Are you selfish if you don’t always think of others before yourself? If you are sensitive, your health and happiness depend on your answer to this question.
On Saturday mornings, my partner and I eat eggs and toast for breakfast. Then we drink tea, plan our meals for the week, and make a grocery list before heading off to Wegmans.
Wegmans, an East coast grocery chain that happens to be headquartered here in Rochester, is justly famous for both quality and exceptional customer service. It’s a satisfying place to shop. So I’m usually smiling as I leave the checkout aisle with my cart full of lovely things to eat—until my eyes land on the portrait of Robert B. Wegman by the exit.
I look at Mr. Wegman’s smiling face. I read the quotation in large white letters underneath. And I flinch. The words? “Never think of yourself, always care about others.”
This was Mr. Wegman’s personal and professional motto. He used his millions to support such a wide range of worthy causes that it’s hard to find an institution here in Rochester that hasn’t benefitted from his generosity. The company gives away millions of dollars of college scholarships every year. And it consistently earns a top-ten ranking on the Fortune 500 “Best Companies to Work For” list.
But Mr. Wegman’s motto, “Never think of yourself, always care about others”, is a terrible idea for sensitive people.
For one thing, we are already prone to think of ourselves as high-maintenance compared to “other people”—that is, compared to the majority of folks who are not highly sensitive. And it’s true: we do need to think about ourselves more than non-sensitive people do. I’m not talking about narcissistic self-absorption. I’m talking about an ongoing, concerted effort to figure out what we need to do to show up at our best each day.
What happens when we don’t think of ourselves
In the past, I’ve endured several prolonged attempts to put myself aside. I’ve ignored my own physical and emotional needs, sometimes in service of my own goals, other times in an attempt to serve others. At no time did this go well. Whenever I have failed to follow the flight attendant’s mantra— “put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others”—I have ended up watching myself, metaphorically speaking, turn blue.
In fact, my worst bout of “not thinking of myself, always caring about others” quite literally involved someone turning blue—my infant daughter, to be specific. Having been on the planet for only three days, she choked on some mucus. Her struggle was a silent one and by the time I realized what was happening, she had turned blue. After we aspirated her, she was fine. But I wasn’t. I was traumatized by thoughts of what could have happened, had I not found her when I did.
In that moment, a part of me swore a blood oath that it would not take its eyes off my daughter again, day or night. And it didn’t. This unconscious but non-negotiable decision propelled me rapidly into serious sleep deprivation, which in turn led to many months of recurrent illness. Incredibly, it didn’t even occur to me at the time to seek help for the fear that gripped me: it had simply become a part of my mental wallpaper.
My Loving Adult self—my responsible, grown-up, experienced self which knows how to attend to all my needs—was not on board when this decision was made. Instead, I was hijacked by fear. This alarming incident, and my reaction to it, provide a particularly dramatic example of the danger of serving from a hijacked place in ourselves.
And here’s the tricky thing: whether dramatic or subtle, our hijacked states are hard for us to catch, precisely because hijack entails a loss of perspective. We may serve others in an attempt to prove our worth, or to protect ourselves from judgment, or to exert control over other people or events. Whatever the object of our service, the hijacked state renders us incapable of discerning a healthy balance between serving our own needs and the needs of others.
What does “healthy balance” mean?
“Healthy balance” isn’t quite the right phrase, though. The equation shouldn’t be “my needs or your needs.” It has to be “my needs and your needs”, because one of our greatest human needs is to contribute to others. And for sensitive people in particular, serving others cannot be separated from serving our own needs. To sustain service to others, we must take responsibility for giving ourselves the care we need.
For me, sustainable self-care means a near-religious commitment to eight hours of nightly sleep. I meditate daily to keep my mind reined in and nurture my spiritual connection. I eat healthy food. I keep caffeine and alcohol to a minimum, because both substances adversely affect my sleep and my mood. I build time into my schedule for deep processing: daily walks, twice-weekly Focusing partnerships, monthly therapy, monthly body work, and regular spiritual direction.
Yes, I do all this for myself. But it would be equally accurate to state that I do all these things for others too. I want to be attentive, open, and present with the people I encounter each day. When I fail to “think of myself” and care for myself, the results remind me of a Robert Wadsworth Longfellow poem my grandmother used to recite to me:
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad, she was horrid.
When I ignore my own needs, I’m ornery, arbitrary, impatient, peremptory, and generally a first-class ass. (If you think I’m exaggerating, ask my partner.) The only good thing about those times is that once I recover, my Dr Jekyll side apologizes profusely and tries to make amends for the horrid behavior of Mr. Hyde.
In all this, I intend no criticism of Robert B. Wegman. His motto was taught to him by the nuns at his Catholic elementary school as the way to get to heaven, and he used the words “never think of yourself, always care about others” to create an exemplary life. But his interpretation couldn’t have been a literal one. If he hadn’t thought of and cared for himself, he couldn’t have lived such a long, successful life.
Regarding his final goal, I can’t speak with authority about the existence of heaven, or tell you what will get you to heaven if it does exist. But I can say from personal experience that for a sensitive person, chronic overwhelm and exhaustion are a kind of living hell.
So as long as I’m here, I’ll do whatever I can to stand sturdily on my own two feet so I can be there for others. If my portrait ever ends up on public display, I’ll inscribe it with the motto, “Always take care of yourself, so you can take care of others.” In the meantime, though, I think I’ll tell my beloved partner to inscribe my tombstone with the words, “She always put on her own oxygen mask first (except when she didn’t.)”
Thanks to Kaitlyn for the image (email@example.com)
Spotting hijack in yourself is hard to do. If you see the signs of stress in yourself that indicate you are putting aside your own needs but can’t seem to stop, contact me to schedule a complimentary 20-minute call to explore whether 1:1 sessions might support you.