If you'd Like to see the intro to this series - please click here to see part one
Many people struggle to prioritize themselves in their daily lives, whether that’s because they feel obligations towards their career, their children, their partner, really anything that other people need them for. It’s normal – because it’s caught up in what makes us happy. Many of us feel happy when we are needed. So it’s natural that when time is of the essence and we’re faced with a choice; we will spend that time on someone else. I think it’s almost common knowledge now that this can lead to stress burnout, in anyone, and particularly women. Dr Libby Weaver has drawn attention to this trend with her book Rushing Women’s Syndrome. She says; “Never before in my work have I witnessed so many females in a mad rush to do everything and be all things to all people” (Dr Libby Weaver – Rushing Women’s Syndrome).
When you add this very common personality type to someone with chronic illness – prioritizing one’s self becomes an even more careful balancing act. Most of us have a very specific set of actives we know we can achieve in a day. Some of us are still working this out and dealing with frequent crashes and changes in symptoms. And then there’s the ever-changing nature of chronic illness I’ve talked about in previous posts. Sometimes, any one of us could just wake up and our plans are out the window.
We all have people we feel a responsibility to. Whether that’s a boss at work, or family members. It could be long-time friend. Many of us have rich online community connections we feel a responsibility towards.
To add to the struggle: these people can often be demanding. Not always on purpose, sometimes they just forget our limitations. Others have limited patience for the way we have to live our lives. With some people, often those we are closest to, it can be a little bit of both.
For me – I have made the mistake of prioritizing other people over myself to my detriment many times. Often it’s little things, like accompanying my partner to run errands when I know I’m too tired.
I think the biggest thing I have done for someone else which really wore me down was staying in a job and working with people who were too rigid to adjust workplace patterns to fit my needs. I have touched on this topic in a previous post so I won’t go into too much of the story.
The essence is that for possibly a full year – I stayed in this job for the sole reason that I knew my boss was having a difficult time, and I would cause her added stress by leaving and giving her the task of replacing me. Whether it sounds over-confident or not, I knew I wasn’t going to be an easy person to replace. I just happened to be a personality with a particular skill set that fit really well there. And so even though I was pushing myself almost to breaking point every day – I kept going to work. In a place where I was pushed too hard, emotionally bullied, treated like I was ‘less’.
My health suffered. I was putting other people before myself to the point where I was not able to care for myself. There was no time and no energy for self-care. Worst of all – it was completely thankless.
I was zombie-walking through life like a half-asleep robot because everything I had; I was putting into a job that I had lost all love for. All my energy; I was giving to people who didn’t appreciate me. And when I got home, I had nothing left for the people who mattered. What kind of life is that? The decision to leave was fraught with complication and guilt, and it was hard. But 1 year on, I am happier. I am living my life on my terms.
I asked some of my online friends from New Zealand’s wonderful Ehlers-Danlos support group what their experience was with struggling to prioritize themselves. This is what they had to say.
Jennifer Said: “At my core I've always viewed myself as the person that would do anything for the people I care about…Within the last week, someone I love so much has been in hospital and ordinarily I would have gone to ED with her... Instead I needed to stay home while she went to ED and only managed half days at the hospital before my exhaustion and pain got to much to handle. She’s having a medical procedure next week to which I would have ordinarily been at the hospital the whole time.
…I'm so appreciative that she's the person who knows me best and understands that I just can't be there as much as I would have even a year ago but it's still so frustrating…
I still want to be that person that people can rely on regardless and it hurts that I can't do that anymore.”
Phoebe said: “This is an ongoing point of discussion when I see my therapist. I feel obliged constantly to help friends and family out and it’s difficult because they can’t see why I wouldn’t be able to do it (no matter how many times I explain it to them).
Sometimes it’s the little things which are the hardest to say no to because, well, they’re small - like my mum asking me to make her a cup of tea mere hours after I’d had surgery or being asked to get out of bed to let the dog out even though they’re standing right there.
I’ve learned that being able to say no is so important when it comes to chronic illness - it doesn’t have to be rude, but it does have to set a clear boundary. If you reinforce those boundaries, you’re more likely to eventually get a positive outcome.”
All of us have one thing in common – we have felt conflicted about choosing what we needed over someone else. But in the end – I think the moral of the story is clear. Prioritizing other people when you have a finite amount of energy to spread over each day of your life will never help anyone. In the end – nobody wins. As someone with chronic illness it’s impossible to please everyone. Some people are just never going to understand the limitations we have to live with, and we need to try to make peace with that.
But we do have it in our power to choose. Choose what we do for each person in our lives each day. Say no sometimes and be confident in the fact that we are doing this so that we can stay ‘on our feet’ – for lack of a better phrase. Try to develop enough self-assurance that you need to make these decisions so that your well-being is protected, and know that’s just as important as the favor or social event that you might have had to cancel. The job you had to leave.
As with every process of learning to cope with chronic illness – it’s not an easy one. The act of moving from being conflicted about where and how to spend your energy; to being self-assured in filling your own tank first is like climbing a mountain in your mind. There’s so much in the way, so many obstacles in the shape of obligation, guilt, self-doubt and fear. But I believe we can all get to a place where we have enough respect for ourselves that we can reach the top of this mountain. If I can do it, you can.
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