Nancy Colier
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Self-Care Is Not Selfish

Maya had just accepted a job. It wasn’t in the field that really interested her, but it was a good position with many positive features. Her new supervisor was flexible and had kindly pushed back the start date for the job by a week to accommodate her childcare situation.

He seemed relieved and excited to have her on board. The only real downside to accepting the position was that it would move her career and build her expertise in a direction that she didn’t want to pursue long-term. But she needed a job and decided to go for it and work on being grateful for having a job at all.

Three days before her start date, Maya received an unexpected and exciting opportunity in precisely the field she wanted to pursue; it was a chance to grow with a smart organization in the area she was most passionate about. In short, her dream job. And yet, as delighted as she was to be offered the position, she had decided to turn it down and stick with the original offer, the job that she didn’t really want.

When I asked Maya the obvious: Why she would take the job she didn’t want over the one she wanted, she said: “I feel too guilty to pull out at this point. My supervisor would be too disappointed.” She explained that he’d been so accommodating with her difficult childcare situation and would be upset and angry if she didn’t take the position. To take the job she really wanted wouldn’t be fair to him. He had, after all, stopped looking for someone after she’d accepted.

I’ve worked with women for nearly three decades; while I was saddened by Maya’s decision, I wasn’t surprised by it. Maya did what she thought would best take care of her supervisor, even though it wasn’t the choice that best took care of her. It’s what we do as women—take care of other people’s experience. While it’s wonderful and nourishing to care for other people, the problem is that we do it—too often, at the expense of our own care, our own wants, and needs. We do it because we don’t feel like we have the choice to not do it.

To survive physically, animals need to belong to a herd, they don’t want to be left behind and eaten; humans also need to belong to survive emotionally. We ensure our belonging when we’re liked and when we succeed at making other people happy. We feel guilty when we fail to be what other people want, and struggle to like ourselves when other people are disappointed by us, or far worse, because of us. Managing (and positivizing) other people’s experience of us then becomes our primary concern, to be liked and to keep us emotionally safe.

From the time we’re young, we’re conditioned by society, family, media, and every other institution to be sweet, accommodating, and selfless. As girls, we’re celebrated for giving our brother the bigger cookie and keeping the broken, smaller one for ourselves. Generosity is a wonderful trait and people who practice it are often happier overall. But the problem is that our energy is used up keeping other people pleased and making sure they perceive us positively. And the result is that we end up depleted and drained of authenticity and our natural vitality.

How do we break free from the belief that we are responsible for everyone else’s experience, and unravel the conditioning that’s taught us that we’ve failed if we allow anyone to be uncomfortable or disappointed (other than ourselves)? And furthermore, that making other people happy is our best option for making ourselves happy?

The first step is awareness—awareness is freedom. In this case, it means becoming aware of how vigilantly we take care of everyone else even when it comes at our expense. We notice our assumption that it’s our job to keep everyone else okay regardless of what it does to our own well-being. The reason to become aware of our conditioned habits and beliefs is so that we can stop acting them out. We can change our behaviors and start taking care of ourselves for real and becoming more than just likable.

After awareness comes courage: the courage to pay attention to our own wants and needs and put our wants and needs on the priority list, without judging and shaming ourselves for daring to believe and behave as if we also matter. It’s not about caring for other people less, but rather adding ourselves to the list of those who matter. In so doing, we need to be willing to risk the judgments, labels, and disappointment that will come when we stop managing other people’s experiences so rigorously. It’s okay when other people do not get what they want; we do not have to fix it, apologize for it, or take the blame for it.

We break the habit and compulsion to be pleasing by taking responsibility for our own experience but at the same time surrendering responsibility for how our experience is received by everyone else. To do this, we have to start practicing telling the truth, simply saying what’s real for us, without sweetening, apologizing, or adding anything on. We do this so that other people will be okay with it. We start living a more authentic and invigorating life when we start being honest (out loud) about what’s true for us and what we want and need, and letting the chips fall where they may—without controlling the results.

Neither awareness nor telling the truth happen overnight. We start small, noticing the tiny ways we adjust and massage our truth to make people happy, giving ourselves what we want in little ways that don’t affect anyone else’s wants. We work our way up to the big stuff, one moment at a time.

The fact is, we can tell the truth and also care about other people’s experiences. While our conditioning teaches us that it’s mutually exclusive: either we care about ourselves or we care about others; either we’re a good and caring person or we’re selfish. These are our only options as women. But this idea is false and the very system that keeps us believing that it’s wrong and indulgent to take care of our own needs. We can tell our truth and also care about other people’s experiences; empathy and honesty actually make a beautiful handshake.

Practice putting yourself on the list of people who matters, whose needs matter; practice telling the truth and not micro-managing everyone else’s experience.

My hunch is that your relationships will grow and deepen and that you will have more energy to be genuinely empathic. Most importantly, with your wants and needs, your truth treated as important (by you) you will start living a more authentic life, being a more authentic you, and feeling genuinely alive.

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