Why women put themselves last - and what to do about it

Woman working with family beside her
June 28, 2021

Do you have a tendency to put your needs, let alone your wants, last? See to your children, your job, your partner, your parents before you consider yourself? If you do, you’re not alone. I’m not suggesting always putting yourself first – that’s being selfish. But why do you put yourself last? 

Well, one reason is historical, and relates to societal perceptions. It’s only very recently that women gained any form of equality in western society, and if you are considered a ‘second class’ citizen, it’s only natural to put others before yourself. This is an insidious attitude, and we may even be promulgating it ourselves. Do you treat your daughter differently from your son because they are female, or because they are a different person? Do you expect (or even prefer) a person in a place of authority (doctor, police, clergy, CEO, your boss etc) to be male? Do you consider some roles to be ‘male’ and others to be ‘female’? If we are going to correct this perception, we need to be very careful with our own attitudes and actions.
Secondly, many of us spend our time caring for others – children, partners, parents, customers, etc. Putting others needs ahead of your own is an essential part of caring for them, and it is easy for this to become the pattern for your whole life. There are genuine evolutionary biological reasons for putting others first, too. For example, putting the needs of children first is about continuing the species, passing the ‘better’ food to males reflects their greater calorific need, particularly when their role was to hunt and protect.
And it may also be that, due to the influences around you, both personal and societal, you don’t value yourself sufficiently.
So what can you do about it? Well, pass on the message that gender does not need to define our roles, show that you value yourself and others, and make sure there are times when you come first. Some of these ideas may help:
  1. Share chores equally with your partner, doing what you’re each best at and flouting gender stereotypes if that’s what works for you.
  2. Encourage your children to do their share of chores – and make sure allocating these doesn’t reinforce stereotypes (this has lots of benefits in the long term, including more time for you!)
  3. Follow your interests, and encourage others to do so, irrespective of whether ‘society’ considers that ‘appropriate’ for their gender.
  4. Block out ‘me’ time, and ‘partner’ time and ‘children’ time etc in your diary just like any work appointment and stick to it (and make sure they do, too). You and they are just as valuable as that client/boss/colleague.
  5. Require punctuality (and be punctual yourself). Being late shows that a person considers something else more important than the appointment. And don’t allow interruptions in blocked out time – that just tells the person you’re with they are unimportant.
  6. Make sure everyone gets a turn. When I was a kid, on holiday with my family, we each got to pick what we did on one day of the holiday, and we had to participate in the other choices without complaining.
  7. Don’t fill your children’s lives with too many activities. It eats up your time and they need to learn to occupy themselves (answer “Mum, I’m bored,” by allocating chores – it works a treat). 
  8. Find time for you. This doesn’t have to be alone ‘me’ time (although it can be), but a time when your choices come first. 
Some of this may require you to free up busy time, so think about what you actually spend your time on. What don’t you need to do? Prioritise what’s important (people) over what isn’t (things). But my best tip for freeing up time is to pay someone else to do part or all of your least favourite chore. By working a couple of extra hours a week at a job I loved, I could afford to pay for three hours of cleaning (which I hate) and ended up with an extra hour free.
Rachel Livermore is a freelance financial modeller, who has benefited from flexible and home working for many years. In her spare time she writes and publishes romantic fantasy fiction under the pen name Rachel J Bonner.
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