How To Live For Yourself: 12 Essential Tips

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Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you live for yourself a little more rather than always putting everyone else first. Simply click here to connect with one via BetterHelp.com.

Doing kind acts of service for others is great. After all, it’s one of the top love languages, and who doesn’t love it when others do lovely things for them?

Problems arise, however, when people give far more than they receive. Sure, they’re doing all kinds of stuff for the people they love, their community, maybe even strangers in need, but it’s rare that their energy is reciprocated. It’s not uncommon for these “givers” to burn out and not have any strength left for their hobbies, interests, and pursuits.

This burnout isn’t something that happens overnight but rather occurs over time. Something might happen that would require you to give more of yourself than before, and then that encroachment becomes the standard.

And then more and more is needed or wanted.

Suddenly, the only time you have for yourself is when you use the washroom or when you’re fast asleep. You have no idea how exactly this happened, but you’re miserable, and you want things to change.

And that’s a really good thing.

Why is it important to prioritize your own needs?

Most of us have been raised with the idea that prioritizing our own needs is a bad thing. That putting ourselves first means that we’re selfish and care more about ourselves than those around us.

In reality, the opposite is true.

When we love those around us, we recognize that we want to give them the best versions of ourselves, and we can’t do that when we’re worn to the bone. You can’t draw from an empty well. Trying to give to others and be of service to them when you’re exhausted and depleted will lead to resentment and depression.

We all have our own goals, hobbies, and creative endeavors that we enjoy. What happens when we aren’t “allowed” the time and space to pursue any of those? We feel frustrated, annoyed, sad, resentful, and even really angry.

A creative person who can’t do any artistic work because they have to care for elders or children will lose the spark used to fuel them. This can lead to horrible depression, which will affect their entire lives – Including the standard of care they can offer. Similarly, an avid reader who never has time to read because they’re interrupted by a family member’s needs every five minutes will eventually lash out at the ones they love the most.

If you want to give your best to those you love, you need to love yourself first.

Let’s look at some of the reasons you may be feeling the way you do and how to start living more for yourself.

1. Examine your motivations.

You’re probably a big-hearted person who wants to make other people’s lives healthier and “better” as much as you possibly can. As a result, you may take every opportunity to help them, take on extra responsibilities so they can rest, and even offer advice that you feel would be beneficial for them.

It’s essential to determine the root of your motivations here. Are you doing these things because you sincerely want to be helpful and kind? Or because you’re hoping to be recognized as a fantastic person?

Do you hope that by doing all of this, others will respond in kind when it comes to your needs? Or are you so convinced that you know what’s best in these situations that you should come to other people’s aid?

Some people live for others as a trauma response, especially if they have abandonment issues. They’ll throw themselves into serving someone hand and foot so the other person just won’t be able to live without them. It’s a means of ensuring their long-term survival.

Others try to take on responsibilities, chores, and even decision-making for others because they feel like these people just won’t get the job done as well as they can. It’s a situation of “they’re going to mess it up anyway, so I might as well do it myself.” Then they feel exhausted and resentful because they “had to do so much.”

As you can see, there are many reasons why a person might martyr themselves for the sake of others in their lives.

What are your reasons for doing so?

2. Ask yourself how this kind of self-sacrifice makes you feel.

If you’ve searched for this topic online, then chances are you’re not feeling particularly happy with your life circumstances at the moment.

Are you feeling drained, depressed, and exhausted rather than energized and enthusiastic about life? When you think about setting aside precious moments of your own time to give and give to others, does that inspire you to give more? Or does it break your heart?

Chances are it’s the former.

You’ve been doing the mental and emotional equivalent of setting yourself on fire to keep other people warm, and no one has been fuelling those flames in turn. That’s not fair to any of you.

Those you love deserve the best of what you have to give, not the little bits that are left over after you’ve spread yourself so thin you’re transparent. Furthermore, are you not also just as deserving of love, care, and devotion?

Ask yourself if you want to keep feeling this awful or if you want to take firm action to be happier and more focused on the things that make you happy.

3. Remember that self-care is NOT selfish.

If you’ve ever flown in an airplane, you’ll likely remember that the flight attendants go through safety protocols before every flight. One key aspect of these instructions is that one should always put on their oxygen mask before helping anyone else with theirs – even their children.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, we’re of little use to anyone else if we don’t first take care of ourselves.

