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Learning to Put Yourself First

Written By Leandra Lehmann

  • healthy boundaries,
  • mental health,
  • saying no,
  • self love,
  • self-care
Woman looking upset at her desk

Credit: Jason Weiss for Fredi

Learning how to put yourself first means: If it doesn’t serve you, say no or leave.

As a licensed therapist, you might think I have boundaries mastered, and for awhile I wouldn’t have argued with that. It took several years of my boundaries being constantly challenged in HR at a startup, to realize that I can’t be everything for everyone. And that I can’t make everyone happy. And that others’ perceiving my saying no as bossy or bitchy is not my problem, and their feelings are not my responsibility.

It took taking work calls at 10pm, staying at work late ensuring peak commute times, missing lunch breaks to go on errands for the team, and being pushed into an undesirable role, to realize I barely had any boundaries left! So, I left.

But only after my sleep, health, happiness and sense of competency had all been impacted. Why did I ignore my friends, my intuition, and signs from my body? Because 1. I was worried how my leave would impact the team, who I cared deeply for and 2. I was worried about how I would be perceived (would they think I’m selfish?)

"Others’ perceiving my saying no as bossy or bitchy is not my problem, and their feelings are not my responsibility."

As women, our worth and value historically have been synonymous with our capacity to care and put our needs aside. Our saying no may leave us with feelings of guilt and inadequacy, or with the fear we could be perceived as bossy or mean.

Setting boundaries can be incredibly difficult! So what do you do?

  1. Get honest with yourself.

    Ask yourself, "does this serve me?" "does this make me feel good, competent, powerful?"
    If it or they don't, girl, make that courageous departure so you can be available for the people and opportunities that will will serve you.

  2. Get confident in saying "no"

    ...and be prepared to handle (or walk away from) the frustration (and likely meltdown) of others not used to not getting what they want from you and other women. Push those double standards aside like the boss you are.

  3. Get clear on your expectations and values.

    ...and do not compromise for anyone else's. Reconnecting with my values intentionally helped me clarify my purpose and decision to return to the mental health field (which I am feeling stoked about!).

  4. Create environments conducive to self care.

    We are living in overstimulating times and tech flooded workplaces. Invest time and/or money in designing relaxing spaces (with candles, organization, aromatherapy) and know this is self love. You are making a home that welcomes you in and accepts you as you are (and that might help others too as a plus!). After leaving my job, decluttering my physical space helped me declutter my mind, creating mental space to navigate the ambiguity ahead.

  5. Spent more time learning about your needs

    Once you understand them, carve out time to get them met, and practice mindfulness. These moments of pause to connect with yourself, are the rest stops on your life road-trip that ensure you are taking the right road for you, and not completely changing course for others.

  6. Trust your intuition.

    You know you best.

  7. Love up your body!

    Since intuition often has to do with the body’s signs, get in touch with your body. Stretch, go to yoga, hike, sweat, take time to lather lotion on or invest in feel-good body products. Feeling strong physically will help you feel strong enough emotionally to say no when you need to.

  8. Get support from people who know you— and will say "no" with you.

    Say what you want out loud to those who know your worth and who will hold you accountable. Borrow their strength.

  9. Challenge feelings of guilt and societal expectations.

    Reframe time spent on yourself. Know that self-love is self-less NOT selfish and that it is everyone-serving, NOT self-serving.

Ultimately, my efforts to care for others in my job, compromised that same care- because I was not the strongest, energized, powerful woman I could be.

"Self-love is self-less NOT selfish and that it is everyone-serving, NOT self-serving."

Remember what helps you, usually helps others too. A more patient mom, sister, wife, or employee full of self-love has more resources to care for others abundantly. Your practice of self-care and boundaries will model to others that they are worthy and deserving of self-care too.

Leandra Lehmann

Leandra Lehmann is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist and Art Therapist who believes creativity, mindfulness, physical health, community connection and self compassion are critical to promoting holistic healing. Her extensive community-based work with families and caregivers, and time as Head of People Ops in a start-up, informs her diverse interests which include trauma, social justice, women’s rights, stress management, self-care, and relationship building. She also draws from her experiences as a Third-Culture Kid from the Philippines and her passion for travel.