I learned the hard way how to put myself first.

More than 40 years ago, my husband's identical twin brother killed himself. He was addicted to drugs. My husband—also addicted, I soon discovered—began a rapid descent along the same ruinous path, forsaking me and our 1-year-old son for grief's dark embrace. I tried to help my husband, became, in fact, almost sick with trying to help him and take care of our baby and our precarious finances. Family and concerned friends phoned me constantly to find out how my husband was doing and how I was holding up. "I can handle this," I told them. "I'll be fine." And compared with my husband, I did seem fine. But the tentacles of worry that had gripped me fitfully when I first discovered his addiction now snaked around me always, tighter and tighter, choking my appetite, my sleep, and my belief that he would ever get well. I would sit up all night waiting for a phone call—from him (I hoped) or from the police (I dreaded)—and then face another full day of chasing around an active toddler. "Keep this up and you will get sick," someone said, "and then who'll take care of you?" There was no one to take care of me. Well, yes, there was: me. And so I did, because I had to. I got help to look after the baby and started going to a support group, and once my husband was recovering in a hospital rehab, I treated myself every visiting day to a fine steak dinner at a nearby pub.

"I think I'll order a steak," I'd say to the baby as he sat in a plastic booster seat, sucking on his bottle. "Baked potato or mashed?" He'd kick his feet and slap the table with his chubby hands. "Good choice," I'd say. "Mashed it is."

Why is it hard for many of us to do things for ourselves before we do for others? Maybe we believe the "good" woman sacrifices herself for her family and, increasingly, for her work. "In terms of our relationships, women often feel they're responsible for everything—which is not a complete misperception," says nationally syndicated columnnist and life coach Harriette Cole. "We are the ones who usually lead the way. But somehow we get from there to the idea that the world won't work if we don't help it along."

Taking on responsibilities that might be well or even better handled by others is one of the ways we begin to lose our balance and slide down the slippery slope from generosity to martyrdom. Because women are likely to be the primary caretakers for husbands and children as well as for aging parents, we have ample opportunity to fall into the pattern of serving the people we love before we serve ourselves. But there are good reasons to be judicious about that. "If you always put someone else first, there's a tendency for others to depreciate you, to lose respect, because respect comes from an understanding that that person has her own wishes, dreams, and desires," says Ethel S. Person, MD, author of Feeling Strong: How Power Issues Affect Our Ability to Direct Our Own Lives. Besides, why must there be only one person in first place at a time? "It's possible to have equal concerns for yourself and for loved ones," says Person. "There aren't always conflicting priorities."

In fact, being skilled at taking care of yourself may improve your capacity to care for others; if you're not fulfilled, you're only able to see other people through the filter of your own needs. And studies suggest that not taking care of ourselves is unhealthy for those who depend upon us. At the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, researchers found that greater levels of caregiver stress were associated with increased respiratory problems among the infants in their charge.

A friend who does a lot of pro bono work in addition to demanding full-time paying projects seemed to be in a debilitating cycle: She'd work till she collapsed, when she'd have to take a couple of weeks off to recuperate (during which time she lost both momentum and money), and then she'd fall back immediately into the same frenzied work routine. Because she is a brilliant woman, and kind, her family and friends often called on her expertise in matters professional and otherwise. Her appointment book looked like the diary of a Survivor contestant. Which, in a way, she was. But though she had won many hard-earned victories for other people, she herself was barely surviving. (Not incidentally, her house, quite literally, was falling down around her.) So she started to make exercise—which sometimes meant just a vigorous walk—a priority, planned her meals thoughtfully rather than eating on the run, turned off the telephone after 11 P.M. so she could get a full night's sleep, and settled in with a guy who happened to be terrific at fixing things, like leaky plumbing and loose shingles. Guess how all this affected her work: Because she is now more engaged and energetically enthusiastic, her projects are reaching (and therefore helping) more people than ever before.

I recently read about a kind of therapy advocating that when we're stressed or suffering, we put our hand over our heart or touch our cheek as we might touch the cheek of a child we love, and say simply, "I understand." In that moment, we're accomplishing one of our greatest responsibilities; without feeling loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves, we can never really know what they are.

It's the easy way to put yourself first. And it only takes a moment.


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