Why It's Healthy to Put Yourself First: Reduce Stress with Guilt-Free Pampering

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The Cost of Self-Denial

However, for the majority of Americans, healthy selfishness remains just out of reach. What we practice instead is self-denial, the sacrificing of our needs and desires in order to fulfill those of others. Self-denial often stems from guilt and feelings of unworthiness. It can be a hallmark of a childhood in which we may have felt fearful and powerless, our needs were disregarded or ignored, we were judged unfairly and found wanting (especially in comparison to others), and our efforts and achievements were rarely acknowledged or appreciated. Self-deniers give up their most basic needs not because they want to, but because they find it almost impossible not to. Their feelings, thoughts, and ways of coping do not stem from any shortcomings but are the results of having denied themselves for too long. The characteristic feelings, thoughts, and ways of coping among self-deniers are the exact opposite of those who have a healthy degree of selfishness. The former are typically anxious, indecisive, and sensitive to criticism, while the latter feel peaceful and content, make decisions confidently and accept constructive criticism. Self-deniers are often perfectionists who worry obsessively; their counterparts are realists who actively solve their problems.

The true cost of self-denial is high. In failing to put our own needs first, we hope or assume others will give to us as we give to them. But they don't. And an unhealthy dynamic begins: We attempt to comfort ourselves with rationalizations and to convince ourselves that others would give back if they could. We attribute their inability to overwork and other pressures and tell ourselves they're unaware that their lack of sensitivity or concern causes us pain. We may accuse ourselves of being "overly sensitive" or of "making too much of it." Finally, there are the old standby excuses that totally absolve others of all responsibility. "That's just his way," we say, then shrug and pretend to let the matter go. But we don't let it go, and our resentment of this lack of reciprocity festers within. Ongoing self-denial can lead to bouts of depression, extreme impatience, fits of rage, or unexplained tearfulness. In the grand scheme of self-denial, these warning signs likely go unheeded.

"You're making me sick!" "You're driving me crazy!" Even as you are saying the words, you may fail to hear the truth in your remarks. These are not simply random shouts of frustration, but powerfully poignant descriptions of what is happening to your body. You experience self-denial as stress -- an inevitable result when you've exhausted your time, patience, and energy. Denying your need to stop taking care of someone else may be one of the greatest stresses you can endure. Stress can lead to headaches, digestive problems, skin disorders, and insomnia. High levels of the hormones cortisol and insulin, which are associated with stress, have been shown to damage arteries and increase the body's ability to make and store fat; they also accelerate wear and tear on muscles and organs -- even bones. An increase in stress hormones has been linked to stroke, heart attacks, and cancer.

So think of it this way: Your sacrifices for the good of others may end up being far more of a sacrifice than you ever imagined. While putting your needs ahead of the demands of others can't guarantee that you'll stay well or live to your 100th birthday, a fair portion of healthy selfishness is likely to reduce the psychological and physical stress that can lead to illness. A daily dose of healthy selfishness may do more than make you feel good -- it may be just what the doctor ordered.

Continued on page 3:  Put Yourself in Control


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