Why It's Okay—Even Essential—to Put Yourself First
Frazzled with work and family demands, Aminah Akram is always putting others first. But O life coach Martha Beck wants her new client to start focusing on another important person: herself.
As an airline ticket agent, Aminah Akram spends her workdays accommodating people who aren't exactly at their best. "I have a thick skin!" says the 48-year-old, who lives in Lilburn, Georgia. In her off-hours, she cares for her 10-year-old daughter, who's being evaluated for autism ("Her teachers love her, but she has social challenges with her peers"), and her 22-year-old son, who's in college. She also often ferries around her mother, who lives with her and doesn't drive, and her sister, who doesn't have a car.
All the demands on Aminah's time have left her depleted, depressed, and longing for a romantic partner's love and support—something she hasn't had since 2007. "I'm in the dating rut of my life," she says. "I've gone out with guys occasionally, but it's rare that I feel any spark. At this stage, I don't want to settle." Now Aminah could use some help reaching her destination—and who better than life coach Martha Beck? Let's listen to their session in part 1 of our new series.
Martha Beck: Aminah, how are you?
Aminah Akram: I'm wonderful. I'm so excited to talk to you.
MB: Likewise. I hear you're incredibly busy tending to people.
AA: It's just what I do. Now that you mention it, I need to make sure I can be done in time to get my daughter to her doctor's appointment.
MB: Yes, I also heard that you spend plenty of time in the car.
AA: I'm like an Uber driver!
MB: Could your son help?
AA: He's away at college. He does have his own car because I helped him buy it. I'm also paying for his insurance. I'm glad he's in school, but it would help if he could get a job to cover it.
MB: And you're placating people at work all day. No one gets hassled as much as the people at airport ticket counters! That makes it hard to generate the energy for romance.
AA: Yeah, I think the lack of a partner is where most of my depression comes from. Last summer I felt really bad. My mom had major back surgery, my son had knee surgery, and I'd just started the process of having my daughter screened for autism. I was overwhelmed.
MB: The situation you're in isn't one humans have evolved for. We evolved to live in groups and share responsibility for the old, the young, and the sick together. You're trying to be the village for everybody. Women, especially new moms, who care for others have to take the focus off themselves. But they can become stuck in that mode, even when their kids are older—they get more and more drained while no one really notices.
AA: You speak up and they still don't notice!
MB: Honestly, I'm glad you don't have a romantic partner yet. It's likely you'd be thanklessly meeting his needs, too. I'd rather see you step into your power and then find your mate.
AA: I've read that you attract the kind of person you are.
MB: Actually, sometimes we attract our mirror image. People who serve without thanks often wind up with selfish people who want to be cared for. Your depression is trying to get you in touch with your healthy anger so you can set boundaries.
AA: During that period when I really felt bad, I started medication and did short-term group therapy, which I loved. I'm better now, but still sometimes I just want to run away.
MB: You should leave this pattern—not by checking out of your life, but by checking in to it. That means finding the power to say no.
AA: I feel like my family situation keeps me stuck.
MB: Believe me, I'm not asking you to get rid of your family! Just try changing the old pattern by figuring out what you need and asking for it. Let's play a game. Say you stop at a gas station to go to the bathroom, and it's hideously filthy. Imagine I tell you I'm hiring you to clean it, and I'll pay you $5. How do you feel as you start to do that job?
AA: Disgusted. Resentful.
AA: Yes, anger.
MB: Good. Okay, same scenario, but I'll pay you $50. How do you feel?
AA: A little better.
MB: Are you thrilled?
MB: Okay. Now I'm telling you I'll pay $5,000.
AA: I have a smile on my face, even though it's the same repulsive place.
MB: What if it's $50,000? You'd have a song in your heart, right?
AA: [Laughs] Yes.
MB: I'm trying to show you how it feels to have different levels of reimbursement for your services. We all know that. When it comes to relationships, though, we disregard it. We're used to thankless work. But when we're offered what we're worth, that resonates inside us, physically and emotionally.
Whatever we expect from the world is what we tend to get. We need to change your expectations so you know you're a person who should and will get paid what you deserve, in whatever form—money, health, love. And we change your belief system by finding the thoughts that keep you trapped.
Let's challenge the thought I'm stuck in this situation. I'm going to use a method called The Work, which was created by the writer and teacher Byron Katie. It consists of four questions. First, I'm going to take your thought and ask, "Is that true?" You tell me whether it feels true. It usually does. Say, "I'm stuck in this situation."
AA: I'm stuck in this situation.
MB: Is that true?
MB: Now get quiet and still inside yourself, the way you might feel at night after everyone's gone to bed. Ask yourself this question as if you're tossing a penny into an endless well. Throw it into the depth of your soul and wait for an answer. The question is, can you absolutely know that you're stuck?
AA: [Pauses] No.
MB: Okay, you're onto something! Find the spot inside you where the "no" came up—the feeling that you may be heavily laden but you're not absolutely stuck. Can you feel in your physical body where that hope is?
AA: In my stomach.
MB: That's because your gut has a deeper knowledge than your mind. It doesn't get stuck in thoughts like This is what I owe my mother and my kids. Your gut's saying, "When things got bad before, I got help. I wasn't stuck." Third question: When you believe you're stuck, what does it do to you?
AA: It keeps me stuck.
MB: Can you feel that thought weighing on you? You're not trapped at this moment, but the thought overrides the present and pins you down into depression. Now the fourth question: Who would you be if you didn't have that thought? If it just disappeared and you found yourself right here?
AA: I'd feel free.
MB: And to feel free is to be free in your heart, which is where every positive change begins. To be free in your heart is to attract other people who are free and who let you be free. That's how you're gonna find the guy. Before our next session, I'd like you to take any thought that causes you suffering and go through the four questions. You can download a worksheet at thework.com. You don't need to think about changing your behavior. You're changing your mind on a very deep level, and then everything else will shift. It's like cognitive-behavioral therapy on steroids.
AA: That's what I need.
MB: You're ready for it! You're amazing.
AA: I don't feel that way, but thanks.
MB: Take that thought, I'm not amazing, and try The Work. And let's talk again in a couple of weeks.
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.