If we don’t do our best to get enough sleep, exercise, and healthy foods, we will get sick. Then we won’t be able to take care of those around us. We need to keep our foundations and energy reserves healthy and strong, both for our sake and for those we love.

Many people (especially narcissists and other manipulators) try to convince others that putting their priorities first means that they’re self-absorbed. That they don’t care whether other people are happy as long as THEY are. More often than not, this is a projection of their behavior and is a critical indicator that you’ll need to take a ton more time to yourself to heal from whatever they’ve been putting you through.

4. Learn to value yourself as much as you value the other people in your life.

You’re likely incredibly attentive to other people’s needs and, as such, take action when you feel it can be helpful. For example, if your child seems grumpy or doesn’t have much of an appetite, you might catch a cold in its first stages by giving them some orange juice and putting them to bed early. You’ve learned to identify things that need tending to before they grow into major issues and are on top of everything for everyone else.

Now is the time to turn that kind of attentiveness and care towards yourself.

If you’ve been feeling exhausted, let others know that you need to catch up on rest. Housework and email responses can wait until tomorrow. Take an undisturbed bath and get to bed early so you can get some proper sleep. Book a couple of days off work if possible so you can read or watch terrible movies that you love.

In essence, fill your own well with the same loving kindness you do for others.

5. Ask yourself whether your self-sacrifice is necessary.

I once counseled a woman who was so exhausted from tending everyone else’s needs except her own that she was about 0.003 seconds from a complete nervous breakdown. We spoke at length about all the burdens she constantly carried, from all the things she had to do for her kids to the housework she was responsible for, plus being available to offer advice and help to her family members and friends, etc.

After going through all the things she “had to” do over the course of the day, I simply asked her why she felt that she had to take on all of these things herself.

For example, her kids were between the ages of 9 and 15. They were perfectly capable of making their beds and preparing their lunches, so why did she feel that she “needed” to take care of those things for them? She responded that she wanted to be her children’s friend and not give them any responsibilities.

The burden of housework fell into that as well. She wanted her kids and partner to love and appreciate her, so she didn’t assign chores to anyone else. She took all of it on herself to “spare them.” In doing so, she developed a great deal of resentment towards them and became short-tempered and mean when they asked things of her. She was already doing so much that her instant response to more demands was anger and bitterness.

She was able to solve this issue by sitting down with the family and expressing that she needed their help. After explaining how worn-out she was, they eagerly stepped up to help her in turn. It hadn’t even occurred to them that she was wearing herself thin on their behalf – they were just so used to that situation that it was status quo.

It was only after she had written down everything she did in a day and showed it to them that it drove home how much she was doing for them versus what they could do for themselves (and for her). They didn’t want her hurting herself for their benefit, nor being mean to them because she felt resentful. As a result, everyone took on the things they could do, thus lightening her load.

The family dynamic improved exponentially after that, as you might imagine!

6. Delegate whenever possible.

This expands upon the previous example.

Over the course of a week, write down everything you do in a day. Be detailed with the descriptions and how long each task took you. I’d recommend using a calendar – whether online or written – to write this out, as you can make notes in hourly time slots.

For example:

6:00 – 6:40 (40 min)

Made breakfast for the family

6:45 – 7:45 (1 hour)

Got everyone dressed and off to school

7:45 – 8 (15 min)

Ate breakfast myself and got changed

8-10 (2 hours)

Washed dishes, cleaned the kitchen, did laundry, scrubbed the upstairs bathroom.

10-11 (1 hour)

Caught up on emails and texts from friends who needed my help

11 – 3 (4 hours)

Did some work on X project

3-3:15 (15 min)

Was on a phone call with mom

3:15 – 4:30 (1 hour 15 min)

Greeted kids after school, made them a snack, settled them down with their homework.

4:30 – 5:30 (45 min)

Cooked dinner

5:30 – 6:30 (1 hour)

Had dinner with the family, then cleared the table and chatted with the kids for a few minutes.

6:30-8 (1.5 hours)

Cleaned up the kitchen after cooking, folded laundry while watching TV with the kids.

8-9 (1 hour)

Got kids bathed and put them to bed, spending a bit of time with each of them before they fell asleep.

9-9:30 (30 min)

Set out the kids’ clothes for tomorrow.

9:30 – 10 (30 min)

Made the kids’ lunches for tomorrow.

