From Selfless To Selfish – A How-to Guide To Putting Yourself First

Selfless and selfish fall on two different ends of the spectrum. Balance between the two is important and this guide will help you prioritize your own needs first.
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Hands holding sign that says self love first
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When you do a Google search of the terms selfless and selfish you are given lists of results defining what each word means. Pared down to basics, to be selfish is to lack consideration for others. To be selfless is to consider other’s needs before your own.

When looking at these two states of being from this most basic perspective, it’s natural to assume that being selfless is the option you should choose, do unto others and all that. Being selfish has negative connotations because it’s self-serving. However, if we’re selfless too often, eventually we are only making decisions with other peoples' needs in mind, often forgetting our own.

While certain circumstances may require selfless acts, it’s important that you make your own desires a priority on a daily basis as well. If you spend more time doing for others and leave no time for yourself, you may eventually get to a point where you don’t even know who you are.

To be clear, my aim is not to promote a completely self-centered society where no one ever considers the people around them. This is about finding a balance between making sure you’re nurturing your own wants and needs against the things you do for others.

Follow the steps below to start putting yourself first:

Step 1: Ask yourself when the last time was that you put your needs first

Have you ever?

This is meant to be a reality check. Think about the last time you had to make a choice between taking care of your own needs and catering to the demands of someone else. Think about how it felt to sacrifice what you wanted at that moment to help someone else. The most important thing to recognize here is that it is still wonderful to help people, but providing that help doesn’t have to come at the cost of pursuing your own goals.

You might be so deep down this rabbit hole that you aren’t even sure of who you are or what you want. If you can’t remember the last time you said yes to yourself, do it right now by continuing to Step 2.

Step 2: Understand the importance of boundaries and what they represent

Boundaries are an indication of your relationship with yourself. They define what you are willing to accept in life. They are an invisible line between your own needs and everybody else, and they can help you aim your actions in the direction of those things most important to you.

Boundaries tell other people how they can treat you. They represent what we will and won’t allow from others. Without them, we are essentially asking other people to tell us who we are. They shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity to shut other people out, but rather as an opportunity to open up for yourself.

Boundaries set a baseline for what we are capable of giving without losing too much of our self. We’re all going to cross that invisible barrier from time to time, but if you do it too often, eventually you won’t recognize yourself. You’ll have spent so much time doing for others that you don’t even know who you are outside of meeting other peoples' demands.

Boundaries are a choice you make between yourself and everybody else. We only have so much time to get things done. By consistently making the choice to prioritize what somebody else wants over yourself, you are delaying the things you do want. This usually happens by telling yourself you’ll get to it later. Consider this… what if later never comes?

You can and should set boundaries for all the relationships in your life.

Step 3: Figure out why you love to say yes to everybody else

Some of us are people pleasers. I’ve been one my whole life. It wasn’t until the last few years that I started to say no to those things other people asked of me. After much evaluation, the only logical conclusion I could come to was that this was some habit ingrained in my psyche in childhood – this urge to always do what others asked while pushing my goals off till later.

Saying yes when we really want to say no happens for a number of reasons.

  • Helping others makes us feel good. We are giving our time and effort to someone else in their time of need.
  • We immediately say yes when something is asked of us and follow through for the sake of the integrity of our spoken word.
  • We don’t want people to be mad at us for saying no.
  • Saying no isn’t an option because the person asking has helped us in the past.  
  • FOMO is another reason why we say yes, even though we really want to say no.

Think about what it is that makes you want to constantly cater to the needs of others. Maybe your need to say yes is simpler in that you never want to decline an invitation. Always remember that every ask, every invitation doesn’t require a yes response.

Dig deep to figure out how you ended up in this predicament in the first place. How did you get so lost along the way that you forget you yourself have needs? Why is it that you say yes to everybody else, but not to yourself?

Step 4: Evaluate the structure of your family hierarchy

There could be a number of dynamics at play when it comes to setting boundaries with family and there are so many different family structures I couldn’t possibly touch on all of them. For the purposes of this guide, family is referring to blood relations, relatives by marriage or adoption, and those people who you have to love even when you hate them. If at least one of these types of relationships does not apply to you, skip to Step 5.

There seems to be a standard hierarchy in the structure of many families which typically defers to the wants and needs of the elders. This could be steeped in generations of tradition, making it all the more difficult to break the cycle. It seems almost normal to cater to whatever the elder most member of a family wants without question. Refusal is not an option.

As the younger generations of a family try to make their own way they are hindered by the potential for disappointment if they do not continue the family standard. There is no room for growth or change because things are to be as they have always been.

Maybe it’s one bossy sibling controlling everything. Maybe it’s one sibling whose needs are regularly put ahead of your own.  

Whatever the case may be with your family, it’s time to start saying no. This may be difficult because just the thought of refusing an ask may already be giving you anxiety. If that is how you are feeling, know that it is toxic because what you want matters too.

