The Art Of Putting Yourself First

Do you feel guilty about the amount of time you actually need to care for yourself properly... or do people around you send shaming signals when you engage in self-care too often, for too long, or at all?

Are you familiar with codependency?

Self-care shaming seems to have deep historical roots in some cultures... but it never fails to amaze me how some of the same cultures can praise public narcissism, yet shame personal self-nurture.

If you find yourself in such a culture or frame of mind, here are some ways to shift the perspective and free your mind... 

Who do you spend the most time with?  You.  So, why on earth would you feel the need to apologize for making yourself a priority?  

The situations that life throws at you quickly sap your resources, and generally those situations require time or money.  You don’t empty your bank account without replenishing it, and you need to replenish yourself too.

Therefore, when you need some ‘Me Time’ don’t apologize for it.  You have already prioritized yourself so that you can give everyone else what they need, but who is doing this for you?  It is also necessary to invest in making your own passions and goals come true, rather than being completely focused on doing the same for others.

It is indeed an art to gracefully put yourself first in life, without feeling like you’re walking the thin line of self-indulgence.  If you are so used to saying yes to loved one’s requests that it’s become a force of habit, it may feel even more impossible to change it.  And if you are accustomed to people pleasing in general, it may feel even more uncomfortable. 

But the good news is that every art can be learned and improved!  

A great place to start, is to ask yourself exactly how you're meant to care for everyone else's demands efficiently when you can hardly keep up with your own?  

When your cup is full, it overflows to everyone around you.  However if your cup is empty ... then all you have to offer is overwhelm, exhaustion, and an empty cup.

It doesn’t take long to realize that something must change if you want to keep going.  It's time to start investing in your own well being, assessing the state of your own body, mind, and spirit.  It's time to include yourself on the top of your own to-do list, and making your own health priority #1.

But where do we begin?  How do we undo unproductive habits and beliefs that have come to feel normal?  

Sometimes, rather than taking on new habits right away, the art of putting yourself first may be more of an art of letting go of old ones... letting go of what doesn’t belong to us, what is holding us back, and what we don’t need anyway.  

We find these layers by digging deep into subtle cues 
that our own psyche gladly provides when we listen.


Often, we don’t realize how much our lives lack self-care until we are either tearing our hair out, screaming at someone, or too exhausted to lift our head off the pillow.  Sound familiar?

Begin to notice how you feel throughout the day.  Are you run down?  Tired? Can’t think straight?  Eating a lot of carbs and sugar filled junk?  These are all signs that you are not centered, overly stressed, and headed towards major burnout.  Self-awareness is the ability to identify, recognize, and understand what is really going on inside yourself.

Psychology professor Dan McAdams of Northwestern University explains that, “The stories we tell ourselves about our lives don’t just shape our personalities – they are our personalities.”   

Self-awareness into how we are feeling and doing on a day-to-day basis, often escapes us as we are running around without taking even a minute to check in with ourselves, and just be.  When you do check in, pay close attention to any stories you hear playing on repeat… are these your stories or everyone else’s?

Notice what your body, mind, and impulses are informing you and act accordingly.  When your inner voice is churning and informing you something is off, then it's time to listen.  Your sense of well being can dramatically improve by this simple act alone. 

The Art of this practice lies in being real, honoring your intuition, observing your sensations, and noticing the source of them.

Guilt & Shame

If guilt is a strong motivator that guides your choices, it can run deep and undetected without closer inspection.  One way to uncover it is to ask yourself questions like these:

Have you ever felt guilty about taking care of your son, daughter, mother, sister, or spouse?  Think carefully about this for a moment.  Likely, your answer is No.  But you likely do feel guilt when taking time to do something to take care of yourself.  

The problem is that you may not even be aware of guilty feelings in those small moments of choice that arise throughout the day.  When a woman is pregnant, the motivation is strong to spend more time on healthy habits and removing toxins that could affect the baby.  Most women would feel guilty if they didn’t do those things. 

So how is it that our own motivation to offer the same level of care for ourselves can be so polluted by guilt?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, but they are important questions to ask.  Sometimes, the culprit of guilt lies in a hidden valley of shame that has been inherited from abusive systems or cultures.  

Shame is a very common side effect of trauma, and it can be one of the most pervasive and insidious. It can become part of one’s very identity, turned against one’s self, and govern every aspect of functioning.  

If this is the case, please be gentle with yourself and seek professional help to unravel the tangled mess that shame can cause.  

Ask yourself: if your child or best friend asked you for advice on this matter, how compassionate would you be with them?  Now apply the same level of compassion with yourself.  

Try to keep the bigger picture in perspective by asking yourself different types of reflective questions.  Again I refer back to the previous section in asking, whose story do you want to tell?  And whose story do you want others to tell about you… your own or someone else’s?


Don't be scared to ask for assistance.  Contrary to popular belief, it isn't a display of weakness.  Understanding when, how, and being willing to seek help actually reveals great strength.  Believing otherwise only saps your power, and cuts you off from valuable input or assistance from others.  

Most people would love the chance to help a loved one in need, but often have no idea how to help unless you communicate your needs.  Not to mention, allowing loved ones to help you often improves the strength of relationships.  Sometimes it is more of an issue of how to communicate your need for help.

Here are some tips on how to ask for help in a productive way:

  • Don’t wait until the last minute
  • Ask the right person
  • Don’t make them feel like they have no choice
  • Be clear about what you need
  • Ask them face to face and follow it up in an email
  • Show your gratitude
  • If you can, help others when they need it

Peer Pressure & Hype

Make no mistake, peer pressure exists among all ages and in every type of social group.  It seems to be the way of human behavior, and there is no hard evidence that people naturally outgrow it with age.  

