Putting yourself first: selfishness or self-preservation?

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I’m a people pleaser. I’m nice. I like making people happy, and I genuinely enjoy being kind, compassionate, and helpful to others. I’m empathetic and hate to see anyone sad or upset, and I feel intense pangs of guilt for any negative feelings that I’m responsible for. It’s what led me to study Human Development and Family Studies so that I can pursue a career in human services and help people to the fullest extent of my capabilities, and it’s what motivates me to spread at least a little positivity and kindness every day. Being nice is nice.

But there came a point in my life, after living most of it stifled by the ceaseless need to please, that I had to be selfish. I had a choice: I could either be selfish, or risk my own well-being.

Until about two weeks ago, I hadn’t seen my father in three years. Not necessarily because I didn’t want to, but not because he left without a trace, not because he wanted nothing to do with me, and not because I couldn’t see him if that’s what I had wanted to do, either. I stopped talking to my dad during my freshman year of college because after years of being dragged down and hurt and burdened with the responsibility of taking care of someone who never took care of me, I needed to look out for myself for once. I needed to take care of myself before anyone else for the first time in my life, and I couldn’t do that if I had to take care of a mentally ill, alcoholic, emotionally manipulative middle-aged man who hadn’t contributed anything meaningful or positive to my physical, emotional, or financial well-being in over a decade.

My decision to start being more selfish happened in an instant like a flash of light and clarity, when my phone lit up with too-familiar caller ID, and it occurred to me that I had a choice not to play these games anymore, in which I was responsible for placating someone who just wanted someone to rant to in manic paranoia for hours on end. I was little more than one of the few ears left that would even listen after everyone else had been pushed away long ago for the same reasons, and if I answered the phone but couldn’t stay on the line for hours, I was told that I was selfish and a bad daughter. If I didn’t answer, I would get long voicemails to the same effect that I was terrified to even open.

I had stopped enjoying my father’s company years before, when all of my efforts to lift his spirits failed, and no one could reason with him that any job would probably be better than collecting unemployment and burdening my grandmother by taking up a permanent residency on her couch. I dreaded those court mandated “every-other-weekends”, stopped believing that he was really trying to be a father, and stopped believing that he would ever change somewhere between his third inpatient stay in rehab and the thirtieth or so time he tried and failed to quit smoking his daily 1+ packs of cigarettes. He refused medication because he was convinced that he was misdiagnosed as bipolar, he drank ruthlessly with myself and my little sister around, and offered no apologies for the financial burden he’d placed on my mom’s back, a single mother of three who had unwittingly gotten herself into yet another emotionally abusive marriage after divorcing my dad.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a father who supports you and looks out for you and is there to pick you up when you fall down, rather than dragging you down to his depths. I don’t know what it’s like to have a single happy memory with your father and I don’t know what it’s like to feel grateful on Father’s Day and have someone to celebrate it with. I don’t know what it’s like to have two stable parents who love each other and care what happens to you when you’re thrust out in the world with no one to lean on. It became apparent to me that my father didn’t plan on ever being there for me or supporting me, which should have been apparent years earlier when he would say things like “I can’t wait until you grow up and make a lot of money and I can come live with you”. I was never asked if I was okay, in the years I struggled with depression and anxiety alone and wondered what I could do to convince my dad to at least try to live and to function in the world.

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Even in my own depressed state struggling to cling to any shred of positivity and happiness in my life and sinking deeper and deeper every day, I answered phone calls during my first semester at college, even when I was drowning, and played the doting parent to my father. I tried to help, tried to fix what no one could, listened attentively and offered whatever shreds of life advice a depressed and socially awkward 18-year-old with no friends could. It never occurred to me that this wasn’t how a parent-child relationship was supposed to work. It never occurred to me that I didn’t deserve this or that I shouldn’t be the one sacrificing my own well-being to make the one person on earth who should have supported me no matter what happy.

I was unselfish and utterly lost.

At some point or another in that haze of days I spent either sleeping or taking cold medicine to make myself sleep because it was preferable to being awake, it occurred to me: I was breaking down slowly from this tremendous pressure, day after day beholden to someone who hadn’t done a thing for me in a decade, but maybe there was another option, something I always wished I could do but was never brave enough or confident enough to do. And in that brilliant flash of clarity one day, looking at that lit up phone screen when I didn’t want to answer the phone because I was studying for an exam, I realized that I did have a choice. My life was my own. I was 18-years-old and I didn’t have to take care of my parent anymore. There was another option.

That other option was putting myself first. The other option was being “selfish”, and doing what would make ME happy, rather than trying so desperately to make other people happy who, in the end, didn’t much care whether I was happy or not. I had voiced my unhappiness and the way that I felt all throughout my upbringing, and was constantly met with my grief being minimized and not taken seriously because my parents’ unhappiness was all-important. Maybe it was time to look out for myself, to do what I wanted to do, to be the one person that sticks up for me and takes care of me. Maybe it was time I stopped trying to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders and stop taking on everyone else’s sadness and strife and worries and grief on top of my own. I can’t shut off the part of myself that genuinely cares about others’ happiness, but I had to learn to be selfish and separate that guilt from my own pursuit of happiness. And it really, truly saved me.

If someone or something is taking more from your life than they contribute to it, consider not making room for the negativity. Consider putting yourself first. If someone other than yourself is costing you your happiness and well-being, ask yourself why you allow that to happen, and what you can do to change the situation.

For me, after I told my dad that I wouldn’t be able to talk for awhile because it was too much while I was trying to fix myself and that I really wanted him to focus on getting better and think about why he’s alienated so many people, I felt liberated. A lot happened after making that decision to make me feel certain that I had made the right choice and absolutely did what was best for me. I won’t get into all that right now, but I will say that from that moment on I slowly, gradually built up my confidence, started living for myself rather than others, began building a life that I wanted to live, and started focusing less on pleasing others and more on bolstering my own happiness and wholeness and well-being.

I’m the perfect storm of my mother’s anxiety and my father’s depression, and I’ve worked hard to be the happy, positive person that I am today, but that took a lot of effort, and a heck of a lot of putting myself first and taking care of myself before anyone else.

When I saw him for the first time in years a couple weeks ago, I was struck by how much I had changed for the better; how much I had grown, how much happier and how much more independent I was… and how much he hadn’t changed, how heartbreakingly the same he was, still living with his parents, still without a job, still unaware of how much his actions hurt and dragged down people who cared about him. Maybe it was selfish of me to seek distance from an important but toxic person in my life, but I call it self-preservation. It occurred to me that if I never learned how to be independent and to live for myself and do things on my own to better the quality of my life, my story could be remarkably different right now.

YouΒ areΒ entitled to your best life. You are entitled to happiness. Don’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of that.

 

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