10 – 10:30 (30 min)

Had a shower, washed my hair, got ready for bed.

10:30 – 11 (30 min)

Talked to partner, texted with X friend who’s having a hard time, made notes about the volunteer work I’m doing this weekend.

11 – 11:15 (15 min)

Went to bed and read for a few minutes until I was too tired and needed to fall asleep.

 

When you write down everything you do in a day and how long every task takes you, you’ll start to recognize how much you do for other people versus how much you do for yourself. Furthermore, you’ll likely see areas where you can easily delegate tasks to other people.

Check out a list of age-appropriate chores for kids and determine which suits your own children’s maturity and physical capabilities. These can vary on quite a scale depending on the child, especially if they’re on the autism spectrum. If your kids are out of diapers, neurotypical, and able-bodied, however, they’re going to be capable of doing at least some of the household chores.

The same goes for partners and spouses. Determine whether there’s an equal balance of work going on across the board. If one partner works outside the house full-time and the other puts in the same time and effort with parenting and home care, that’s an equal balance. If, however, one is working full time and shouldering the cooking, cleaning, and parenting while the other is playing online games and snacking, then there’s a problem.

You might feel guilty about asking the people in your life to shoulder their fair share of the burden, especially if being of service to those you love is important to you.

This is common in situations where divorced or separated parents have split custody. Each parent wants to be the “fun” one, the preferred parent whom the kid will like better and with whom the kid will want to spend more time. As a result, they might not give their offspring any responsibilities or chores at their place.

What ends up happening is the parent gets completely drained and resents the kid for being lazy and spoiled. But whose fault is it when a child is immature, lazy, and spoiled?

Exactly.

We can’t be our kids’ best friends AND parents simultaneously. Furthermore, we don’t raise children; we raise people from childhood through to adulthood, including giving them a solid set of skills. Self-care, cooking, cleaning, and similar age-appropriate responsibilities will ensure that they’ll be able to cope on their own. Additionally, it’ll make them better partners or spouses in the future. Nobody wants to have to “parent” their partner, and many relationships fail because one partner never had to grow up.

Consider whether your over-giving nature will actually help those around you long-term, and then determine the best course of action.

7. Sit with yourself and ask your body, mind, and soul what they need most.

Take some time away from friends, family, and work obligations where you can just sit and meditate for a little while. If you do better meditating or focusing when there’s music playing, then do that. Burn some incense or a favorite scented candle, center yourself, and then really ask your very soul what it is you need.

Which dreams or goals have you set aside because of other people’s wants and needs?

What do you want to do that you just don’t seem to have enough time for?

If you could do anything you wanted in a day, without any obligation or guilt, what would it be?

Ask yourself whether you live for others because you’re avoiding something in your own life.

The answers you come up with will indicate where you need to be placing your energy and attention.

8. Change the language you’re using.

You probably catch yourself saying things like “I have to…” and “I need to…”

These create an instant state of obligation, which can make you feel hurt and resentful right from the get-go. As an experiment, try to switch things around and use phrases like “I GET to do X” and “I CHOOSE to…” instead.

This puts you into a state of mind where you’re consciously choosing to do a certain thing rather than feeling an obligation towards it. Furthermore, you can establish the parameters and boundaries for it too. For example, instead of “I have to go clean my mother’s house this weekend”, you can switch it around to “I choose to visit my mother for a few hours this weekend, and while I’m there, I’ll do a bit of tidying for her”.

This way, you’re not locked into cleaning the entire home. You’re spending a bit of time with someone you care about, without a firm commitment to doing chores you won’t have the energy for.

When you reconfigure your attitude and words, you also adjust how your service to others makes you feel. Changing one simple phrase can alter your entire day (or week!) for the better.

9. Determine whether you were asked for help, or if you’re “just trying to be helpful.”

Many people take it upon themselves to be involved in other people’s lives, whether they were asked to be or not. Then they overextend themselves and despair about the fact that they do so much for other people.

This is why it’s so important to determine whether the energy you’re pouring out into the world is needed and/or wanted, rather than offered without cause. Sure, you might be eager to step in and help those who are suffering (especially when you know what can make their situation better or easier), but that doesn’t mean that it’s your job to do so.

Furthermore, stepping in to help or offering advice when it hasn’t been asked for can be a form of control or intrusion. People can be hindered from developing on their own life paths when others keep taking care of things for them.

