There are a lot of reasons — arguably innumerable reasons — why adulting is hard. But there is one in particular that I am often glaringly aware of, and, admittedly, sometimes struggle to fully be okay with. I didn’t say “fully accept” for a reason; because I DO accept it. I just don’t always like it. However, it’s a lesson about self love and priorities and where they intersect that I think we all need to embrace.
So what is “it?” It’s quite simple, really: it is the salient truth that you are probably no one’s first priority — and that you shouldn’t be. Because you should be your own first priority.
This can be a hard pill to swallow for people who think that someone or several someone’s lives revolve around them, or that they should. Whether you think your parent(s) should put you first or think your significant other should put you first or anyone else… I’m here to tell you that’s selfish and immature. Being an adult requires you to be accountable for yourself, and graciously accept the love and support of your village but not expect it to revolve around you. We all need our village; but we all need to be able to depend on ourselves first and others second if we are able.
So why should you be your own first priority? Because no one can (or should try to) pour from an empty cup. But damn near all of us try to. We try to meet the expectations others put upon us. We try to be so many things to so many different people. And we often lose ourselves in the shuffle. We cast aside our feelings and our wants and our needs while trying to meet those of others because we love them, care about them, or rely on the paycheck they provide to us.
By no means am I saying that you aren’t or shouldn’t be a priority to any of your loved ones, or that you should not prioritize them in your life. What I DO mean is that we would all be much better friends and family members and coworkers and partners and loved ones if we spent more time trying to cultivate the best version of ourselves and then brought that best work-in-progress version of ourselves to others. It’s hard to do that if we’re always doing for others and not spending enough time and energy doing for ourselves. And I don’t mean just putting time aside to do things you love — though you absolutely should — but also time to make you a better you. Whether that’s doing necessary emotional labor, exercise, learning new things, meditating — whatever enables you to be the best possible version of you that you are able to be at a given time. Those things won’t be the same for any two people, but I guarantee we all have plenty of room for improvement, and that that improvement starts with choosing to put ourselves first.
None of us is perfect; none of us ever will be. But I do think we owe it to ourselves and to the people in our lives to never stop trying to do and be better, and I think the best way to do that is if we make ourselves our first priority. Going back to the empty cup analogy, sure, you can pour from a half-full cup, but why would you if there can be more in there to share? I guess some people are completely fine with driving on a near-empty tank, but they’re doing their vehicle a disservice by doing that consistently. And it’s really no different in how we interact with people.
Think about having a rough day at work (the details as to why it was a rough day don’t matter; everyone’s “rough day” looks a little different). Think about being stuck in traffic on the way home. Then you get home and more frustrations await you. How do you deal with them? How do you react? Do you get angry and let the anger out? Do you take a few deep breaths and work through what does and doesn’t deserve your attention? Whatever is in the cup is what’s going to come out of it when it gets disturbed, and while we don’t often get to choose if the cup gets disturbed, we do get to choose what is in the cup in the first place. If we consistently prioritize ourselves we can be fulfilled enough and self-aware enough to not give too much of our energy to the negative.
Honestly, too often I let the the cup overflow with negative shit. I’m a mature enough and self-aware enough person to admit that part of why that happens is because I put my job and the well-being of a lot of people I care about before my own more often than I should. I focus on trying to come across as completely fine instead of focusing on actually being completely fine. I don’t think I’m some kind of fucking martyr, I just don’t want to deal with my own shit a lot of times or I don’t embrace doing things that make me happy or make me feel accomplished. And you know what? Those are flaws of mine; that’s me running around on a tank that’s emptier than it should be. Because the people I care about don’t deserve to have to deal with tired, frustrated, angry, grumpy me. They deserve patience. They deserve empathy. They deserve my best effort. And I’m not capable of giving that best effort if I spend my time and energy worrying about fixing things that aren’t mine to fix, and ignoring the things I can fix, like some of my numerous character flaws.
