We are the foundation of everything in our lives – our relationships, our decisions, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions – everything. When we meet our own important needs we enrich and enliven ourselves and all that is connected to us. On the other hand, when we are depleted and unsatisfied, it’s difficult to thrive and to have energy for the important things.
If you’re sitting there with the words in your head sounding something like, ‘Yeah, no – I’m actually great to be with when I’m exhausted and unsatisfied. Nobody can tell – so – yeah, I’m pretty good like that,’ then it might be time to give yourself some loving – in the form of a reality check. People can tell. I promise you. They can tell because the relationship feels different. You feel different. And they probably miss the ‘you’ that is vital, energised, happy and full. If you’re still not convinced, think about the relationships you have been in where the person has been depleted or dissatisfied. You might not have felt differently about the person, but the relationship might have been short of where it could have been.
Everyone has needs and when those needs aren’t met we lose balance. We lack joy and meaning. We become disconnected – from ourselves and others. We get shades of anger, frustration, sadness shame and guilt. Ultimately, when we become less than who we are capable of being – less strong, less happy, less engaged. Other than that, we’re fine.
Putting ourselves first doesn’t mean putting others last. It is an investment of energy and resources into the foundation upon which our relationships and everything we think, do and feel are built. It’s restorative, strengthening and nourishing for ourselves and for everything that is connected to us.
Nurturing Your Self:
We have to stop thinking of self-love – selfish-ness – as an option. It’s not. It’s essential. Here are some places to start.
If putting yourself first is something you’re completely unfamiliar with, it can be difficult to know where to start. When the noise of our lives is too loud, it’s difficult to know what we need. Sometimes, it is easier to be rolled around by the needs of others.
Of course, it is important to be generous, supportive, empathic and flexible – but we also need to do those for our own selves. Being self-ish is so important because being other-ish will always have its limits. There are some things that only we can give to ourselves. One of the things that get in the way of this is our habits. We humans tend to think as we’ve always thought and do as we’ve always done. Our thoughts and actions become automatic, at least until there is a reason to take a good look at them and be more deliberate.
Mindfulness changes this. Mindfulness is the act of being present with our own experience without the intrusion of future worries or old ways of thinking, being and feeling. It is being fully present with what is real and unfolding in the moment, without the intrusion of habits or old ways of being. It is a way to be fully engaged with the self in the moment. The stillness and sense of self that eventually comes from this makes it easier to notice any important needs in the ‘not met but waiting to be’ zone, that is of course if the act of mindfulness itself hasn’t already helped things along.
Not only is the act of mindfulness a wonderfully self-nurturing thing to do, it also has so many benefits that will strengthen the foundations of ourselves.
Research has shown that mindfulness can:
- Improve decision making by clearing the mind of clutter, habits and history and nurture an awareness of what is needed.
- Clear the blindspots that tend to over-rate or under-rate the flaws that can get in the way of how we feel, our life satisfaction and our relationships.
- Expand our creative thinking.
- Lower how stressed we feel and how stressed we are, by knocking down levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
- Bring on happy zzz’s by helping to fight insomnia and improve sleep.
- Change the structure of the brain in ways that improve mood and protect against mental illness.
- Make us more compassionate.
- Shorten incidence, during and severity of acute respiratory infections.
Ten minutes a day is enough to start making a difference. For anyone who thinks it’s a little too ‘zen’, it’s just breathing and noticing – and science is fully on board. The effects of mindfulness are so powerful, it’s easy to imagine that in a decade or so, the idea of ‘not practising mindfulness’ might be viewed in the same way as ‘not wearing a seatbelt’. People won’t ask why you do it, they’ll ask why you don’t (non-judgementally of course).
By being mindful of our needs, it is less likely that we will trample over the needs of others to get our important needs met. When needs are mindfully noticed, it is likely that within those is also the need to stay connected to others, to be seen in a favourable light by people who matter to us, and to not do damage.
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What you focus on is what will become powerful.
Thoughts, actions, feelings, people – let them be good ones. Every time we focus on something bad, it changes our physiology and the wiring in our brain. It’s much easier to notice the bad and be directed by that, than it is to notice the good. It’s also very normal. It’s called the the negativity bias and it’s what has kept us alive up to now. Our survival throughout the ages has depended on us being quicker to notice the bad (the sabre-toothed tiger asleep at the cave door) than the good (how cute it looks when it curls up like that).
What this means is that the bad things tend to stick and the good things tend to slide right off us. To counter this, we have to be deliberate with our experience of the good so they are able to effect our physiology, brain and state of mind and assume more influence than the bad. There are two options.
The first is to remove the bad things from our lives that draw our attention. This would be nice – so nice – but not always possible. Pity. Not to worry because there is another option. Take time out to expand the positive experience by letting it soak into you for 10-20 seconds. This is long enough to change the wiring in your brain in a positive way. One bout of 10-20 second feel-good might not make much of a difference, but over time the difference will be remarkable. The positive can be a text, a memory, the way a song makes you feel, a kiss, a chat with a friend – anything that makes you feel good. When it happens, stop, notice it, feel it and enjoy.
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Humans were meant to play. It connects, teaches and nourishes, which is why babies and children are so good at it. It’s often tempting to leave play until last. When the ‘important things’ are done, then we can play. Play is one of those ‘important things’ and has to be given its due place somewhere near the top of the list. If it’s been a while, try something that makes you laugh, something that makes you happy, or something that you used to love doing – try a team sport, a board game, going to a show, a drama group (you don’t have to be good at it), singing, cooking for fun, a picnic, throwing a frisbee or kicking a ball in the park, going to dinner, a movie, a date night, colouring your hair – anything that makes you feel lighter and happier.
Choose good people. And know that it’s okay to walk away from the ones who feel bad to be with.
Having good people around you is key to a happy, productive, fulfilled life. Ultimately, the people you have in your life is for you to decide and if there are some troublemakers there you can’t get rid of just yet (an ex who is also a co-parent, in-laws, colleagues) make sure you’re building yourself up in other ways and surrounding yourself with as many good people as you can. And it’s always okay to walk away from the ones who feel back to be with. When it comes to acts of self-love, this is one of the biggest.
Go outside – just because.
Spend time outside. Nature is healing. Be mindful of the world around you and experience it fully, with all of your senses switched on. That doesn’t have to mean being still, just being present with your mind fully engaged in the experience.
We have been conditioned to think of ‘selfish’ as something bad. It’s not. It’s important for ourselves and for the people around us. Though it’s important to be aware of the needs of others, it’s also important to be aware of our own. Unmet needs lead to a life that feels flat or disconnected. Even small changes will make a difference.
Putting yourself first sometimes, instead of staying somewhere near the bottom of your own list will strengthen you – mentally, physically and emotionally. Everything we do has an effect on our brain and our physiology. It might be in tiny, undetectable ways, but many tiny undetectable things over time eventually become something much bigger.
We owe it to ourselves and to the people around us to be the strongest, richest, most complete version of ourselves. Sometimes that will mean asking the rest of the world to wait. Looking after our own needs isn’t always easy, but when the return is a strong foundation on which to build everything that is important to us, it will always be worth it.