As we established earlier, determine where your motivations are coming from. Are you eager to be of service in your community? Or do you feel that people you know aren’t making the “right” decisions, and as such it’s your duty to step up?

Also, try to determine whether you’re being so involved in other people’s lives because you feel that there’s something lacking in your own. Some people who have lost their spouses or are “empty nesters” whose children have moved out suddenly find themselves lacking purpose and direction. They’ve spent years catering to their family’s needs, and they feel lost now that there are no needs to tend to.

If this is the case, then it’s important to find your own purpose. Fill your days with things that are important to you, both in terms of engaging work and play.

Alternatively, if you’re overstepping and putting too much effort into other people’s lives, you’ll need to do some soul searching to find out why. You can also ask people flat-out whether they want help, and then accept it with grace when and if they say that they don’t.

10. Create healthy boundaries, despite potential negative feedback.

Some people really don’t realize how much they dump onto or ask of others. For instance, a friend who often deals with depression, high anxiety, or aspects associated with Borderline Personality Disorder might call or text you for emotional support on a regular basis. They might not even ask you how you’re doing at that moment, but launch into how awful they’re feeling and how much they need your energy.

You might be having the worst day ever but feel the need to help this person because you love them. As such, you feel obligated to give them the last few grains of energy you have left, even though they won’t (or can’t) give you anything in return.

If you’ve been putting other people’s needs and wants ahead of your own for a long time, chances are high that they’ve gotten used to that kind of generosity. In fact, they might even take it for granted. As a result, if you’re suddenly putting yourself first instead of being available for them on demand, you’ll likely experience a fair bit of pushback.

Expect resentment and guilt-tripping, and you’re likely to be called selfish more than a few times when you start putting your own needs first. You might even be told that you’ve changed into a person they don’t like as much anymore. This may be disheartening but hold fast to your decision to make yourself more of a priority.

Another thing to note is whether you’re actually getting negative push-back, or if you’re hypersensitive because you’re feeling guilty.

11. Determine whether you’re being sabotaged.

This isn’t a fun thing to consider, especially in terms of your closest friends and family members, but it’s important to be honest about.

Be objective in your perspective, and then determine honestly whether you think the people in your life are sabotaging your efforts to take more time to yourself.

This might come in the form of a partner who displays “strategic incompetence” by intentionally mucking up the laundry or cooking until you’re so frustrated that you take those tasks on yourself. Or an elderly parent who feigns being more helpless than they actually are to guilt you into spending more time with them.

If you find that you’re being intentionally sabotaged, it’s up to you to decide how you want to deal with that behavior. In the example above regarding mucking up laundry or cooking, you may want to tell that person that they’ll just have to wear blotchy clothes and eat burnt food until they learn how to do better.

Alternatively, if this person is a romantic partner, you can sincerely ask yourself whether you want to stay with a person who would cause you this kind of distress simply to get out of taking on their fair share of household responsibilities.

12. Find a balance that you’re comfortable with.

Just because you’re making your own needs a priority doesn’t mean that you have to give up on being of service to others! As we mentioned earlier, “acts of service” is a significant love language.

Many people who martyr themselves for other people’s benefit do so at least in part because they really love being kind to other people. This isn’t a case of selfish altruism either: they’re not being kind and generous simply because it gives them pleasure to do so. Far from it – they sincerely want to make the world a better place, and for them, the best way for them to do that is by giving of themselves.

This is where a healthy balance comes into play. You can still be immensely kind and giving towards others while still making your own needs a high priority.

Sit down, grab a pen and paper, and decide what it is that you need in life and how you want to be treated. Then make a list of the needs and wants of those around you; those whom you wish to help in terms of service to them.

If you like, objectively view your needs and desires as well as everyone else’s as a round table. View everyone at that table without filters or hierarchies. It’s just a matter of ensuring that everyone’s needs are fulfilled equally, not placing some as more or less important.

Think of this like looking at King Arthur’s table, where all knights are valued equally despite their varying strengths and abilities. At your table, everyone’s needs are honored, respected, and tended to with love… including your own.

Still not sure how to overcome years or decades of putting others first to finally live for yourself? Speak to a therapist today who can walk you through the process. Simply click here to connect with one of the experienced therapists on BetterHelp.com.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.