult is with a child, who is supposed to get the mask first? The adult puts the mask on first, then he or she puts the mask on the child. I know you understand the reason for this.
Once you move yourself up to the top of the list, an interesting shift begins to happen. You comprehend that you have been neglecting yourself for however many years and you begin to implement a plan to fix the situation. This is often the really cool part because transforming your life makes you more mindful and one of the elements of mindfulness is practicing self-care. If you have a family that depends on you, how can you assist them if your “tank” is empty? Taking the time to give yourself what you need for mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being is crucial for your overall health and will inevitably benefit those that depend on you. It also helps you recognize when boundaries need to be put into place. You learn what you can and can’t handle and even more so, what you are willing to handle. You can be honest and clear about this because now you are very aware of yourself.
What I have noticed about putting myself at the top of the priority list is I am a much better Mom. I have been able to say “no” more and this has helped my children learn to prioritize what’s important in their lives and to understand their responsibilities. It’s also helped them become more independent because…unfortunately, another problem with putting everyone else first comes a little thing called enabling. And listen…I’m sugar-coating this because there is nothing little about enabling. When you enable a person, you put all the responsibility on yourself and it begins to set up a pattern of expectation from the other people that you will always do for them…because you always have before. They do less…and you do more, and so the cycle gets perpetually worse. This doesn’t help you and it also doesn’t help them. Again, this can and will eventually lead to mental, emotional, and physical issues and compromise your health…and that really doesn’t help you!
Now, once you are at the top of the list, the rest of the order is up to you. If you have children, especially those under 18, they would be next. For my list, my kids are next, including my oldest who is a young adult. Interestingly, with the changes I have made in my life, the way in which I interact with my children is so very different and much more enjoyable and healthier. Do the children have any particular order? I personally group them all at my number two spot. They are all equally important to me, although most of the days, the 25-year old does well running her own life, as she should, and only needs input and support here and there, unlike her 15 and 5-year old sisters. So while it might seem she’s last out of the three…it only seems that way. What about a spouse or significant other? Understand something, your spouse or significant other is…well…a grown-ass adult and able to take care of him/herself. The exception to this is the individual who is in poor health and in need of assistance, but even with being a caregiver, you still must make sure that you take time for yourself and practice self-care so you still remain at the top. Please don’t take it in the wrong way, of course, a spouse or significant other should be on your people priority list…because you love the individual…but he or she does not need to be above the children and definitely not above you. Adults are capable of making their own choices and being in charge of their own lives. Any spouse or significant other with a healthy self-value AND who values you, will understand this because guess who’s at the top of his/her own list? And YOU will understand this because you are at the top of your own list…okay…I can really keep going back and forth with this, but you get the point. Friends and other family members will fill in the remaining spots, some might even share spots, and that works too.
Remember something really super important here…this is your life and it’s all about you. Not in a self-serving egotistical way…it’s about you becoming the amazing person you were always meant to be, which allows you to be grounded, balanced and present. It does not mean you need to stop giving, in fact, once you re-prioritize yourself in the lineup, you’ll find that you are able to give back in a much better, more satisfying, and healthier way because you are fully in charge of yourself and fully aware of your capabilities and boundaries. It’s time to put yourself first and show the world your power. Set a beautiful example for your children, your family, your friends…on how to live a life of balance, joy, and abundance.