It’s common for people to put everyone else’s needs before their own. We’re raised in a society where the M.O. is being nurturers, caring for others, and putting your own needs aside. And this is especially the case for women. Being selfless is a great quality, but there also has to be boundaries. Selflessness shouldn’t come at your own expense and jeopardize your own well-being.
Self-Care vs. Selfishness
Many people think that practicing self-care or putting your needs first is being selfish. But there is a big difference between self-care and being selfish. What is your intention when you practice self-care? Does your self-care create harm for others? When you do things that intentionally harm others, or to avoid punishment, it can turn into a selfish act. Selfishness comes from a place of greediness and wanting everything for yourself.
Although self-care is about personal gain, it comes from a place of genuine, authentic intention. It’s about improving yourself and prioritizing your needs and mental health. It helps you become a better version of yourself, and in turn, helps others.
Taking care of yourself and your needs contributes to the greater good. When you are healthy and independent, other people don’t have to worry about you, your decline, or your well-being. It lessens the burdens of others, so they can focus on themselves and their needs. If your mental and physical health decline because you are neglecting yourself, those who love you will feel like they have to take care of you. This isn’t to say that no one should ever help each other. It’s about finding a balance between nurturing yourself and helping others.
How Caring for Others Too Much Can Cause Harm
When you are in the mindset that you can’t be selfish, it can actually cause harm. Is the care you are providing for the other person taking away from your well-being? Are you missing appointments? Not seeing other people? Is your work quality suffering or you’re not doing well in school? Are you not achieving your own goals? Have you noticed your mental or physical health suffering? Do you feel more anxious or stressed? Take a step back, reflect, and ask yourself, “how can I shift what kind of care I am giving so I can make room for my own well-being?”
Blindly saying yes to their requests without taking a moment to reflect on how it impacts you does more harm than good. Are you afraid they’ll be mad at you for saying no? Do you want to make them happy, even at your own expense? These are signs that you might be a people-pleaser or in an unbalanced and unhealthy relationship that can create feelings of resentment and anxiety.
It’s also important to reflect on what the intention is behind your support and caregiving. Are you doing it because they actually need the help or because you want to take on that role? Are you helping others as a vehicle to avoid your own self-care? It feels good to help and take care of others, but only to a certain extent. If you give too much of yourself, it can deplete your energy.
Being a caregiver when it’s not needed can harm the person you are taking care of as well. Overstepping with the nurturing can become coddling and enabling. The other person becomes enabled and may lose self-confidence, skill sets, and self esteem, because they are reliant on you and can no longer take care of themselves. They can become helpless, and in the case of death and loss, they may lose the ability or space to grieve. By taking care of them too much, you’re creating a detriment, even if that’s not the intention. It is very common for people to jump into the caregiver role and the other person to fall into the “needing help” role. This can create a codependent relationship that is unhealthy.
Don’t Assume Others Need Your Help
When someone experiences loss or goes into crisis, you might find yourself jumping into the caregiver role and taking on more than you can handle. But did you ask that person if they needed help? Did they ask you for help? Or did you make the assumption that they do? Maybe they are assuming you want to help and aren’t realizing it’s taking away from your well-being because you don’t speak up. Maybe the other person doesn’t want help, but they didn’t know how to tell you to stop. Maybe they wanted to take the reins and use this as an opportunity to grow and feel more confident, but you overstepped. Be mindful of overstepping – they might not tell you because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
Instead, ask them how you can help and then figure out what works for both of you. Don’t just say yes to everything. They are an adult who is ultimately responsible for themselves, just like you are responsible for yourself. Listen to what they say. If you can’t do everything they ask of you, state it clearly. The other person has to take responsibility to speak up for themselves. You are also allowed to say no.
Have Open and Ongoing Communication
Have a conversation with the other person and don’t assume you know what they need. Know your intention for wanting to help and negotiate what works for everyone involved. Don’t compromise your well-being or theirs and feel confident that you are not being selfish. There’s a balance between being selfless and selfish.
After time, reevaluate how you are supporting them. The ways in which you care for someone can change over time. Is it still working for both of you? Check in with yourself and check in with them. Can you let go of some of the responsibilities? Can the other person take over doing some things themselves? Do they need additional support? Do you need additional support? Have ongoing conversations about your respective roles in the relationship and the amount of support you are giving. If the relationship feels one-sided, talk to them about how you could use their help. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to them instead of bottling it up.
Sometimes we’re put in the role of caregiver and don’t have a choice. But a lot of the time people tend to take on more than what’s required or even helpful. Take a step back and ask yourself, “do I really have to be the caregiver?” You can nurture and support that person, but that doesn’t mean you have to put your own needs aside and lose yourself. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s ok to say no sometimes and to be flexible with the amount of time and support you give to others.
When you give yourself to others without care or concern for your own well-being, it puts you off balance. Don’t put your own needs on the back burner, especially if the care will be ongoing. It’s important to find a balance between doing everything for yourself and giving all you have to others by creating boundaries. If you notice an increase in stress, reflect on your boundaries. Have you set boundaries for yourself? Are you sticking to them? Are you overstepping your own boundaries? Are you letting others overstep your boundaries? Do you need to shift your boundaries? During the first few days or weeks of a crisis, it’s normal to feel stress, but don’t let it take over your life, don’t go into debt, don’t fall behind on work, and don’t let your own mental and physical health decline as a result. Don’t overstep your own boundaries to accommodate someone else – that is when being a nurturer becomes unhealthy.
If the person asks you to do something for them, first ask yourself if it takes away from your ability to take care of yourself. If you can’t help in that way because it crosses your boundaries or takes away from your own self-care, consider if there’s another way you can offer support. Or say, “I want to help you. Here are ways that I can…” Be creative with how you show your support. Caring for other people doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming.
Always keep this idea in mind:
“I can be as supportive as I can be while respecting my own boundaries and taking care of myself.”
Prioritize Your Well-Being
People who love you don’t want to see you suffer because you’re going out of your way to help them. Everyone deserves to prioritize their physical, mental, and emotional health. If you are struggling with putting your own needs first and practicing self-care, therapy can help. If you are finding it difficult to express your needs, set healthy boundaries, and have healthy and balanced relationships, Dr. Violante can help. She offers online therapy to adults living in Florida and New York, as well as all PsyPact enrolled states (listed below). Contact her online or call (754) 333-1484 to request a HIPAA compliant teletherapy session.
Offering Online Therapy in 39 States
I am a licensed psychologist in the states of Florida and New York. Additionally, I have Authority to Practice Interjurisdictional Telepsychology (APIT) from the PSYPACT Commission. I provide telehealth (online video therapy) to adults living in the 39 participating PSYPACT states listed below. For a list of current PSYPACT participating states, please visit the PSYPACT website at: https://www.psypact.org/psypactmap.
PsyPact enrolled states:
Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming