Does Putting Yourself First Pay Off?

Putting Number One first? Do you do it – without feeling selfish, or guilty?

I wasn’t raised to think about my own needs. I wasn’t raised to ignore them – not exactly. But the typical female self-care?

It was noticeably absent.

What do I mean? Oh, nothing dramatic. The occasional massage, a manicure or pedicure, an afternoon of shopping with friends. For that matter, it could be anything that offers a source of calm in a chaotic world – reading, a soak in a tub, a few days off.

And it’s always been my impression that men have an easier time of this.

Then again, I have no data, and my impression may say more about the company I keep than anything else.

Whose Needs Come First?

I’ve known men who take care of their own needs in everything from engagement of a cleaning person (“because I work long hours”), to the weekend golf game or a night out with the guys (“I work hard; don’t I deserve it?”), or mornings at the gym (“Don’t you want me in good shape for you?”).

And really, why not?

In contrast, with a few exceptions I can count on one hand, I’ve seen my women friends give too much and expect too little.

This challenge of making oneself top priority is something I’ve struggled with all my life. I’m well aware of its origins and perpetuation: a narcissistic mother, a battered sense of self (in all areas except academic), relationships (and marriage) that replicated the mother-daughter dynamic, and single parenthood which, quite simply, wore me out.

Add to that excessive pride plus stalwart work ethic, and there you have it. Me. This me. Or rather, that me I’ve moved away from.

Women Who Put Themselves Last

What if we subtract the narcissistic mother and absent spouse? Don’t we still find the “Everyone Else First” lifestyle for many women, especially those in the parenting trenches?

I’ve always been a bit admiring of men and women who put themselves first – at least, some of the time, and seemingly guilt-free. That’s hard to do when you’re a parent; harder still if you’re a solo parent and without a “village” to share the burdens.

But what if I’ve been missing the boat all these years, thinking that putting myself first was selfish? What if that theoretical selflessness not only impacts health, but long-term income?

We read and discuss the correlation between money and happiness, but what about the inverse? What about happiness, or at least psychological well-being, as enhancing our capacity to generate money?

Dollars and (Common) Sense?

In an article on, Todd Essig addresses issues of psychological well-being and its impact on income. Apparently, investing in oneself is tied to higher earnings, as he writes:

… happier people go on, many years later, to earn greater incomes.

I suppose it’s logical,  but I never equated happiness with generating higher income, or unhappiness with less than stellar financial results. And I find myself wondering if those of us who put ourselves low on the totem pole are also sabotaging our earnings potential.

Essig goes on to cite research concerning the “happiness advantage,” but more strikingly:

… There is an even larger “unhappiness disadvantage” that should be of significant concern. The authors state that:

“a profoundly unhappy adolescence is associated with an income around age 29 that is ∼30% less than average, whereas a very happy adolescence is associated with a later income that is ∼10% above average.”

Apparently, when it comes to money, pain hurts more than happiness helps.

Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later

Does it follow that if we recognize we’re in pain – or for that matter, we have an adolescent going through some sort of terrible anguish – we ought to address the issues sooner, and foot the bill – in dollars or disruption or both? And if we don’t, is it reasonable that we’ll experience the consequences (one way or another) at a later point in time?

It’s easy for me to look back on my childhood, and understand the patterns and triggers for the years that followed, and the price exacted not only in dysfunctional relationships and family conflict, but possibly – as the research cited by Essig shows – an impact to income as well, over time.

To some extent, the article is making a case for proper mental health – not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because we can (potentially) tie it to future earnings.

So isn’t it better to pay the price for dealing sooner rather than later?

Changing Priorities (and Habits)

I’ve come to understand that I gave away pieces of self in my marriage, despite working full-time throughout those years.  I also lost pieces of self to mothering – though that was more a matter of sleep-deprivation and the sheer fatigue of carrying too much on one set of shoulders – all of which, of course, had career (and income) impacts.

It was only toward the end that I was clear on this point – I was the lowest priority on everyone’s list, and most importantly – on my own.

I can’t help but see this as a woman’s issue, though I’m certain it’s more complex than that. I do wonder if it’s as much of a woman’s issue as it once was; I’d like to think the answer is no, but I have nothing other than observations of an overly “entitled” pop culture to leave me worried that segments of the population have swung to another extreme.

What fascinates me about the Forbes article is that I never considered the financial impacts of a less than Wholly Owned Self. And in that light, perhaps I can be more accepting (and less judgmental) of making time for myself when I situate my personal needs in terms of generating revenue. Putting myself first, theoretically, will pay off.

What I need, what we all may need, is to learn balance: to give to ourselves as much as we would to our partners, our children, our friends, our careers – and not feel guilty in the process.

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  1. says

    ah yes.

    we have a good friend in NYC called Cyril who is 80 and about seven years ago he said to us “I don’t do anything that doesn’t please me.”

    and now we can say the same.

    but we also realize that sometimes we can get very lost in navel-gazing so being of service to others – once we are fed, watered, cinema-ed, meditated/quietness and so on – is also helpful – but only after we have met our needs, such glorious needs as they are………a chandelier here, a piece of toast there…..a charlie sheen (true story – curious film) on a saturday morning in the dark.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I wonder if there isn’t a certain maturity level required before we realize it’s okay to say (and do) what your friend Cyril said (and does)… So glad you can say the same, tg! (And hoping I’m finally figuring this out… or at least, to the extent that reality allows it.)

      Sometimes it really can be as simple as a chandelier here, a piece of toast there… 😉

      Charlie Sheen?

  2. says

    Oh my. This is one of your posts that had me squirming in my seat uncomfortably. I have seen that putting others first has escalated enormously since I stopped working. My guilt about that says a lot about how I treat myself and what I believe has to be done to keep others happy…

  3. Curtis says

    I think this is an issue than is relevant to both genders but in different ways. Further the issue is multifaceted.

    First, you have to look after your health or you will be no good to yourself or others. Having trained my body to work on 5 hours of sleep and keep up that pace for over 20 years I can advise health issues do arise eventually. By this I mean basic health and not the massage, spa, and meditate lagniappe. I was lucky and just received a scare.

    Second, to look after others you need to look after at least the basics of your physical health, mental health and finances/work.

    Third, I think historically women believed and gave up much of themselves for their children and to support their husband, while men gave up a certain amount of themselves and their relationship with the family for their job or careers, which they often thought was primarily for the benefit and support of their family. Really when you think about this whole dynamic it is messed up, by the underpinning for the American Dream.

    Fourth, when you give up something for a loved one is it really putting someone else first? We have been told by spiritual leaders that giving makes you happy and that giving affects our brain chemistry, creating a rush known as “the Helper’s High.” It also lowers the stress hormones that cause unhappiness.

    Fifth, it seems many, especially in the U.S. we get too get too caught up in life and surviving that we forget what is important and what life is about. We lose ourselves and self-awareness. It seems like there are bumps in the road that allow us to re-examine ourselves and our lives, if so inclined. It is at this point we can re-balance our needs with those around us.

    There are many more aspects that can be discussed.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      That “helper’s high” goes far, Curtis. Some of us are very motivated by it.

      One of the other things that has changed in the past generation is the frequency of divorce, and its outcomes. The old division of labor, which you so rightly point out, no longer holds true (and has problems to start with), isn’t in force any longer. Among other things, I believe this is because none of us feel like we can count on anything (or anyone) except ourselves. Once there are children, what it takes to survive on one’s own is pretty significant, and even if there aren’t children (or divorce), it’s increasingly hard. So many are trapped (financially) – in houses they can’t sell, jobs that demand more and more for less pay / time off, or no jobs at all, trying to get through on whatever they can.

      Hard to re-balance when you’re trying to survive.

      But yes – we know that without putting ourselves first at least some of the time, our health (and sense of self) will suffer.

  4. says

    My time has freed up a lot ever since my son was old enough to start school and I’ve been wracked with guilt…it is just hard to feel good about myself when I am not preoccupied with “doing” and taking care of others (whether it is family or business). And I am ashamed to admit it, but I also found myself judging a girlfriend because she can and does take care of herself so well – staying in bed to read until noon on Saturdays (her husband takes care of their child), buying the latest fashion, always up to date on pop culture, always looking good. I think I judged her simply because she seemed to be enjoying herself so much!

    My husband does tell me often that I should get out more – find an activity. I may do this on my “child free” hours, but never on weekends. I make sure I am available on weekends and holidays and if a girlfriend (the friend who doesn’t have children) asks me out on a weekend, I will try and keep the “date” as short as possible. And I am not criticizing here but merely observing, but I’ve found that my husband as well as the husbands of my friends do not have so much trouble scheduling their “me time” on weekends when the kids are at home. My son is school-aged and more often than not he’s got his own activities/playdates during his free time but somehow it’s been ingrained in me (by my very self-sacrificing mother) that a good mother should at least be on stand-by, not off doing her own thing, at least not for more than 2 hours 😉
    I am not saying if this is good or bad, or if it is bad that our husbands, as you said, seem to have an easier time of taking care of themselves. I just don’t know. I suspect that I still have a long way to go before I can put myself first and believe that I deserve it.

  5. Curtis says

    You just gave me a great marketing idea BLW!

    Buddhist teachings on toilet paper rolls “for people on the go.”


    • BigLittleWolf says

      Oh Curtis! I love it! (But I wouldn’t be surprised if it exists already… Aren’t there crosswords on toilet paper?)

  6. says

    If your internal well is constantly in danger of running dry how will you have anything to give to anyone else? Learning to care for self is a skill we hopefully impart on our children so that they may form healthy adult relationships, we need to teach this by example, not just words.

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