One of the most important things you can do on your quest to putting yourself first is to learn to say no to those people closest to you. This is a hard step and it may cause some negative emotions to shine through or some old wounds to fester. It may cause hurt along the way as someone who you have always said yes to takes it personally when you start to say no. There will be resentment. There will be a lack of understanding. There may even be hurtful words exchanged.

Prepare yourself. Break the familial standard that doesn’t suit your goals not only for yourself but for future generations as well. Make it clear that it is not about you being unwilling to help. Of course, you will. It just means that your helping will not come at the regular sacrifice of your own dreams.

Step 5: Determine if you’re the friend that always gets “the call”

We all need at least one friend. Friends get us through the darkness, they do fun activities with us, they are our sounding boards, confidants, and advocates. Much like with families, groups of friends have dynamics at play. Really, in any type of group setting, eventually, everybody settles into a role.

I’m not going to discuss the many different roles at play within the friend group, rather, I’m going to focus on just one – the friend that everybody calls when they need something. Your other friends may need advice, help with a task, or somebody to attend an event with. No matter what it is, you are the first one called for the assist. And do you know why? Because you are going to answer, and whatever they ask, even if the timing isn’t convenient you are going to oblige.

If you’re the friend that everybody calls when they need something but you feel like a bother when you need the favor returned this is a problem. This doesn’t mean that your friends are always saying no to you, it could be that you aren’t even asking. A pattern has developed where you take care of yourself and everybody else. As a result, you end up burnt out and possibly never taking care of your needs at all.

Just like with family, start saying no. Prioritize your needs and goals over what your friends are asking you to do. An easy first step to transitioning out of this role is to stop answering the phone every time it rings.

Step 6: Develop personalized ways to say no

There are a number of ways to start saying no when something is asked of you. How you respond to other people’s asks will depend on your personality. Say yes to the things you want to and the things you feel like you have the time for, without sacrificing your priorities.

To start putting boundary-setting into practice, you can say things like:

  • I really want to help you, but I just can’t right now.
  • That sounds like a lot of fun, but I have to get (insert personal goal or task) done before I can make other plans.
  • That sounds really important, I might be able to help when I’m done with (insert personal goal or task). Can I get back to you?

Some people will easily take the hint. However, if you’re dealing with a more overbearing person, you may need to be harsh. Especially if that person has asked more than once. Try saying:

  • I said no.
  • You’re not listening. I cannot help with/do this right now.  
  • Back off. I don’t have the time.

These phrases can be a little scary because they’re direct and when spoken firmly, can come off mean. The truth is sometimes this is the only option because there will be someone in your life who just doesn’t get it.

You can even get extreme and go cold turkey. Start putting yourself first by saying no to everything and I mean EVERYTHING. I did this for a while with mixed results. You are essentially putting it back onto the person doing the asking to really sell whatever it is they want you to engage in if they choose to persist after your initial no. If it seems like it’ll be worth your time and you genuinely want to do it then decide to agree. This small change alone will shift the balance in that relationship because the other person will have to make you see the value in what they are asking for.

There is no one right way for everybody. Figure out what works best for you and start saying the words today. If it helps, you can even practice saying them while looking in the mirror.

Step 7: Adjust your mindset to make your life and your goals a priority

Once you’ve figured out the dynamics at play in your relationships and why you can’t resist saying yes, you can start tweaking your daily behaviors. Make a promise to yourself to prioritize your needs. It’s going to require you to adjust the way you think about yourself and how you respond to the needs of those around you.

In his book, Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff, Richard Carlson tells us that we don’t have to catch the ball every time somebody throws it to us. We're already holding our own ball and dropping it to catch someone else’s in their time of need can lead to feelings of stress and resentment. You don’t have to participate in something just because someone is asking you to. This also doesn’t mean that you never catch the ball. It just means that you are prioritizing your own peace and only catching someone else’s ball when you have the time and space to do so.

Make a list of those things that are important to you. That list can include goals, habits, and other things that you want to start doing regularly to live your best life. Use your list as a visual guide, whether it’s an electronic note or on paper, to remind yourself of what you might be giving up by not making yourself a top priority.

Putting yourself first is an evolving way of life. It’s something that needs regular practice and it won’t always be perfect. It’s been two years since I first started to reclaim my life and I still fall into those old yes habits on occasion. The best thing I can say is I am now aware of when I haven’t spent enough time on my own pursuits and I’ll hit the pause button on everything to reset myself. It's worth trying if you haven't done it before.

There have been good times and bad. There have been tears as I’ve struggled with wishing I did this sooner, and feeling like I wasted so much time. The good news is it’s never too late to start being selfish. Say yes to yourself today by saying no to everybody else. And remember, drop somebody else’s ball before you let go of your own.

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Aspiring content marketer, writing to soothe my soul. Lover of dogs, fiction novels, and a good TV binge.

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