Lesson 4: Who Comes First?

Note: This is one of my 35 Lessons in 35 Years.  There are links to all lessons that I’ve written about so far, on that post.

Nothing could be kinder, more altruistic, than putting others before yourself, right?  We praise “selfless” acts, and self-sacrifice.

But, in practice, this kind of thinking leads to martyrdom.

  • We burn ourselves out, because we say “yes” to everyone who asks something of us.
  • We neglect our own needs, for rest, for nourishment, and for fun, because we’re so busy taking care of our families.
  • We ignore our own suffering and deny ourselves the opportunity to heal, because we think it would be “selfish.”

Because we’re so busy putting others first, we miss out on the joy that comes with serving.  We start to view giving back as an obligation, a chore.  We begin to seek approval and validation for our efforts, because we haven’t taken the time to know ourselves and find that approval and validation within.

It’s not a matter of harming others for our own gain, or ignoring the people who are suffering around us.  It is not a matter of using “retail therapy” or spending lots of money getting every thing we want.  A lot of things mascarade as love.  If we truly understand ourselves, we will understand our need to give back.

We will understand that we are not in a category of one.

Because martyrdom and self-indulgence are caused by the same faulty assumption: that there are two groups of people in the world, “me” and “everyone else.”  There isn’t.  We aren’t each in our own lonely category.  It’s just “us.”

And we each need to tilt in the direction that the attention is needed.  If you need to work on your own growth and healing, that is where your attention should go.  If you are ready to help someone else, or if you see someone with a need, that is where you should focus.  And it’s not all or nothing–it’s not a balance, but everyone gets some part of the pie.  And it changes.

Last winter, I needed to give myself my full attention.  Actually, my own attention wasn’t even enough at that time.  And that wasn’t selfish.  My struggles and my understanding of myself have equipped me to better understand anyone.

And, as time went on, I was able to do more for others, so that is where my attention went.  It changes each day.  If I’m sick, I rest, rather than plowing through my day.  If I feel sad or in need of support, I seek it out.

And as I experience the growing joy within, I am eager to share it.  As I see, more clearly than ever, the struggles faced by those around me, I don’t hesitate to be there.

So, my fourth lesson is to ditch the hierarchy.  Don’t put anyone first.  Let’s all walk together, side-by-side.

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7 thoughts on “Lesson 4: Who Comes First?

  1. I like this, Bethany, and think that giving ebbs and flows. No one can give all the time (at least I don’t think so! I’ve been wrong before…many times…). I do think that we have to do what fits for each of us and trust that we know what’s best. I think I used to do for others because I felt I would be judged. Now that I have given that up and stopped feeling like a “bad person” when I say no, I am happier when I can help out and am doing it out of genuine concern or a willingness to help rather than fear.

    • I love that last thing you said, Tammy. I have noticed that when I quit feeling obligated, my giving became MUCH more sincere.

      Also, when I gave myself permission to say “no,” I also quit being hurt when other people told me “no.” It really led to a greater understanding, that it wasn’t personal or because they didn’t like me. They were just doing what I was doing. 🙂

  2. I put my children first while they were growing up. For me that was okay except for the part where I forgot to take the time for myself. It wasn’t until the boys were teens that I realized I needed me time. When I informed the boy of my need they simply said they didn’t know what took me so long.

    On saying no, it sure did change things in myself and my relationships. I was taught to always say yes, whether I wanted to or not. But when I asked for help I received “no’s” which upset me. I realized what I was doing, I was expecting others to be like me and give of themselves even when they didn’t want to. I had better relationships with most, but a few were so used to my past behavior they didn’t like the new me one bit. 🙂

      • Only when it came to my grandparents. With them spending their retirement years raising me I felt I owed them to be the person they wanted me to be. At the same time I was trying to earn their love and respect as they could really hold a grudge when I veered from that path. I had to see that it was their problem to have made a decision on who I would be rather than seeing me for who I was.

  3. This is a good subject to look at. As a Virgo, martyrdom is built into my DNA. Add a narcissistic mother, and you have the perfect mix for over giving and trying to please. It took a lifetime but mostly getting seriously ill to come face to face with it and make necessary changes. I’m still recovering and learning to say no or ask for help. I still want to help everyone but figured out that helping wasn’t always the best way to make things better in the long run.

    • I think we’re taught in our culture that we need to martyr ourselves and bend over backwards to please others. But a difficult home situation doesn’t help things. I’m sorry you had to go through that (but so happy that you were able to overcome it!).

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