Prioritizing your own needs might be uncomfortable, but selfless parenting doesn’t help anyone – not ourselves, and not our kids.
Here’s a list of things I don’t want my children to say about me when they’re older:
● “My mom… oh she did everything for me.”
● “My mom always put me first.”
● “My mom never took care of herself, she was too busy caring for us.”
Here’s what I’d rather them say:
● “My mom… she knew when she needed things for herself and balanced that with my own needs.”
● “My mom was such an awesome model for self-care. She taught me the importance of taking care of myself and how you can do that while still being connected to someone else.”
Selfless parenting doesn’t help anyone – it doesn’t help ourselves, as we become depleted and resentful, and it doesn’t help our kids, who notice that depletion and resentment. As kids grow up, they may protest in the face of their parents’ self-care (“What? You’re going out without me? Can’t I come?”) but also feel a type of comfort in this boundary, sensing the sturdiness and self-assurance of their leaders.
Why is self-care uncomfortable?
How we take care of our wants and needs today is based on how our wants and needs were taken care of in our earliest years. Were your wants and needs (which often came out as tears and screams and anger) seen as real and valid? Or were they seen as “too much” and disruptive?
If self-care today is hard for you, it’s pretty safe to assume this: “In my earlier years, it must have been adaptive to learn that my wants and needs were dangerous to relationships; I became vigilant about the needs of others and over time lost touch with my own.”
Here’s an experiment to see how comfortable you are prioritizing your own needs.
Say the following five sentences aloud, preferably in front of a mirror. Say one at a time and then pause to see how your body responds. Does your body want to accept or reject what you just said? What type of feeling do you have? Any memories or images come to mind? The only goal is to learn about yourself—one reaction isn’t better than another. All data is good data.
1. I am allowed to want things for myself even if they inconvenience others.
2. I am allowed to make choices for my family that are based on what I desire.
3. My wants and needs are real and valid.
4. I love the fact that I want things for myself – this lets me know I am present and alive.
5. Allowing my wants to dictate what I do – at least some of the time – is critical for my well-being.
Now pause again. Breathe. Tell yourself, “What an interesting experiment, how awesome that I am willing to see what information my body gives me.” Ask yourself if you learned anything new, if anything surprised you. Try to ask yourself more questions than draw conclusions.
Start with self-compassion
If self-care is hard for you, start with self-compassion. Remind yourself, “No baby was born being more attuned to other people’s needs than her own. Over the course of my earlier years, it must have been adaptive to be so vigilant about the needs of others, and this vigilance overpowered my attunement to my own needs.” We need to give our patterns some respect and validation before we take on the bold challenge of trying something new.
Then we can shift a bit to, “I am working on a new pattern. When I try something new, my body will feel uncomfortable; this discomfort is a sign that I’m carving out a new circuit, one that wasn’t so practiced or familiar in my earliest years. My discomfort is proof that I am making a change.”
Say “no” today. To say “no,” we must be willing to prioritize our own needs over the needs someone else seems to have of us. First say it, right now, aloud. Say:
● “Ah… no, that doesn’t work for me.”
● “No, I can’t.”
● “I appreciate your asking me. No, I’m not free.”
If this is hard for you, ask yourself, “When did I learn that self-care is selfish? Who taught me that?”
Notice your discomfort in putting up a boundary for yourself. Then give yourself credit for trying something new: “My body feels uncomfortable when I say no. That discomfort makes sense, as I am trying something unfamiliar. I am bold and brave to be trying something new.”
More Strategies for Self-Care (and Everything Else)
Sometimes reading new ideas like this feels like enough. Sometimes it feels like just the beginning.
If you have more questions about boundaries and self-care, or anything else parenting throws your way, I’ve got answers. With step-by-step guides to play, tantrums, sleep, new siblings, food, potty learning, and more, Good Inside gives you skills to become the parent you want to be in the moments that matter most. Get started with Good Inside here.
This site is intended for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice. Please consult your physician or other health-care professional.