One of the struggles that I often see with my clients, my friends, and within myself is the balance between caring for others and caring for ourselves. The dilemma of whose-needs-come-first is one that I am intimately familiar with as an Asian American woman. Both as a woman and as an Asian American, I was taught from a young age to put the needs of others before my own as the highest virtue. It sometimes feels impossible to give to myself what I so readily give to others (e.g., time, attention, compassion, love, rest). The reasons why it is so hard to balance self-care and caring for others can include: there isn't enough time or energy to do both, I would be selfish if I focused on my needs, I don't really deserve to be cared for, and I feel loved only when I am needed. What I have learned over time is that always putting other people's needs before my own is not a sustainable way to live and it is the fastest way to reach burn out, resentment, and the ending of a relationship. In this blog post, I want to present a different way of thinking about this struggle. Instead of framing it as an impossible and unending dilemma, it might be helpful to see it as a stage of growth and development that is very normal and very human.
Dr. Carol Gilligan, a famous a psychologist best known for her work on gender, proposed a model of moral development that can provide some insight into this struggle. Her model of moral development included three stages. In the first stage, the individual is focused mainly on self-interests and survival as their moral compass. In the second stage, the individual transitions from focusing on themselves to caring for others and values selflessness as the highest morality. In the third stage, the individual comes to the conclusion that caring for the others does not have to come at the cost of harming oneself.
I now see the struggle to prioritize self-care vs. caring for others as a valuable, albeit painful, period of growth for people who identify as givers, healers, and fixers.
Although Dr. Gilligan's model was created for women, I think this applies to people of all genders. I now see the struggle to prioritize self-care vs. caring for others as a valuable, albeit painful, period of growth for people who identify as givers, healers, and fixers. Eventually, with some deep self-reflection, vulnerability, courage, and support from others (friends, family, therapists), people can reach the third stage. In my own growth and development, I have come to a place where I genuinely believe that I deserve to be care for. I am not doing anyone any favors by being selfless all the time and therefore burnt out and resentful. Although I still fall back into prioritizing others over myself at times, I am much better at recognizing when I do and reminding myself that I matter too.
Do you struggle with prioritizing others' needs before your own? How do you balance taking care of others with taking care of yourself?
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