Kindness does not always mean putting others first

Some might hold the belief that in order to be kind to others we have to put others before ourselves. I would like to challenge the validity of this belief.  


The carer 

Of course, there are some situations where it might be necessary to put others needs before our own. For instance, if we are a caregiver to someone vulnerable such as a young child or someone who is unwell there may be occasions where it is necessary to sacrifice our own needs such as sleep or time to ourselves. What we need to be aware of, is that we might get invested in the idea of being a caring person and think that we have to put our own needs last in all areas of our life.
The truth is that even if we are in a position of caring for someone else, we are better placed to do so when we look after ourselves too. If we push ourselves to the limit, we may reach burnout and then we will not be able to care for anyone else anyway. If we find ourselves in the situation where we are caring for others and we have limited resources, it is necessary to find ways of pacing ourselves, caring for ourselves and getting support where necessary.

It is appreciated that this approach may be alien to some reading this. Perhaps you have always thought that you need to do everything yourself and that it would be wrong or weak to cut yourself some slack or to speak up and say that you need help. Perhaps you may think that you would be letting others or yourself down if you showed yourself more consideration. But we do not need to break ourselves to prove that we love someone, and we can even damage those we are caring for by pushing ourselves to breaking point. In addition, if we are looking after children it is a positive thing to model self-kindness and consideration.
It is apparent that we might need to be creative about giving ourselves time and consideration when we have a full schedule as a caregiver. So, what is most helpful to you?

We are all very different but perhaps it might be:

  • getting a really early night a couple of nights a week
  • listening to an entertainingly or enriching podcast while you are doing the dishes or driving to work
  • making sure you find that 30 minutes to go for a run
  • taking time to talk to friends

If you haven’t done so already it might be worth thinking of the things that really give value in terms of increasing energy levels and wellbeing. By making sure that we care for ourselves in the process of caring for others we not only improve our own happiness and wellbeing but also our relationships with the people we care for and others in our lives.

Work, friendships and family 

If we find ourselves putting others first in all areas of our life (for instance work, friendships and our wider family), this is where we can cause ourself pain and disappointment. Not only are we denying ourselves things we want or need but over time this may lead to bitterness and issues in relationships and workplaces.
Sadly, some might think it isn’t possible to be assertive and caring at the same time. We think that by not speaking out at work, for example, that we are being kinder to others. We don’t want to rock the boat or take opportunities or appreciation away from others. The opposite is true, in fact, because unless we speak out when we have a need or there are issues, injustice or omissions, the organisation or people involved will think everything is fine and keep going on as usual until situations get worse. Letting people know our position on things and what we want can be a kindness in itself because we are being upfront and sharing information. People have the full picture and can act accordingly. Of course, speaking our mind or saying what we want or need doesn’t always get us exactly what we want but at least we have tried and at least we have the peace of mind that we have said our bit.

There's another potential issue with spending our time pleasing others rather than focussing on our agenda. Helping out or doing what we think others want isn’t always as welcome as we think it might be. Sometimes when doing things for others we may think we know what they want but actually we don’t. The only person we really know the desires of is ourselves. Doing things for others and putting others first rather than concentrating on ourself can result in others getting annoyed with us when we thought they would be happy. In these situations, we may be spendiing precious time and energy for nothing or, worse still, for an adverse reaction.

It could also be that if we were to ask friends and family what they really wanted they would say that they would like to spend quality time with us rather than watch us running ourselves ragged. By always doing things for others we may also rob them of the opportunity to do something empowering for themselves, something that they could benefit from in the long term. For instance, if there is a relative for whom we always do their online ordering, perhaps it would be a positive thing if they were able to do it for themselves. Or if we always cook for our adult child, perhaps it is time they learned to cook.
It should be acknowledged that doing things for others can help us feel good and this article isn’t about discouraging people from doing good things for each other. This is about dispersing the myth that we are a bad person if we focus on our own needs as this simply isn’t the case. There is a difference between putting others needs ahead of our own to our detriment and simply doing something kind and helpful for someone else. What might be useful, therefore, is, when we feel compelled to do something for someone else, to ask ourselves the reason for it. Is it because we feel we have to, because we always have or because we want to look compliant? Or is it because we are in a position to help and would like to do so?

Making positive changes 

Putting others first is a deeply engrained pattern for some and it can be a cause of a lot of difficulty and sadness. Some of us do this for many years without even realising we are doing it, or we may simply think it is the norm. Counselling can help to break these patterns as it raises awareness and helps us to do things differently. If this isn’t possible but you feel you are adversely affected by always putting others first, perhaps you can start to make changes by pausing before saying yes to something because you think you should or agreeing doing that annoying errand you always do. It can also be helpful to set positive and clear personal boundaries so that you can be clear with yourself and others about what you will and won’t do.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX3
Written by Beth Roberts, Integrative Counsellor and EMDR Therapist MBACP (Accred).
Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX3

I am an integrative counsellor currently working online and on the telephone. I have worked in a general counselling service, with young people and survivors of abuse. I value how unique we all are so my counselling is tailored to your personality and circumstances.

I offer daytime and evening sessions.

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