Be it a work dinner, church drive, book club outing, family cookout, or that 'really amazing band' that’s playing... It never fails, people will try to aggravate your fear of missing out.  Don’t fall for it.  Don’t buy in.

No matter who’s selling, even if it’s your mother or best friend, there will always be another event if you have to miss this one.  Our modern culture of endless social media updates doesn’t help the hype factor, and makes it way too easy to feel like you are missing out on things.  

This is often overlooked and yet unavoidable.  And if you are in the habit of giving away the precious real estate of your weekly planner, try waiting a little longer before you write things in stone.

There is no easy answer on how to cope with these influences, other than to become more aware of your own responses, and make more conscious decisions on how to spend your time.  

Remember the days before cell phones, email, and social media?… Honestly I remember how peaceful it was, and how easy it was to live without any of it.  Being more connected has benefits, but it can also invade every ounce of your privacy.


Sometimes there are other dynamics hiding beneath a refusal to put yourself first, for example sheer stubbornness.  Likewise, the act of constantly doing everything for others can be rooted in a need to be in control; which is actually one of the more misunderstood features of codependency.

What frequently appears as a highly successful person can often really be a highly perfectionist habit system.  We have all known people whose lives appear ‘too perfect’ and it’s easy to sense the facade layered over life’s inherently imperfect nature.  

It’s exhausting to maintain this facade, and even more exhausting to make comparisons based on something that will never be real.    

At the root of perfectionism is control, usually stemming from past trauma or other chaotic conditions which felt excessively out of control.  

But it is a double edged sword because perfect conditions can never truly be achieved, so this type of perfectionism actually sets people up for failure.  

It is much more resilient to release things that can’t be controlled, and focus more on the one thing you can control - which is yourself!

Paul Hewitt, PhD, says, "I don't think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive." With over 20 years of research behind them, Hewitt and his colleague Gordon Flett, PhD, have found that perfectionism correlates with anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and a host of other mental health problems.

You don’t have to be perfect, in fact it takes way too much of valuable time that can be spent caring for yourself instead.  Your house need not be perfect, you don’t have to be perfectly organized, and it’s okay if your car did not get a wash today.  

If you find yourself leaning into this category, give yourself permission to make mistakes.  Focus on your own self-care instead, and it will help you release any extra needs for control.


Perhaps the most healing thing anyone can do is to learn to forgive themselves, at all costs, no matter what the perceived defect.  

In an effective therapeutic method devised by Marsha Linehan, PhD, called Radical Acceptance, we are led through a process to help us do exactly that...

In this light, it is more about being willing to forgive ourselves at all, even if there are things we aren’t ready to forgive yet.  It is about “acceptance of life as it is, not as it is supposed to be; and the need to change, despite that reality, and because of it.”

It is different for everyone in practice, but looks something like this 
(feel free to make up your own phrases reflecting your situation):

  • Even though I don’t like everything about my life, I am willing to accept myself.
  • Even though I don’t like everything about myself, I’m willing to accept me anyway.
  • Even though I feel like I should be further along… (on this project, that career, this relationship, etc, etc)... I still am willing to accept the fact that it’s a journey.
  • Even though I don’t forgive myself yet for some things I regret, I am willing to accept that there is a learning curve.
  • Even though I feel shame when I think about (......) I am willing to forgive myself.

Here are some more examples of what you CAN control, 
by learning the art of putting yourself first:

  • Healthy & Happy

The people that you love, want you to be happy and healthy.  Now, think about all of your relationships and how they improve when you feel your best (mentally, emotionally, and physically).  Think about how you feel when you eat well, exercise regularly, and enjoy a good night’s sleep. 

Compare that with your relationships when you’re exhausted and irritable, too caught up in filling everyone else’s needs and desires rather than your own.  You can’t give your best when you’re not at your best.

  • Burnout Saps Your Joy

Have you ever tried to indulge in one of your favorite activities when you’re completely burned out?  It isn’t enjoyable, is it?  When you’re exhausted and overworked, you’re stressed out and wracked with anxiety, so much that even a relaxing dinner with friends is just another chore to add to your list.  

The truth is you need a proper break to remember how to be present for the moments that you should be enjoying.  Burnout depletes your levels of happy hormones and when you’re in survival mode, you are at greater risk for mental health issues.  

  • Resting Is Compulsory

There are probably a bunch of items on your to-do list that you can cross off and forget about, whereas you can’t cross rest off your list.  You wouldn’t keep driving your car with a flat tire; let the oil or gas run out, so why would you do it yourself? 

A failure to rest is going to increase your cortisol levels, make your situation worse, and feed into the vicious cycle of burnout.  It’s completely okay to put yourself first and choose the couch over a big night out.

  • Improved Health

You will be in far better health when you learn to prioritize your self-care. Exhaustion, anxiety, and stress contribute to a variety of illnesses.  Stress triggers a chain reaction that draws all of the available resources just to get you through the situation, leaving other areas of your body lacking.

  • Energy

You bring a certain emotional energy to every situation that you are involved in.  If you carry an angry energy, the people around you will see it in the same way they can feel your happy energy.  It doesn’t have to be an obvious emotion for it to transfer to others; even low-level irritation can be taken personally by those around you.  

So be mindful of the fact that stress and moodiness can transfer to those around you.  In this light, the very best thing you can do for the people in your life is to put yourself first, practice self-care, and be the best you possible!         

So What is The Art?

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References and Further Reading

1.  Dietz, Lisa. (2012). Radical Acceptance. DBT Self Help. Retrieved from:

2.  Flett, G.L., & Hewitt, P.L., Eds. (2002). Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

3.  McAdams, D. (2013). The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By. Oxford Press.

4. Tipping, Colin (2007, 2011). Radical Self-Forgiveness: The Direct Path to True Self-Acceptance. Sounds True Publishing.



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