The Case for Putting Yourself First

I am all for simplifying in the name of a better life. That is the essence of this blog. However, I am against minimalism when it creates self-sacrifice, loss of identity, and misery.

This post stems from a conversation I had with a friend. She reached out to me after seeing my post on Instagram:

ayn rand fire-min.jpg

Concerned that I didn’t realize what I was saying, she sent me a private message so as to not embarrass me. She talked of Ayn Rand’s perpetuation of “destructive corporate singlism that perpetuates lack of supportive social community.”

If you’re not familiar with Ayn Rand’s work, she developed the philosophy of Objectivism. Depending on which side of the argument you fall, she was either a supporter of independent thinking, rational thought, and productivity, or someone who encourages selfish behavior and places no value on concern for others.

I’m not here to judge one way or another. I chose that quote for a few simple reasons: firstly, while I use labels (such as minimalism) to more easily identify myself to readers, I don’t feel I fit perfectly into any one category. I think minimalism fits best, because I believe in and uphold a lot of its tenets.

Second, I want people to know that I think it’s ok to put your own interests first.

Minimalism and selfishness are not in complete opposition

The term “selfish” or “self-centered” generally have bad reputations. They’re used often as insults to describe someone who callously disregards other people to promote their own desires.

But for anyone to say they are completely selfless is impossible. Someone who is constantly putting others first and never disregards the needs of others in favor of their own would not live very long. The world will always ask more than anyone can reasonably give. The parent who tells their child “no” when they want to play so they can have five minutes to eat a meal, or just rest, could be considered selfish. The same goes for a doctor who takes a moment to call a loved one to wish them a happy birthday, even though they are running behind on appointments at their clinic.

It’s no comfort to the child or the patient who sat waiting that their interests were set aside, but to the person who acted “selfishly,” it could be the difference between reaching a breaking point and being able to carry on with the rest of their day, and go back to caring for others.

So maintaining a combination of selfishness and selflessness is arguably an innate part of the human condition, and behavior that is also seen in other living organisms throughout nature. The key is to learn to balance between the two.

When I say “people first, then things” as a tenet of minimalism, I am including the minimalist in with the “people.” I do not believe that minimalism is meant to exclude all selfishness from a person so that one can create a life based solely around other people.

First, put the oxygen mask on yourself

Outside of a flight attendant’s monologue when I’ve been on a plane, I heard this saying often from one of my former bosses. She is a strong, self-made woman who has worked miracles within a flawed system. She fearlessly took on jobs where she knew little to nothing about the situation and how to fix it, yet persevered anyway. Meanwhile, she shared transparently with her subordinates how she is always looking for what comes next after she finishes each project.

I didn’t always agree with her choices, but I did respect them and never thought she was a bad or selfish person. She has a tough job and is making the best of it within the constraints of others, while also making certain she meets her own goals.

She used this phrase during department meetings to remind us that we must first serve our own needs and fix what was broken within our own department before we extended too far in trying to help others. As with an emergency on a plane, we can be of little service to others when our own needs are jeopardized.

So, be a little selfish

I can’t think of a better word for what I want to say, but maybe I should say “employ sufficient self-care before taking on the needs of others.” This model for living has been a difficult one for me to adjust. As a female in a society that still expects more nurturing behavior from women, it has frequently fallen upon me to provide physical or emotional support to those around me, just because of my gender. Adding to that, being a lifelong healthcare worker and my family’s designated caregiver (thanks to my clinical knowledge), I’ve been constantly plied with requests for help both at home and at work for decades. It’s in my nature to automatically respond with assistance, often at the expense of my own health.

I’m turning a new leaf with that. I quit a job where I received text messages from my boss at both 6am and 6pm and on weekends. This has created a complicated and financially challenging situation that my husband and I are still figuring out, but is an improvement over the nervous breakdown I was heading toward by being an employee.

Here at home, it’s still tempting to do all the things to take care of my husband, who’s suffering from complications from his recent shoulder surgery, and my mother, who is thankfully quite functional but does need help. Plus I feel obligations to my own businesses, including this blog.

Which brings me to the next step I am taking here.

I’m cutting back even further

After using the block schedule technique outlined in my article about avoiding time wasters I’ve discovered that the amount of time I spend working is still too much for me right now. My body still can’t handle it, and stress from ongoing personal issues that I have yet to talk about have made my chronic conditions worse.

I’m doing my best to mend, but I need more time for rest and self-care. I had been writing two articles per week for this blog, but that needs to slow down. Probably to one per week.

If you’re upset about not getting enough content, that is your option. Just understand this is a blog about wellness and living a better life. If I’m someone who doesn’t create wellness and a better life for myself, then I’m a hypocrite.

I’m more than happy to take any suggestions you have about future articles, so that I can focus content to specific needs. Feel free to email me or reply with a comment to this article.

Meanwhile, there are over 40 posts on this site. It’s possible I’ve already written about what you want to know, and you just haven’t read it yet. On the top of each page in the far right corner is a little magnifying glass which represents a search function. Tap or click on the icon and put in your keywords, and see what comes up.

For those of you who stick around, I thank you for your patience and promise to continue to create quality content—just at a slower pace.

What you can do to be a little bit more selfish

First and foremost, when I receive a request to do something, I stop and think before answering.

  • Does this action take me closer to my goals?

  • If I do this, will it be purely out of obligation?

  • How will agreeing to do it throw off my schedule for any important items I need to complete?

  • Can it wait to be done later?

  • What are the consequences of saying no?

Don’t get caught up in trying to figure out the motivations of the people involved, and whether they can or should be doing it themselves. Just worry about whether you can, and want to, say yes, and what will happen if you do.

Someone who is constantly putting others first and never disregards the needs of others in favor of their own would not live very long. The world will always ask more than anyone can reasonably give.

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