“My happiness is on me; so you’re off the hook.” – Byron Katie Have you ever driven California’s spectacular Pacific Coast Highway? If so, you’re familiar with its many hairpin turns. In the day, you can see what’s ahead and adapt accordingly.
But I made a big mistake and got there at dusk. And what happened taught me a BIG lesson about the dangers of a “put other people first” default.
During the day, you can look ahead and adapt to the hairpin turns. But it was pitch black with no moon, which meant I couldn't see anything. The switchbacks kept disappearing out from underneath my headlights. I had no idea what was coming next. Left. Right. Left. Left. It felt like my brain was sloshing back and forth in my skull. I completely lost my equilibrium even though I was crawling along at 15-20 mph.
I kept telling myself, “I can do this, I can do this. Three hours from now, I’ll be safe and sound in my Morro Bay hotel room.”
Suddenly, a truck zoomed up behind me and flashed its brights. I did what I’d been taught to do growing up in a small mountain valley. I looked for the next pull-out and pulled off the road to let the driver behind me go ahead.
The problem was, the pull-out was shorter than anticipated... and gravel. I started braking. I started sliding. The harder I braked, the more I slid. I finally came to a stop a few feet from the cliff’s edge.
I sat there and shook. The truck was long gone. It was just me, the deserted road, (and I know this sounds dramatic but it's true), my realization that my lifelong default of putting other people first had just about cost me my life.
Sound familiar? Is your default, “No, you go ahead. You go first.”
If you’re a parent, caregiver or leader, this may have become your norm. You may feel it’s your responsibility to put your family, your patients, your employees first.
At what cost? Putting everyone else first and yourself last is an extreme, and any extreme is unhealthy. It causes you to lose your equilibrium. To compromise your own health. To sacrifice your own happiness. And what's worse, it teaches the people around you that you believe you don’t count, that your needs don't matter.
Is that what you want to teach? Is martyrdom the model you want to pass along?
That close call on Hwy 1 made me wonder, “Where did I learn this? How did I learn this?”
Well, as with many things, it started at home. My mom was an example of unconditional love. She was also sick the last twenty years of her life, dealing with the effects of Multiple Sclerosis (which was later discovered to have been a misdiagnosed brain tumor.)
My mom was in pain almost every day. If I put my hand anywhere near her neck, I could feel the pain waves vibrating off it. Yet, she didn’t want to be “a burden” so she soldiered on. I would ask, “Can I help with dinner, Mom? Want me to do the dishes?”
“No thanks, hon, I’ve got it.”
She rarely, if ever, talked about her illness. She didn’t want to be a “complainer.” She always wanted to know what we were doing, what was going on with our lives. She never asked for anything for herself. If we offered, she usually demurred, not wanting to “put us out.”
My mom did what she thought was the right thing, at great personal cost. What we learned from her example though was probably not what she intended.
Yes, we received and learned about unconditional love, and I will always be grateful for that.
We also learned to not ask for help or accept help. We learned to be “strong” and not share our pain. We learned that the last thing we wanted to be was a “burden.” We learned that putting other people's happiness first, and not thinking of our own, was the noble thing, the right thing, to do.
Serving others IS a noble thing. And it’s even more noble when we balance it with serving ourselves. That’s what we want to model – that we take care of ourselves while taking care of others.
How about you? Are you running on empty? Burnout is a clear sign you’re not enforcing your boundaries - or that you don’t have any boundaries. Exhaustion is an indication you are putting everyone else first – and yourself last.
Next time you’re about to say "No, you go ahead. You go first," next time you're about to take yourself out of the equation, ask yourself:
· Am I putting this person’s needs first and not even considering my own?
· Am I sacrificing what I want to give this person what s/he wants?
· Is this a one-time thing – or an ongoing pattern?
· How will this impact me in the moment and over the long term?
· Is there a way I can serve this person and myself at the same time?
· How can I take responsibility for – and speak up on behalf of – my own health and happiness?
Jack Kornfield said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
Starting today, please understand, it is not selfish to put yourself in your own story, it’s smart.
It’s not indulgent to take responsibility for your own health and happiness, it’s inspiring .
Every time you do, you show it’s possible to serve others and ourselves, and you set a precedent that gives people around you permission and inspiration to do the same.