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Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. Being able to put yourself first without feeling guilty is vital for a healthy mind and body. Putting others first as a means of validating your own existence and hiding your shortcomings only sets you up to fail. I wish I could tell you that you didn’t have to dive into your own inner journey to find your true self and worth — but that’s the critical first step.
Related: How to Define a Positive Self-Worth
Take, for example, the case of a high-achieving executive named Barbara, who sought my help because her team criticized her short temper and lack of understanding. By and large, Barbara is a people pleaser, which helped make her such a successful leader in the first place. Outwardly, she’s a confident and bold woman who stands up for herself; beneath the surface, however, is someone who equates her worth with her accomplishments.
Consequently, when Barbara didn’t produce the results she desired, she became frustrated and angry, then projected those feelings onto the members of her team. Likewise, if someone on her team moved slowly or delivered work that wasn’t up to par, she quickly ran out of patience. The people-pleasing veneer she’d kept up for so long was wearing thin — her internalized stress of the pressure to excel in all areas just wasn’t sustainable.
Barbara realized that she wasn’t able to be more understanding and patient with her team because she wasn’t being authentic with herself and others. Constant people pleasing was taking away her steam, leaving her alienated and lonely. And the lonelier she felt, the harder she was on herself. It was difficult for her to admit it, but she knew it was true. Finally, she was ready to learn how to accept and love herself outside of her professional accomplishments.
“So how do you exactly start to love yourself?” Barbara asked me.
Here’s what I told her.
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I have my clients practice putting themselves first in their daily lives. You have to come back to this one step again and again. Now, I totally understand that it is much easier said than done. You have to mentally prepare yourself to put yourself first. All your life, you’ve probably been told to be of service to others. Do away with the notion that it’s selfish to love yourself.
Tell yourself, “I am worthy of this attention.” Repeat this out loud to yourself whenever you feel uneasy for choosing yourself over someone else. Yes, even your kids. The guilt can start to creep in because pleasing others is what perfectionists do. So, whenever you feel overwhelmed by guilt, silently or out loud repeat this mantra of worthiness. It will feel uncomfortable, but I want you to stay with the discomfort. When you keep choosing yourself, you will eventually get comfortable with putting yourself first.
Now, I have to warn you that you might get grief from others when you start putting yourself first — because it’s a change. Most of the time, people don’t like change. They want to be able to predict your behavior. Please do not let this hurdle stop you from serving yourself first.
Related: Why You Should Encourage Employees to Be ‘Selfish’
Pay attention to the level of emotional resiliency you develop when you are putting yourself first. When you choose yourself first, you might feel more relaxed, valued, respected, confident, happy or joyful. These moments, however fleeting and uncomfortable at first, will be the indicator that you are on the right path. You want to move away from feeling frustrated, irritable or angry. Any time you feel any of these negative emotions, ask yourself what you can do to be kind to yourself, then go do that. You might be inclined to just keep doing the things that make you feel accomplished or productive, but the way you get real, long-lasting relief from those negative emotions is by learning to be enough just the way you are.
You can have empathy, understanding and even compassion for others, but loving others without first loving yourself is impossible. If you haven’t yet unconditionally accepted your shortcomings, you can’t accept those of others.
Barbara has improved a lot, being kinder to herself so that she can be more understanding with her team. However, she still recognizes how deep the lack-of-self-love wounds can go. If you have attempted to fully accept yourself, you know it takes some effort and a strong mindset. But once you get started, you will begin to taste the freedom you so desire and be one more step ahead on the path to personal and professional success.