When I was growing up, my mother was the only woman in our neighborhood who worked. And I resented it. I wanted her to be like all the other mothers who stayed home. She didn’t have to work, my father made enough money to support us. She did it because she wanted to. In 1950’s suburbia, that was almost unheard of.
My mother did what many people fail to do. When it was important, she put herself first. I have worked with hundreds of people over the years as an executive coach and workshop facilitator, and many of those people find it very difficult to put themselves first even when they need to. It may be the unreasonable demands of a difficult boss, it may be failing to find time to renew oneself when faced with the multiple responsibilities of work and family, it may be limiting oneself to a job that is unsatisfying and boring, it may be avoiding an employee whose personal problems have affected their work performance. I see this behavior in successful executives as well as first line supervisors. I see it in men as well as women.
In our culture, despite the “me” generation labels, there is still a strong undercurrent of belief that it is selfish and egotistical to consider our own needs, to be clear about what we want and to make requests of others that would enrich our lives. And so we don’t. But when we consistently fail to put ourselves first, the unmet need manifests itself in dysfunctional ways. We may become resentful or angry, we may put unreasonable expectations on others that we’ve sacrificed for, we may become depressed or unproductive, or we may become sick.
So how do we buck this current? And how do we balance our needs with the legitimate needs of others? There are a number of books that have tackled this subject. I highly recommend Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication: a Language of Life, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler’s Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High, William Ury’s The Power of a Positive No, and Ron Short’s Learning in Relationships.
Each of these books tells us that a primary task is to become observers of ourselves. To pay attention to our feelings, to name them without explaining why or judging whether they are right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable. And then to identify what we want and need. To accept that want or need as legitimate. This is easily said, but very hard to do. I met with a group of trainers and coaches recently and we acknowledged we still struggle with naming needs and accepting them as legitimate. It requires conscious effort and acceptance.
It also means that our needs are as important as other’s needs. Not more important. Not less important. Equally important. That means that we may have to negotiate with someone else to get a need met. We may have to help them identify what their need is. We may have to resist their demands. And we have to resist making demands on others.
We can put ourselves first. We need to.
Plum Cluverius is an executive and leadership coaching practicing in Richmond, Virginia.