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Your #1 job: taking care of yourself

It's an issue of priority, not of importance

Nurturing others, as well as the connections you share with them, holds great importance. Equally significant is self-care. Each carries its own weight in our lives.

Nonetheless, to forge the most enriching relationships with others, we must employ a mix of mindsets, frameworks, insights, and strategies. This should facilitate a harmonious balance between self-care and caring for others, resulting in mutual benefits. In other words, each interaction within the relationship should bring forth a win-win outcome, where both parties are enriched and positively impacted by the exchange.

When priorities are not needed

As long as relationships and exchanges are designed and sustained to yield mutual benefits—as perceived from all involved parties—setting priorities isn't a problem. Here are a few illustrations:


  • In the realm of commerce, a transaction between a buyer and a seller will only take place when both parties believe they'll benefit from the deal.

  • When friends spend time together, each individual feels their life is happier and enriched due to the shared experience.

  • In a parent-child relationship, both enjoy the bond they share and appreciate the mutual value it brings into their lives.

  • Similarly, a couple living and sharing responsibilities together are well aware of the value their partnership brings.


However, it's essential to remember that in times of conflict or potential disagreement, our topmost priority should be to look after our own well-being. (short-term and long-term).

  • Your friend seeks a loan from you. Would affirming their request be tantamount to ensuring your well-being and maintaining your relationship?

  • You fancy dining out while your partner prefers a quiet night in. If you agree to stay in, are you truly looking after your own interests? Would you harbor any resentment or feel like you're merely tolerating the situation? Could you devise a third alternative that caters to both your preferences?

  • You're contemplating a year-long sabbatical to globetrot, but your family finds the idea ludicrous. What's the appropriate course of action?

  • You wish to separate from your spouse who is resisting vehemently, and you're worried about the impact on your children. How can you ensure your own well-being without neglecting theirs?

  • You've requested a salary hike, which your boss has declined. What's your next move?

  • You encounter a plea to sponsor a child living in poverty in Bangladesh, offering them access to basic necessities and education. Could this act of giving bring you joy, indicating you're looking after yourself?


A multitude of apparent conflicts can be resolved by taking into account both short-term and long-term perspectives. However, even with foresight and ingenuity, you might occasionally face dilemmas where you have to decide between your well-being and others'. During these challenging times, it's crucial to muster courage and prioritize your own needs, while remembering that it's primarily the other party's responsibility to care for themselves.

Why is self-care deemed a higher priority than caring for others when it comes to making an either/or choice?

Primarily, you are the only individual to understand what's best for you, armed with unique, "local" insights that others can't access as distinctly as you can. Even if someone dedicates themselves to your care, unless you're severely incapacitated, the responsibility of your well-being can never be fully delegated.

If you choose to prioritize others' needs over your own, it will diminish your capacity to care for others in the long run. Consequently, prioritizing others in the short-term could lead to more harm to them in the future. It's like the airline safety guideline: "Secure your own mask before assisting others." Furthermore, consistently prioritizing others over ourselves can strain our relationships. We might become withdrawn, impatient, harbor resentment, or merely tolerate the relationship.

You were put in your body and mind (and not someone else's) so you would be in the best possible position to take care of yourself. No one else has that primary responsibility. It's all yours and you cannot give it away.


Why do we often struggle with prioritizing self-care?

Our world culture (I don't know of a single culture that is not included) moralizes thinking of others first as the good thing and being selfish as ethically questionable. 

Just listen to our language. Words that lionize:


Numerous words in our language laud the act of considering others: magnanimous, thoughtful, tender-hearted, caring, selfless, philanthropic, empathetic, cooperative, reliable, duty-bound, faithful, devoted, forgiving, benevolent, honest, kind, humanitarian, community-minded, open-handed, courteous, timely, honorable, self-sacrificing, unselfish, considerate, and altruistic—just to mention a few.

Words that pejoratize:

Each word in the English language that might imply prioritizing oneself over others almost always carries a negative implication. Some of these include: antisocial, arrogant, greedy, sinner, promiscuous, thief, traitor, braggart, ruthless, negligent, heartless, vain, domineering, criminal, abandoner, dishonest, unfair, insubordinate, disrespectful, egotistical, avaricious, hard-hearted, inconsiderate, intolerant, mercenary, neglectful, opportunist, possessive, self-centered, selfish, thoughtless, wasteful, and unkind, among others.

When some of my clients have expressed discomfort with my use of the term "selfish" in a positive context, I've posed a question to them, "Can you think of a single word in the English language that signifies 'concern for one's own interests' and carries a positive connotation?" Invariably, they are unable to do so. Unless I invent a new term, which I've opted not to, we must aim to reclaim the word selfish. As a side note, I've identified two English terms—self-care and self-love—that encapsulate some aspects of selfishness with a positive spin. However, we need a more encompassing term to express "having concern for one's own interests." That term, I believe, is selfishness.

This good/bad paradigm runs deep in our upbringing and culture

Even my parents, particularly my mother, were profoundly affected by this cultural narrative. In most aspects, my mother was quite adept at self-care. She would often say, "If someone labels me selfish, it doesn't faze me. However, I bristle if they accuse me of being stingy."

My mother confided in me, a few years after her divorce from my father, that she suspected she had erred in marrying him just two days post-wedding. Yet, she was a strong believer in perseverance—a trait often lauded in contrast to quitting, which is frequently stigmatized.


As a result, she remained in a loveless and unfulfilling marriage for 41 years, until she mustered unparalleled courage to walk away. She had contemplated leaving my father five years earlier, but when she disclosed her intentions to her mother, her mother implored, "Dorothy, you can't abandon him. He needs you." Fear of her mother's disapproval, and possibly that of others, kept her tethered to a miserable marriage for an additional five years.

To muster the strength to leave him, she confessed to me that she had to foster her righteousness toward him. She had to dredge up all his transgressions. Without such negative justification, she felt she'd be too sympathetic toward him. This resentment towards my father persisted till she died in 2012 at the age of 90 (my father had passed away in 1991).

Such are the consequences of being ensnared by a culture that emphasizes caring for others and looking good to others over self-interest.

Ultimately it gets down to choosing courage

Indeed, it's essential to strive for mutually beneficial relationships with everyone we interact with, even if it's with a cab driver we may never encounter again. And it stands to reason that we should invest even more in fostering such reciprocity in enduring or intimate relationships.

However, when conflicts prove insurmountable, you need to prioritize your interests—keeping both immediate and long-term consequences in mind—over those of others. Acting on this principle often demands a courageous choice.

  • Another or others may blame you or be disappointed in you. See undoing fear.

  • You may even anticipate blaming yourself (the purpose of which is to beat others to the punch). See undoing guilt.

See also 100% responsible (take 1), 100% responsible (take 2), and why are you in your body?

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