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Why putting yourself first improves your happiness and productivity

Like oxygen on an airplane, you can’t help others until you help yourself. Set boundaries if you are overextended and find the courage to express your needs.
Image: Vacationing
When your needs are met and you feel good about yourself, it’s easier to elevate the needs of other people in front of your own.Westend61 / Getty Images

Recently, I was at a cocktail party talking to a friend who, like me, is a mother of three children. The conversation progressed into an interesting debate: Is motherhood comprised of 100 selfish or 100 selfless acts a day?

By way of example, my friend explained that she gets up early every day to make her children a healthy breakfast, which she considers a selfless act because she “would rather sleep in.” I retorted that this was selfish because she loved her children, and she values their health and the time she spends with them. Either way, it’s the same act viewed from two different mindsets.

In coaching, I frequently hear the word “selfish” tossed about – often with a negative connotation. Someone feels badly that they were being selfish or that someone else was selfish and it was offensive. Selfishness – the lack of considering others or only being concerned with your personal advantage – can be a great weakness. Clearly, the ability to put others’ needs in front of your own is an important life skill which you need to be able to do without resentment even when it’s completely inconvenient and a sacrifice.

However, I would argue that the motivation behind that decision should be self-serving. In most cases, being selfish is just a matter of perspective, and it’s critical to happiness and self-evolution.

Let me explain…

First, let’s talk about why it is so important to be selfish. As author Brené Brown has discovered in her research on wholehearted living, loving yourself more than you love others is the first and most critical step to seeking happiness and fulfillment.

In fact, she says it is impossible to love anyone more than you love yourself. Taking care of yourself is the pathway to fulfillment and to high performance in work and in life. And, just as importantly, it’s a gift to others.

When your needs are met and you feel good about yourself, it’s easier to elevate the needs of other people in front of your own. It’s easy to be a giver when your cup is full. When you feel half-full or empty, it’s harder to give. You inherently feel people should be giving more to you or others so you don’t have to give so much, or feel you need to preserve more for yourself.

The path to taking care of yourself is not always clear and straight-forward. As your life evolves, the rules change. What works at one stage of life does not work at another. Striving for a sense of purpose must be your constant throughout it all. This does not mean you are always happy or that life is easy. In fact, at times it is very hard and comes with a lot of sacrifice. But your motivation should stem from a feeling of meaningfulness.

Both your past and your present can derail you from this path. It may be messages you received in your youth, the pressures you face in your life today, the tragedies or struggles that you have had to overcome, or the societal influences that swirl around you. They can all have an impact on how you view yourself and your world. You can get confused by your motivations and your mind can trick you into believing your values should be something that’s not actually beneficial to yourself or others.

Here are the most common derailments that can prevent you from finding fulfillment:

Giving too much

When people give too much - continually put other people’s needs ahead of their own - it builds resentment and takes away from their ability to take care of themselves. When their time is so focused on others, they don’t have any time left for themselves. I find people do this when they are uncomfortable asking for their needs, speaking up about issues or delegating responsibilities. Often they hide these weaknesses by focusing on other people so they don’t have to focus on themselves. This not only leads to feeling unfulfilled, but becomes a burden on others who feel they need to take care of the “giver.”

Taking too much time for ourselves

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people take too much time for themselves, mistakenly thinking that it will lead to fulfillment. They do not “give” enough and it usually makes them feel worse, disengaging them from relationships and putting them on a treadmill of trying to do something that will finally make them feel good. In these cases, they are usually working on the wrong issues. The places where they are investing their time do not actually give them meaning.

Fearing failure

I often see people not put their whole self into achieving something because of their subconscious fear that they can’t do it. It’s easier to come up with an excuse that they have to do something for someone else or make someone else their priority. They are fooled into thinking that focusing on themselves is selfish, often as an escape from facing the challenge and hardship in front of them. It’s easier to divert their attention than face their struggles and weaknesses in order to evolve to the next level of their lives.

Not playing enough

I have written about the importance of play in a previous article and it’s so crucial that it bears repeating. Many people either believe play is bad or don’t even know how to do it. Play comes in all forms – working out, seeing friends, reading a book, going to dinner. Play is what people do when they are not working (at a job, as a parent, as a student, etc.) to enjoy themselves.

Play rejuvenates us and gives us strength and resilience to show up to our lives even in times of struggle. Yet many people see play as selfish and frivolous. Making time for play yields benefits not only to ourselves but to everyone around us.

Like oxygen on an airplane, you can’t help others until you help yourself. So set boundaries if you are overextended and find the courage to express your needs. Don’t confuse your drive to win with your drive to be fulfilled. Never fear failure because it will lead to your greatest breakthroughs in life. And if you need to recharge and reconnect with friends, do it guilt-free as it will be what your body and mind need to move ahead in other areas of your life.

Liz Bentley is a Know Your Value contributor and personal leadership coach. Follow her on Twitter @LizBentleyAssoc.