Every once in a while I get posed a question that inspires me to share it with my readers. I have been thus inspired. We’ve all heard the adage, “You can’t be anything to anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first.” While I agree with the concept, I believe it can be better described as giving self-love first, above all others. Only then can you achieve your best, and give your best to others.
Firmly rooted in the Three Essences of Leadership Zen, it’s easy to overthink this key idea. Especially in Western cultures it can be hard to grasp when thinking about the people in your life. But it doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t throw yourself into the street to save one of your children or give something up for the benefit of a spouse or partner. These are choices that we can and do make within the context of putting ourselves first, and can be more rooted in our values and our programming. Culture and society also play a part.
The Problem with Human Nature
Human beings, not unlike other creatures, respond strongly to the lessons we learn throughout our lives. With other animals it is the lessons of nature and survival, sprinkled with a little bit of instinct and genetics. We add to that culture, including what we learn from our parents, how we interact through the years with others, and our need – for most of us – to meet norms that range from societal to religious and everything in between.
We also tend to hold on to negative stimulus and allow it to dictate our future actions. For a cat, they remember when they got hurt jumping off a high counter and won’t do it again. That’s instinct more than choice. But studies have shown that something in our brains leads us to react more to negative stimulus than the good stuff and we form our actions as a result of them. If during our lives we experience some sort of trauma that diminishes our self-esteem, we are more prone to return to that programming and it can affect how we act for the rest of it. It’s natural, but it is also technically a choice because it can be fixed.
Changing the Programming
Thankfully there are answers to this problem, and they’re deeply rooted in self-love. When we talk about all the roles we play – and the pressures they can lead to – the ability to realize that we have control over the effect on us is astronomical. When we put ourselves first, we can resist those pressures by asking one question: “Does this make me feel fulfilled, meaningful, or just happy?” Forget whether you agree with the construct. We’re asked every day to conform, which usually includes a choice of “either/or” – be this or that, follow this or that, but most importantly fit in. That isn’t right because they are just labels we artificially created and hold ourselves to.
If it doesn’t make you happy, or if you don’t feel fulfilled doing it or being it, don’t. There’s nothing that can dictate who you are or what you do except yourself. To do this you have to place yourself at the highest level of your love – which in itself pushes hard against the constructs many of us exist with and in. I am not saying you necessarily need to change everything you grew up with, your values or your beliefs. I am advising you to ask the question, which will almost certainly lead to some serious internal discussions about what is right for you.
How to Start
Anyone that knows me knows that I tend to color outside of the lines. Anyone that knew me knows that, in certain areas of my life, I didn’t always even bring out the Crayons. I learned about the labels I adhered to, and I slowly discarded them. I am still working on several. I want to share four strategies that helped me do that.
- Ask that question. I can’t tell you how liberating it can be to walk out of a world in which you’re trying to succeed by living to someone else’s norms. Make the choice to love yourself highest and you start to be able to wonder why we keep making the decision to rush back to things we don’t enjoy, don’t believe in, and sometimes don’t even want.
- Recognize that everyone has an opinion, but that it doesn’t have to be yours. There is no one way to do things, no one philosophy or practice that works all the time, and there is no normal. To quote The Matrix – and I often do – “There is no spoon.” We create the spoon, and we’re constantly inundated with messages, increasingly polarizing (think either/or), that are short on facts and long on assumptions. You, and only you can create your own normal.
- Find friends. Making the decision to self-love doesn’t come easy. Leveraging the people who care for you and hopefully have made that choice themselves can help. There are lots of them, and gaining advocates and support in your journey can make it easier. I’m always available!
- Accept your imperfection, because it makes you perfect. We make mistakes, and that’s ok. Everything that makes us different, everything that doesn’t fit with our programming, is just part of that brilliant canvas that it your life. We never fail, we learn. And the only person you need to please, ultimately, is yourself.
Leadership, professional or personal, transforms. It doesn’t just manage. Being great at whatever you do starts with transforming yourself from what you’ve been programmed to do – and we all have programming. It’s nature. But nature doesn’t have to define you. Instead define how you want to exist within it, and then live it. You owe it to yourself and to everything and everyone around you. Don’t be surprised at the push back you will inevitably get; not everyone is making the same choice. Ignore the labels and the messages telling you how to think and be, and choose for yourself. That is loving yourself in the highest.
And it really isn’t selfish.
Remember – there is no spoon.