Putting Yourself First
because everyone wins
Reading Patricia Volk’s lovely (and funny) memoir, Stuffed, about growing up in a big, nutty, creative family (her great-grandfather introduced pastrami to the U.S.), I started thinking about affection. This book is full of affection: for family, for food, for culture. And because HNTFUYF is (at least nominally) about beauty, I want to mention a small moment of affection Volk reveals while caring for her sister, who’s recovering from a facelift: Volk realizes she doesn’t want to mess with her own face. Why not? Because she’s fond of it; she says she thinks of her face as her friend. Which is something I’ve also experienced and continue to want for you, too, as making peace with your face, especially as you age, can deliver delicious freedom from the tyrannies of our often-damaging beauty culture.
Affection, self-compassion, well-being—suddenly I remember this Raymond Carver poem, Late Fragment:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Here’s a story, not unrelated, I wrote for O, The Oprah Magazine.
I learned the hard way how to put myself first.
Almost 35 years ago, my husband's identical twin brother killed himself. He was addicted to drugs. My husband—also addicted, I soon discovered—began a rapid descent along the same ruinous path, forsaking me and our 1-year-old son for grief's dark embrace.
I tried to help my husband, became, in fact, almost sick with trying to help him and take care of our baby and our precarious finances. Family and concerned friends phoned me constantly to find out how my husband was doing and how I was holding up. "I can handle this," I told them. "I'll be fine." And compared with my husband, I did seem fine. But the tentacles of worry that had gripped me fitfully when I first discovered his addiction now snaked around me always, tighter and tighter, choking my appetite, my sleep, and my belief that he would ever get well. I would sit up all night waiting for a phone call—from him (I hoped) or from the police (I dreaded)—and then face another full day of chasing around an active toddler. "Keep this up and you will get sick," someone said, "and then who'll take care of you?" There was no one to take care of me.
Well, yes, there was: me. And so I did, because I had to. I got help to look after the baby and started going to a support group, and once my husband was recovering in a hospital rehab, I treated myself every visiting day to a fine dinner at a nearby pub.
"I think I'll order a steak," I'd say to the baby as he sat in a plastic booster seat, sucking on his bottle. "Baked potato or mashed?" He'd kick his feet and slap the table with his chubby hands. "Good choice," I'd say. "Mashed it is."
Why is it hard for many of us to do things for ourselves before we do for others? Maybe we believe the "good" woman sacrifices herself for her family and, increasingly, for her work. "In terms of our relationships, women often feel they're responsible for everything—which is not a complete misperception," says life coach Harriette Cole. "We are the ones who usually lead the way. But somehow we get from there to the idea that the world won't work if we don't help it along."
Taking on responsibilities that might be well or even better handled by others is one of the ways we begin to lose our balance and slide down the slippery slope from generosity to martyrdom. Because women are likely to be the primary caretakers for husbands and children as well as for aging parents, we have ample opportunity to fall into the pattern of serving the people we love before we serve ourselves. But there are good reasons to be judicious about that. "If you always put someone else first, there's a tendency for others to depreciate you, to lose respect, because respect comes from an understanding that that person has her own wishes, dreams, and desires," says Ethel S. Person, author of Feeling Strong: The Achievement of Authentic Power. Besides, why must there be only one person in first place at a time? "It's possible to have equal concerns for yourself and for loved ones," says Person. "There aren't always conflicting priorities."
In fact, being skilled at taking care of yourself may improve your capacity to care for others; if you're not fulfilled, you're only able to see other people through the filter of your own needs. And studies suggest that not taking care of ourselves is unhealthy for those who depend upon us. At the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, researchers found that greater levels of caregiver stress were associated with increased respiratory problems among the infants in their charge.
I’ve read about a kind of therapy advocating that when we're stressed or suffering, we put our hand over our heart or touch our cheek as we might touch the cheek of a child we love, and say simply, "I understand." In that moment, we're accomplishing one of our greatest responsibilities; without feeling loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves, we can never really know what those feelings are.
It takes only a minute. You could even try it now.
(The memoir I wrote about my marriage is available here.)
Val Asks You
Don’t be shy! What’s your most vexing or intractable appearance issue? Send me your beauty-related questions. If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll find someone who does.