How can I put myself first in my life?
September 18, 2010 1:44 PM   Subscribe

I've always been a "fixer/problem solver/peacemaker". How do I really focus on myself instead of thinking about others?

I have always been the person who takes care of others. I can remember being very young and being the one that could figure out how to program the VCR or fix something (especially for my mom and sister, who got frustrated very easily). I've always been the one to problem solve a situation and work to bring peace and harmony to family conflicts. I sacrificed myself in my former marriage to make my ex husband happy. I'm the classic fixer. And I'm sick of it.

My therapist has asked me to set goals for myself in several areas, and I did that pretty easily. I've had the same goals in my head for a long time now (lose weight, exercise, learn new things, get involved in a social or church group) but I never take consistent action on them. I really want to make a major jump in my career that involves taking a risk, moving to a new area, and possibly going back to school. This goal excites me and gets me fired up inside. It's time to take action and put myself first for once in my life.

I have no idea how to do that. Last night I started thinking about researching doctorate programs and thinking about where I want to go. I literally got scared and my brain froze up. I began thinking about all the "what ifs"...what if I move away from a potential relationship? What if I can't afford it? What if screw this up? Exercising should be easy, but I can't get a consistent habit going and I always think about how I should be doing more or better. I also tend to make myself available for my students and say "yes" to them more than I should.

So, I'm looking for stories and advice on how to get over this hurdle in my brain. You have no idea how badly I want to put myself first and not worry about what others think or want from me, but I honestly can't picture what that feels like. Feeding into this issue is my fear of the "unknown"...I am uncomfortable with not knowing what to expect and that causes me to become paralyzed as well.

Where is this feeling of fear coming from? How can I actually put myself first in my life and (most importantly) feel comfortable about doing it? What will my life be like if I do it (this may be what I'm really struggling with)? How do you put yourself first and do things for yourself?

I promise I'm way more functional than I sound. This is stuff I've kept deeply buried for decades and it's time to deal with it once and for all. Yes, I'm in therapy...which is why this is coming to the surface and being dealt with.
posted by MultiFaceted to Human Relations (14 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Quit hesitating. Okay?


To achieve your goals, map out the direction you want to take and chunk that into smaller step by step achievable milestones. You want to go back to school, figure out what that takes (studying for entrance exam, taking exam, applying to schools etc.). Write it all out on a timeline and then focus on one particular task at a time.

If you catch yourself thinking negatively, force yourself to smile. And then friggin get to work please.

Negativity has no place in your life. Set some easy tasks, build momentum, and don't even think about looking back. This is what you've always wanted.
posted by pwally at 1:57 PM on September 18, 2010

[Friends] are thought to become better too by their activities and by improving each other; for from each other they take the mould of the characteristics they approve...
- Aristotle

You know how you help people and their lives improve and that makes you feel good and useful? You're not the only one. Ask for help. Self-improvement does not (in my opinion, can not) happen in a vacuum.

Having trouble researching doctorate programs? Sit down with someone with whom you can discuss them as you read about them, with someone who can allay your fears and remind you of the qualities you have in you that will let you succeed, the qualities which, due to your fear, you have forgotten about. Exercising? Get a gym buddy. A pain in the ass is less so when there's someone to look at and go "whoo, this sure is a pain in the ass." Plus, you'll rely on one another to make it to the gym, and your fixer attitude will improve you because you won't want to disappoint them. Not the best logic to live by, but it works in this case.

Good luck!
posted by griphus at 2:00 PM on September 18, 2010

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
— Marianne Williamson (A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles)
posted by salvia at 2:10 PM on September 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

I think you should start out by taking some smaller risks before trying to tackle applying to grad school and all the stress that that implies. I say "risks," because, speaking as some one who is still working on this herself, setting boundaries of any kind feels risky at first, but I think it's the first step of taking care of yourself. It's also a fairly concrete skill you can practice, unlike, say, the worthy but vague goal of putting yourself first.

The first part of you setting up boundaries, I think, would be for you to pick one of the activities you'd like to take on (exercise, church group) and actually carve out some space in your schedule for it. This is going to mean, probably, that you have to say "no" to some other folks--students, colleagues, whoever--who want to put their claims on your time. Say "no" to these people. See what happens. See that the universe does not collapse into itself. See that people continue to like you and be your friend even when you tell them it's your evening to go to the gym, so you can't stay to chat, work over-time, fix their vcr, whatever. You can start small--pick just one evening a week--but write it into your schedule in indelible ink (or the electronic equivalent) and start guarding that space like a mama wolf guards her babies.