I am no one else’s first priority. Thinking that used to crush me. It used to be fuel to my very self-destructive fire. And I would be lying if I said it doesn’t still cause an uncomfortable twinge sometimes (because that’s just life with mental illness, my friends). Social conditioning and all those Happily Ever Afters that we — particularly women — are sold are hard to combat. But the reality is it doesn’t even make sense to want to be someone’s first priority. I am an able-bodied and moderately able-minded adult. I can and do take care of myself. If other people are able to support that, then how damn fortunate am I? But it’s not a requirement for other people to want to and work to support me in any way (not financially, not emotionally — no one’s labor or resources are free for them to give to others… I mean, kindness is free, but I’m saying no one owes us their patience and tolerance all the time, particularly if we’re refusing to help ourselves). And for me, as someone with multiple mental health issues, it’s not a good idea for me to think that I SHOULD be anyone’s first priority. That’s a recipe for disaster. That’s setting myself up for failure. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of which I want no part.
When I look back on my life, I see someone that rescued herself. There were struggles. There were trials. There were tribulations. There absolutely still are. We all have our own. That’s not to say I didn’t have A LOT of help along the way; I did and I still do. But I made it to where I am today because enough times I chose myself. I’m not saying I’m doing phenomenal in life, but for someone that shouldn’t have made it to adulthood, I’m doing pretty well for myself. And that’s only true because I chose, repeatedly, to put in the really, really uncomfortable work to try to take better care of myself and accept myself while also working on myself. All the love and support in the world from others would not have mattered if I hadn’t chosen to help myself — if I hadn’t chosen to prioritize myself first. A lot of times that meant recognizing when people or situations (whether work, social, or otherwise) were not conducive to my overall wellbeing, and choosing to walk away because that’s what I needed to do for me. That caused fights, that cost me relationships, it resulted in a lot of anguish and grief for me. But it also helped me learn a lot about what I can, should, and am willing to tolerate — and what I’m not able or willing to tolerate. No one else was going to put what I wanted or needed or how I felt first — after all, why the hell would they? So I had to.
You think your boss cares more about your mental health than meeting their budget? They don’t. You think your roommate cares more about respecting you or your stuff than doing what’s easy for them? They don’t. You think that friend that only ever reaches out when they want something genuinely cares about you? They don’t. You think your significant other who repeatedly ignores and disrespects your boundaries cares more about your needs than their wants? They don’t. And only you can decide if continuing to put their wants above your needs is something you can or should live with. Personally I say you’re only hurting yourself if you do. There are times and places for compromise, but your wellbeing ain’t it. Put yourself first, because no one else will. The other things and people that really matter can come close behind.
I’m learning to prioritize myself. It’s a long process. I’m learning that it’s really not selfish to do what I need to do for me, even if that means not doing or being what someone else that I care about wants me to do or be. I’m not good at accepting help. I’m not good at accepting support. I’m not good at accepting love. I’m REALLY good at blaming myself. I’m really good at letting the ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) win. I’m getting better at recognizing when something is problematic for me, and trying to take steps to disengage and focus on me and what I need. I’m really good at surviving. In fact I have a 100% success rate of doing just that, and that wasn’t easily done. That wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t make myself a priority sometimes. Who knows, if I did it all the time — hell, if I even just did it more often — maybe I could get better at some of those things I’m not so good at, and stop being REALLY good at some of those destructive things I shouldn’t do. Maybe one day I could even go from being really good at surviving to being good at thriving. I won’t know unless I keep trying. I won’t know unless I consistently put myself first.
Being an adult requires being able to prioritize and make healthy choices. And the reality is that one of those healthy choices is getting your priorities aligned, and that those aligned priorities should start and end with yourself. Putting yourself first is step one in building a solid foundation on which to cultivate the best version of yourself at every stage of your life. It’s a solid, healthy foundation that you deserve, and that in the end also benefits every other aspect of your life and everyone in it.
I hope you never stop loving and supporting and prioritizing the people and things that make your life infinitely better. But I also really hope that you always choose yourself first. Because you deserve the same love and support that you want — and often do — give to others.