Women are usually socialized early on in their development to please others. “Nurture,” “giving,” “sharing,” and “beauty” are traditionally held as feminine qualities; going against the grain of these ideals will get you in trouble. If you stand up for yourself and say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” “No, that’s not safe,” or “No, I’m not going to do that,” you’re easily labeled a bitch (Armstrong, et al. “‘Good Girls’: Gender, Social Class, and Slut Discourse on Campus.” Social Pscyhology Quarterly, 2014, Vol. 77(2) 100–122; Kalof, Vulnerability to sexual coercion among college women: A longitudinal study. Gender Issues, 2000, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 47–58 ; Women’sHealth.gov. “Sexual Coercion.” Strong, “Is It Rape If You Say Yes? Five Types of Sexual Coercion, Explained,” additional references listed at end**). Or if no one verbally called you that to your face, you always deal with the personal guilt of not having accommodated the people around you. As though it’s your responsibility to make other people happy? If you’re struggling with trying to please others rather than yourself, I’d encourage you to watch this video:
Tracy McMillan struggled to find the emotional connections and support she lacked in her childhood. She sought it out by investing in and marrying other people without addressing her own personal needs and growth first. Eventually she discovered that searching for care and love in other people rather than yourself would never be enough. And it makes sense, too. Nobody else has enough energy to take care of both their own adult needs and someone else’s. These are things that you have to learn to do for yourself. I call this cradling yourself or holding yourself (discussed below) – you need to do it most when you feel insecure or unworthy (Neuman, “Low Self-Esteem”; Lachmann, “10 Sources of Low Self-Esteem”; Stringfellow, “Crash Course in Confidence or Self-Esteem”; Stringfellow, “Additional Resources for Confidence Crash Course”; Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck; Harter, “Causes and Consequences of Low Self-Esteem in Children and Adolescents.” Self-Esteem, pp. 87-116.).
Why We Do It
In our Christian-influenced American culture, a major message hidden among the cultural mores is “love others, then yourself” in order to feel loved, appreciated, successful, and good. If we don’t do this, we are sinful or bad and should be shamed (Uhlmann, Sanchez-Burks, “The Implicit Legacy of American Protestantism.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 2014; Kennedy, Cohen, & Bailey. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic Advanced Placement Edition 13th Edition).
What Research Shows About Happy People
Psychological research, however, disagrees with this notion. In fact, the research shows that those who love themselves first actually have the wherewithal and the self-understanding to be able to advocate for their own needs in the context of others. The people who love themselves first also know what they need from other people and where their boundaries lie (Baumeister, “Understanding the Inner Nature of Low Self-Esteem: Uncertain, Fragile, Protective, and Conflicted.” Self-Esteem, pp. 201-218; Neff & Vonk, “Self-Compassion Versus Global Self-Esteem: Two Different Ways of Relating To Oneself”; Montgomery, “Signs That You May Need to Set Healthier Boundaries”; Kashani, et al. “Characteristics of Well Adjusted Adolescents.” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 1987. **additional references below).
The reason why boundaries are so important for healthy and happy relationships with others stems from the fact that people who have the insight to draw their own limits around what they will and won’t share with others, or what they will and won’t do with or for others will know how they actually can help others without developing resentment, anger, and feelings of overwhelm (Montgomery, “Signs That You May Need to Set Healthier Boundaries”). Understanding our own limits first and foremost and being able to say no when additional tasks or pressures arise will keep us in the driver’s seat of our lives. Being in control of what we choose to let in keeps us safe and healthy in times of stress or crisis.
These negative emotions we often feel in the presence of other people are signs that we are overextending ourselves. When we overextend ourselves, we are no longer addressing our own needs and are instead trying to appease someone else’s. We’ve extended control of ourselves into control of someone else to control our own needs. When our needs fail to be addressed by the people we care about because they are either oblivious to them or unable to fulfill them, resentment builds within us. When we exhibit frustration around our partners, resentment builds within them because they don’t understand why we are treating them badly. Eventually, we lose respect, and consequently interest, in each other. We become like landmines waiting to be stepped on. No one knows how to approach us because they don’t know if we’re going to “overreact” or “flip out.” Eruptions like this actually lead us to experience a lack of intimacy, rather than the closeness to others that we overextended ourselves to accomplish in the first place.