Do this for long enough, and you will start to realize that a) the mental space that you've been confining yourself to as The Fixer is terribly cramped and b) that there's a lot more floor-space in your head waiting to be claimed if you are willing to be bold.

Just start pushing your self-imposed line back: start taking two evenings for yourself, start saying "no" more often. When used politely and not bitterly, "no" really is a fabulously liberating word.
posted by colfax at 2:19 PM on September 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Do you respond well to To Do lists and reminders? Because I had a ton of stuff to do last week, but I didn't start on any of it until Remember the Milk tapped me on the shoulder.

You could add a task for each day to do something nice for yourself, or to accomplish things that are important for your well-being.

For the doctorate program research, you can break down the task into sections. 1. See what 3 universities offer. 2. Contact people at the universities. 3. Eliminate one university. 4. Etc.

If you have perfectionist tendencies, you can remind yourself that it's inevitable and okay to screw up. :)
posted by dragonplayer at 2:22 PM on September 18, 2010

As another fixer who has trouble putting herself first in her own life - hi! My therapist recently started tackling some of this stuff with me, too, and so I'll pass along what I'm learning right now.

First off, you've been shouldering obligations and doing things for other people for a long time. And when you do that, you build the habit of Should. You say to yourself "i SHOULD exercise today". "I SHOULD be losing weight." "I SHOULD help out so and so." Even if you're thinking about yourself, you're framing it as an obligation.

Drop the shoulds. Start substituting them in your mind with "I would like to" or "I could". This sounds really simple, but it's a challenge. And, at least for me, it *really does* help. When I say to myself "I should exercise" it has a totally different tone than "I could go for a walk" or "I would like to play on the wiifit." Don't build more obligations for yourself - even if they're for yourSELF. Instead, work on figuring out what you want, instead of what you *should* want, or even what you think you want. When you find that, you'll find yourself getting fired up, excited and motivated. You might still be scared - different things are scary and this will be different - but the fear of change is a separate thing to tackle.

Good luck, and be kind to yourself!
posted by lriG rorriM at 2:38 PM on September 18, 2010 [12 favorites]

You are reasonably functional right now.

Let me paint another scenario.

You give and give physically, mentally, emotionally, financially until you are burned out and can't work for years.

Nobody that you've been helping puts much effort helping you in return. You barely survive with your life intact.

You finally realize that giving is a dual edge sword. It makes you feel good and you do it from your heart. Others appreciate it and you like being the nice guy/girl.

But there has to be some balance of giving and taking.

At what point of giving and forgiving is your limit?

They can't have everything and not for free anymore - that's the new rule.

Some people will take everything. Eat all the cake and leave nothing left.

There are other people in the world who deserve that cake more.

Find the right words to assert yourself. Take an assertiveness course. Easier said that done but you need to set boundaries. I still have a hard time.
posted by simpleton at 2:45 PM on September 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

simpleton: "But there has to be some balance of giving and taking. ... At what point of giving and forgiving is your limit?
They can't have everything and not for free anymore - that's the new rule.
Some people will take everything. Eat all the cake and leave nothing left.
There are other people in the world who deserve that cake more.

Quoted for truth. You deserve some of that cake.

This is a problem I face in both my work and home life; there's always a fire to put out and "by God, I have to get this done." Some of the thoughts that goes through my mind when I'm in 'firefighting' mode are things like "it's OK, there'll be some 'me time' soon" or "if I can get this done, things will calm down for a while and I can focus on my stuff." Nuh-uh. _I_ have to make the 'me time.' _I_ have to set the boundaries that will let me focus on my needs.

It's a two-way process, this being a firefighter - they ask you to do it and you accept. The thing to do is set your boundaries very clearly. Even firefighters have long chunks of time when they are Not On Call.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:12 PM on September 18, 2010

If you have trouble with boundaries, this book might be helpful.
posted by Lycaste at 7:13 PM on September 18, 2010

My friend recently wrote to me in an email "Feel free to be selfish". It made me slightly giddy and I thought "Yes! Thank you." I shouldn't need 'permission' from someone else to be selfish, but having someone else say that it was time that I was has given me some peace of mind and clarity in what I am doing at the moment. So, to you, I say "Feel free to be selfish", because I know you will use it wisely.
posted by AnnaRat at 7:52 PM on September 18, 2010

I could have posted this (well, not the part about an ex-husband.) Ultimately, you have two tasks ahead of you: figure out what you want, and go get it. It sounds like you have the first part down -- which is amazing, because that's the hard part -- so here's how I go about the second.

