Putting our kids first comes naturally to most moms. After all, they’re born helpless and entirely dependent on us taking care of their needs. But even as they get oder, we still tend to put the kids and their needs ahead of our own.
But it’s more than just the kids. Spouses and significant others tend to come ahead of ourselves when we’re in relationships. Aging parents, friends in crisis, and extended family who need a hand also get placed ahead of ourselves.
And if Mom also happens to be a people-pleaser or an empath, she’s even more likely to put everyone else ahead of herself.
But the result of putting everyone else ahead of ourselves is that we end up burnt out and completely exhausted. We have nothing left to give — to others or ourselves. We start struggling to stay on top of things and feeling resentment toward the ones we love because they depend on us to do things they could do for themselves — even though it’s our fault they do so.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you’re kids are little or nearly grown, whether everyone just expects you to do for them or you always offer, it’s possible to change this pattern. And when you change it, when you start putting yourself first, you’ll find you almost immediately start feeing happier and more relaxed.
Be clear and open about your intention to put yourself first
Everyone around you is used to you putting yourself last and them first. They’ve come to expect it. So you need to be crystal clear and very open about your intention to start putting yourself first. They need to know that this change is happening.
The great thing is this doesn’t have to be a confrontation or create conflict. It can be as simple as saying, “Hey listen, I’ve realized that my needs are often going unmet because I’m trying to help everyone else get theirs met. I’m still going to be here for you, but I just need you to know I might have to say no sometimes so I can put my own needs first. It’s nothing personal.”
If someone does try to turn it into a conflict, just remember it’s about them, not you. They’re upset that you’re setting boundaries that don’t serve them. But those boundaries do serve you, so stick to them.
Set some everyday minimum requirements
When you’re a mom who puts everyone else ahead of yourself, this means there are lots of simple needs that might go unmet for you. A shower, washing your hair, dishing up your dinner first, sipping a cup of coffee without rushing, or even choosing what to watch on Netflix tonight are all things you might want but don’t feel you can demand.
But you can and you should. Choose some minimum requirements for everyday “I come first” boundaries. These requirements should be things that happen every day for you, no matter what else is going on. It might be taking a shower, drinking your coffee while you read the paper, and getting to meditate for 15 minutes in the morning before talking to anyone.
Obviously, your minimum requirements may need to change over time, and they’ll look different if you’re a single mom of a toddler versus a single mom of a teen. But regardless of your children’s ages, choose 3–5 things and make them your minimum requirements that you will do every single day no matter what.
What if there’s an emergency? We all know emergencies happen and take precedence over everything else. But make sure you’re defining emergencies as true emergencies, not just something urgent, last-minute, or stressful.
Let yourself feel bad
When you start turning people down and refusing to meet their needs so you can meet your own instead, you’re going to feel bad. You’re going to feel guilty, maybe embarrassed or ashamed, and you might even feel selfish. Allow yourself to feel these feelings. Don’t push them away or ignore them.
Remember that you’re not being selfish or cruel. You’re not putting yourself first all the time — just enough to start getting your own needs met. And this doesn’t make you selfish or cruel, it makes you a good person.
Sit with the negative feelings and don’t give in to the urge to do for others just to feel better. What will really make you feel better is starting to meet your own needs. And when your own needs are being met, you’ll be better equipped to help others with what they need. It’s a win for everyone, no matter how bad you might feel right now.
Ask for help & be specific
Sometimes the best way to put ourselves first is to ask others to help us. Asking your kids to clean up their own messes instead of adding it to your to-do list. Asking a co-worker to help you with a project so you can get done by the deadline. Asking a friend to pick up your kids from school so you can go to the doctor.
Trust me, I know how hard it can be to ask for help. But sometimes you just need to. So do it and don’t feel bad about it. Others ask you for help all the time. You’re just ensuring it’s a two-way street — that both sides are giving and taking fairly.
And remember to be specific. People don’t know what you need unless you tell them. So figure out exactly what you need from someone and be detailed about explaining it to them. The more detail you give them, the better they can assist you.
Start over when you let the ball drop
As moms, it’s so easy to say we’re going to start putting ourselves first and then slack off. A kid gets sick, an emergency happens, or other circumstances change and we need to prioritize someone or something else for a bit. When it’s over, we fall right back into old habits. Or we decide it’s just easier without the new habit.
Don’t do that to yourself. Instead, be willing to start over whenever you let that ball drop. Whenever you realize you’re not putting yourself first anymore, go back to the beginning and remind people of your intention. Be willing to keep starting over again and again.
It might feel like failure at first but the truth is, if you keep starting over, you’re a success. You’re successfully choosing to actively put yourself first. Your successfully remembering that intention and putting it back into action. That’s always a good thing.
Putting yourself first sounds selfish at first. And it can be, if you do it all the time and don’t ever consider someone else’s needs. But as a mom, you often do the opposite: you consider everyone else’s needs and never your own. That’s just as unhealthy.
With these steps, you’re not shifting into selfish mode. You’re simply evening things out. You’re balancing the scales a bit. And by making sure your own needs are met, you give yourself the fuel and resources you need to help others meet their needs. You’ll be a better mom, friend, and more.
Wendy Miller is a Single Mom Coach & meditation teacher. She helps moms use mindfulness and meditation to create the life they really want. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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