Women play a lot of different roles for a lot of different people. The truth is, women, men, and non-binary, we all play parts in the world: someone’s parent, teacher, boss, employee, doctor, friend, daughter, ad infinitum. Relationships always contain who we are to and for other people. Women, however, often end up in the role of caregiver, taking care of and fulfilling other people’s needs.
When we think of a caregiver, we usually picture a nurse, mother, or other loving female who’s physically and/or emotionally tending to another, literally giving care. Sarah is a classic caregiver. She’s kind, empathic, and competent—a good mom, wife, friend, teacher, and human. If someone needs her help (even if they don’t ask for it), she steps up, puts her own needs aside, and does the “right thing.”
Sarah, as she describes it, gets her needs met by taking care of other people’s needs; it brings her joy, meaning, and satisfaction. At the same time, she’s fed from being well-perceived, admired, and praised as someone who’s kind, helpful, strong, and reliably good. Her self-esteem, in large part, is derived from being that person for the people in her life and getting to inhabit that identity.
After decades of living as a consummate caregiver, Sarah has lost touch with what she needs—separate from taking care of others. Even the idea that she might have needs of her own seems strange and vague. Having been ignored and silenced for so long, her own inner voice that knows what she needs has gone silent.
In another example of a caregiver, albeit a different kind, Meredith is a successful C-suite executive, a 45-year-old dynamo, and the sole breadwinner in her family. She’s also a great mom, loving wife, responsible daughter, sister, friend, coach, and everything else you might imagine. She’s someone who shows up for the people (and animals) in her life despite the incredible demands of her work. “I don’t know how she does it; she barely sleeps, never seems to eat, but is always helpful, in a good mood, and just there for you,” says everyone who knows her.
As this invincible force of goodness—Meredith plays an important role for the people in her life. She represents a certain possibility and potential reality: She’s proof that life can be good, orderly, and reliable. Meredith is the incarnation of things going right. Being that person, living that life, assures everyone else that there’s someone they can count on, someone who will always do the right thing… no matter what.
Meredith takes care of the people in her life, not only by tending to their emotional and physical needs but by playing the character they need her to play in their movie and confirming the reality they need to believe in. Meredith’s successful marriage, rewarding career, financial success, happy kids, beautiful home, and other external trappings, in short, the story of Meredith, is profoundly needed by everyone in her life. But as it turns out, that story is needed far more by others than by Meredith herself.
In whatever ways we fulfill our role as caregivers, whether direct or more subtle, the same problem arises. Namely, when what we need bumps into what other people need (from us). When what takes care of us is not what takes care of others, and when playing a character in other people’s movies and living other people’s story of us stops feeling like what we want for our own life. What then?
At this juncture, women are often struck with the question: “Am I allowed to choose what I need—over what others need?” The idea of choosing our own wants and needs, following our own longings, and, dare I say the words, “putting ourselves first” feels (and we’ve been taught to believe is) profoundly selfish, unkind, bad, and for so many women, unimaginable.
As females, we’ve been conditioned to derive our sense of worth and self-esteem from our ability (and willingness) to be selfless, take care of others first, and put ourselves last. In essence, it is to disappear to ourselves so we can appear to others. We’re valued, loved, and admired when we make others happy and sacrifice our own needs, when we’re givers, not takers.
Choosing our own needs and following our own happiness comes with big risks. We risk giving up the cash and prizes that come with always giving others what they need, namely, being liked, wanted, respected, and included—the emotional safety that comes from being what others want us to be and needing what others need us to need. When we follow our own desires, ultimately, we trade in one set of needs for another; we give up the spoils of being reliably likable but drop into a more authentic life and self, one that feeds us in a deeper way and is more in line with our truth.
We land in an authentic self that doesn’t only serve us but also serves those with whom we’re in a relationship, albeit in radically different and unexplored ways. We’re more real in our relationships, more honest about our own needs, and more known; we’re actually in our relationships as who we are, which, even if not always pleasing, comes with profound benefits. And furthermore, when taking care of our own needs, we’re far more likely to get them met and ultimately feel nourished and fulfilled, which serves everyone in our lives.
Simultaneously, when we have the courage to take care of our own needs, we create a different kind of internal safety. It’s not one that comes from giving other people what they need no matter what, being the character they need us to play in their movie, and constructing our own self-narrative out of their positive perceptions. Rather, it’s a safety born from being in alignment with ourselves, rooted and grounded in our truth.
We’ve been taught to frame choices that take into consideration our own needs as “choosing ourselves over other people,” but it’s not that at all. That frame supports the selfless or selfish paradigm. Caring about and acting on what (really) makes us happy is about including ourselves in our own lives, giving our needs a seat at the table, saying that our experience of life matters more than the story of our life, and putting ourselves on the list of those who matter.
No one teaches you how to do this, and it might sound like heresy, but you’re allowed to (also) take care of yourself… not just other people; it’s OK and important to care about what you want, even when it’s not what other people want, and even when it puts other people in charge of their own well-being. This is the big secret we’re never taught and the paradigm shift that changes our relationships—with others and ourselves. It’s also the shift that changes our life.
Try it for an hour, day, or a week, and see how it feels to consider and follow what you need—for you, to care about what will make you happy. Dare to honor your own needs. You can still play the role of caregiver, but try out being the caregiver for yourself.