Make a list of the things you want to accomplish. Be as specific as you want, doesn't matter. Then, for each separate thing, figure out which ones can't be done yet because you can't take the first step. For those that you can take a first step on, write down the first step for each on a to-do list.

Now, just pick one at random. Doesn't matter which. Aim to get that one first step done. It might be big, but better if it's small and achievable. Perhaps the first step to moving to a new city is to find out what the rents are like in the area you'd need to live. Or perhaps you don't know what area you'd need to live in. Go find out. That's a nice, achievable first step.

Now, keep doing it. Small steps, written down, just take one at a time. Don't fret if you don't do one every day, but look at the list every day, and again if you're bored, and see if you can squeeze one in.
posted by davejay at 9:48 PM on September 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and on the boundaries thing: it sucks to say no, but resolve yourself to doing it, and just do it. You don't have to give an excuse -- and anyone who says "WHY NOT" is just being rude anyway -- just say "I'm sorry, I can't; I wish I could." You'll find it's easier than you think, plus later if you realize you want to help, you can easily call 'em back and say "I found a way!" whereas saying yes first and no later is MUCH harder. So that's what you aim for: no first, then yes, even if you know it's going to be yes when you say no.

And if you can't muster "no", just make "maybe" your default response. "I don't think I can, but I'll see what I can do, and I'll call you back."
posted by davejay at 9:50 PM on September 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing that helped me was to structure time to nurture myself: for example schedule gym classes instead of just a time to go to the gym. That gives me a step toward one of my goals and gives me a chunk of time when it's easier for me to say to others, "I'm afraid I can't, I am busy that night."

Another, more general thing: start thinking of yourself as a dear friend who needs your help. You would do all of these things to help a friend, so start devoting some time to your Self. And if you need an incentive, know that you can better help others when you're already in a better place yourself.
posted by ldthomps at 5:08 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Exercising should be easy, but I can't get a consistent habit going and I always think about how I should be doing more or better."

Here's a small, focused goal you might try: find at least 3 opportunities every day to praise yourself for what you DID do. "I took a 2 mile walk today. Good for me!" "I scheduled 3 visits to the gym for this week. Yay!" "I did 12 laps in the pool today. Go me!" Practice a healthy new habit to replace the habit of dismissing your own accomplishments with thoughts that none of it's ever good enough.

You might also be interested in When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. I bet your library has a copy.

"What will my life be like if I do it (this may be what I'm really struggling with)?"

Why don't you try imagining that? Maybe sit down and write it out - twice: your worst fears ("everyone ends up hating me and I die sad and alone!)" AND your best possible scenario.

I can tell you what my life has been like as I've gotten better about putting myself first: my relationships are closer because I'm not seething about having said yes when I really wanted to say no. I feel more fulfilled and calmer. I'm not sure anyone who didn't know me well would even have noticed the change in me, because of course I still say yes to plenty of things, WHEN it feels right to me. But the inner shift has been wonderful. I'm not wasting energy feeling helpless and run ragged and resentful.

"How do you put yourself first and do things for yourself?"

For me, this has two parts:

* I explicitly set aside time for myself - time to meditate, time to walk around in nature, time to read, time to doodle and brainstorm. These are appointments, just like lunches with friends and meetings with clients. They are scheduled engagements that I expect myself to keep. Simply doing that makes me more aware of my desires and needs during the rest of my week, because I've made time to be alone and listen to myself.

* I watch myself as I'm interacting with other people - especially people I have a history of putting first. I observe conversations as they unfold. Once you start doing this, you can often tell when a request is on the way, and you can start asking yourself how you REALLY want to answer. If you want to say no - to an invitation, to a request for a favor, to a question you don't feel like answering - you steel yourself and just DO it. You'll be surprised at how much it gets easier with practice.

Good luck. You CAN shift your habits, and you deserve to honor your own choices.
posted by kristi at 10:25 PM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

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