Look after yourself

Some people cause problems for themselves and for others by simply ‘looking out for number one’ – that is, putting themselves, first, second and last. One of the problems with this approach to life is that it contributes to a vicious circle. The more self-centred people are, the more they contribute to other people feeling shunned, disregarded and even disrespected. While being treated like that may spur some people to be even more considerate to, and supportive of, others to counterbalance the negative experience they have had, that is not always the result. For many people there is a danger that other people’s selfishness and the negative consequences it brings lead them to withdraw into themselves, to adopt the attitude of: ‘Well, if other people are not going to consider my needs, why should I consider theirs? This is an example of a ‘category error’. ‘They’ becomes extended from ‘selfish, inconsiderate people’ (‘they’ don’t consider my needs’) to all people (so I will not consider ‘their’ needs). A specific category (selfish people) has now been extended to include people in general.

However, referring to this as a category error gives the impression that it is a rational matter, an error in thinking. In reality, though, it is more of an emotional response. It is more about feelings than thoughts. Being self-centred can be seen as a form of emotional protection: if I don’t get involved in other people’s concerns, they can’t hurt me. This is similar to the emotional ‘thick skin’ that people develop when they become burnt out, when they shut themselves off emotionally.

The other side of the coin, though, is when people are not self-centred enough, when they neglect their own needs – perhaps because they are anxious about being seen as selfish or inconsiderate. The technical term for this is being ‘other directed’ – that is, you focus first and foremost on other people’s needs. While in many ways this is a noble and positive thing to do, it is not without risks.

If we put other people’s needs first and last, we may end up neglecting our own needs. History is full of examples of people who created major problems for themselves (and for others) by not ensuring that their own needs were met. For example, I have met parents who have made themselves ill by sacrificing their own needs for the needs of their children – but their children then suffer as a result of one of both of their parents being ill.

What it boils down to, then, is that you will be ill-equipped to help others meet their needs if you are not attending to your own needs. I had a colleague once who gave up her job because she could no longer sustain the pressure of addressing other people’s needs while paying no attention to her own. The longer she remained in the job, the more convinced she was that she was heading for a ‘breakdown’. In addition, when I was a manager I had to work closely with one team member to make sure that she did not burn out because she had developed a dangerous habit of ignoring her own needs.

Looking after yourself is not about being selfish. Being selfish is a matter of focusing on your own needs at the expense of other people’s needs; looking after yourself is about making sure that you are in a strong, safe and healthy position to help others. The two things are entirely different, so we need to make sure that we are not falling into the (sadly all-too-common) trap of shying away from our own needs because we are falsely equating focusing on our own needs with being selfish. At times the price we can pay for making this mistake can be very high indeed.

Don’t disempower yourself

There are some people who can be so insensitive, dismissive and even abusive towards others that they have the effect of disempowering them, by which I mean putting them down, taking the wind out of their sails and undermining their confidence. This is bad enough, but what I have also noticed over the years is that there are just as many people – if not more – who do that to themselves. And that is what I mean by ‘self-disempowerment’. There appears to be no shortage of people who disparage themselves and undermine themselves (for example, through what is known as ‘negative self-talk’, such as telling yourself: ‘I can’t’ before you have even tried).

Sometimes this can be linked to depression. For example, people who are depressed are often unduly harsh towards themselves. Many times in my career I have found myself having a discussion with someone struggling with depression that involved basically trying to get the message across that, if they were being as harsh on other people as they are on themselves, they would consider themselves to be quite an unpleasant person. It is as if they are turning their frustrations inwards upon themselves.

Sometimes it can be linked to anxiety. If I tell myself I can’t do something, I don’t have to face up to the possibility of failure – or so it may seem. In reality, I am guaranteeing failure by not trying, but if I tell myself I can’t do it, then I don’t have to take the risk. In a way, it’s a form of bad faith, trying to deceive ourselves into seeing the situation in a way that appears less risky or threatening.

But very often it has nothing to do with either depression or anxiety – it is just a pattern of behaviour (and thought and feeling) that we have developed. This may be a response to how other people treat us – if enough people tell us we can’t, we soon start believing we can’t. Or there may be 101 other reason for how this state of affairs has come about. One thing that is likely to be common across the board, though, is negativity – self-disempowerment is characterised by a tendency towards negativity, defeatism and even cynicism.

But, what is most important is that we should recognise that it doesn’t have to be this way. What has been learned can be unlearned, anxieties can be conquered and depression can be relieved in the right circumstances. Self-esteem is a concept that is often overused and oversimplified, but this is a situation in which it is very relevant. If we don’t have at least a basic level of self-worth and self-respect, we will struggle to get past negativity.

This does not mean that there are easy answers or magic solutions, but it does mean that, if you are prone to self-disempowering tendencies there are steps you can take – you don’t have to resign yourself to it and write yourself off by saying ‘I can’t help it; it’s the way I am’ or ‘It’s my nature’. These are just other ways of disempowering ourselves. Similarly, if you are involved in supporting others who are prone to self-disempowerment, you can take heart in knowing that it is not an impossible task.

Some people oversimplify the matter by just urging people to ‘Be positive’. To someone who has developed self-disempowering ways of operating, that’s not likely to mean much to them. What can be more helpful is recognising what can be controlled and taking steps to control it. That way, you can try to move from ‘I can’t’ to ‘Oh, I did!’. The concept of tentative confidence can be helpful. ‘Consolidated‘ confidence is when you are able to say to yourself: ‘I know I can do this’, because you know you have done it before – your confidence comes from learning from experience. To reach this stage we need to start by saying: ‘I don’t know whether I can do this, but I’m going to have a damn good try!’. In that way tentative confidence can be a stepping stone to consolidated confidence – we can go from strength to strength, provided that we don’t write ourselves off before we even start.