Learning to cradle yourself when you feel down protects you from being taken advantage of by other people. You don’t let your guard down against violators when you have clear emotional and physical boundaries between you and them. Moreover, you don’t seek after other people for the emotional cravings you experience because you have learned to healthfully and adaptively address them for yourself. When you don’t know your own boundaries, that’s when other people seeking things like coerced sexual favors will easily step in (Psychology Today, “Self-Esteem,” Stringfellow, “Crash Course in Confidence or Self-Esteem”; Stringfellow, “Additional Resources for Confidence Crash Course”; Vilhauer, “4 Ways to Stop Beating Yourself Up, Once and For All;” Kenrick, “Do You Have To Be Self-Centered To Be Self-Actualized?” Chopra, “10 Wonderful Ways To Practice Self-Love;” Khoshaba, “A Seven-Step Prescription for Self-Love”).
We’re all just children inside, pretending to be adults. Like children, we have organic and emphatic needs and wants every day. Unlike children, however, who rely on parents to satisfy these needs, we as adults must figure out how to be our own “parent.” You wouldn’t give a child two large bags of potato chips for dinner! But maybe you yourself would binge on a couple of those bags when you’re feeling particularly awful. As your own parent (keeper), you need to maintain the discipline required to satisfy your needs for emotional connection, intellectual and spiritual stimulation, diet, health and wellness, financial security, and a place to live. And you shouldn’t rely on other people to do those things for you. You have to learn to do them yourself.
The Bottom Line
So, the bottom line is, if we truly want to love others, we must first and foremost love ourselves. We can’t count on others to satisfy our needs because they have their own needs they have to satisfy first.
“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” — Buddha
**Additional References from above:
- Nosek B. A., Banaji M. R., Greenwald A. G. (2002). “Math = male, me = female, therefore math ≠ me.” J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 83, 44–59. DOI: 10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11; Kagan J. (1964). Acquisition and significance of sex-typing and sex-role identity, in Review of Child Development Research, eds Hoffman M. L., Hoffman L. W., editors. (New York, NY: Russell Sage; ), 17–43
- Ebert I. D., Steffens M. C., Kroth A. (2014). Warm, but maybe not so competent? – Contemporary implicit stereotypes of women and men in Germany. Sex Roles 70, 359–375. 10.1007/s11199-014-0369-5
- Runge T. E., Frey D., Gollwitzer P. E., Helmreich R. L., Spence J. T. (1981). Masculine (instrumental) and feminine (expressive) traits: a comparison between students in the United States and West Germany. J. Cross Cult. Psychol. 12, 142–162. 10.1177/0022022181122002
- Spence J. T., Buckner C. E. (2000). Instrumental and expressive traits, trait stereotypes, and sexist attitudes. Psychol. Women Q. 24, 44–62. 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2000.tb01021.x
- Spence J. T., Helmreich R. L., Stapp J. (1975). Ratings of self and peers on sex role attributes and their relation to self-esteem and conceptions of masculinity and femininity. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 32, 29–39. 10.1037/h0076857
- Ellis, “Ego-Identity Development and the Well-Adjusted Lesbian: Reclaiming Marcia’s Identity Status Model.” Feminism & Psychology. 2000
- Taylor, S. E., Lerner, J. S., Sherman, D. K., Sage, R. M., & McDowell, N. K. (2003). Portrait of the self-enhancer: Well adjusted and well liked or maladjusted and friendless? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(1), 165-176
- Gaertner, et al. “On Pancultural Self-Enhancement.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 2008
- Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1980). Influence of extraversion and neuroticism on subjective well-being: Happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(4), 668-678
Hannah Stringfellow is a freelance blogger and world traveler. She holds an M.S., Chemistry, from the University of California, Berkeley. Her interests include women’s empowerment, health and wellness, and cross-cultural competency.