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Why Do Women Find It So Difficult to Put Themselves First?

06/22/2015 03:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Recently I discussed with a friend of mine why we find it so excruciatingly difficult to put our needs first, especially when it comes to our family. My friend said that if her mother needs her, she will rush to her side, even if her mother hasn't asked for help. She said that she feels super responsible for her mother's wellbeing and happiness, and if she doesn't respond when she knows her mother needs her, she feels terribly guilty. And it isn't just with her mother that my friend drops whatever she is doing and rushes in to help. She does this with her friends as well.

I understand my friend's behavior. I too have a tendency to drop whatever I am doing and help someone out, especially when it comes to my adult children. Both my friend and I have a long history of over-accommodating other people's needs and under-accommodating our own, even when we know that we are neglecting ourselves, and we know that we will feel stressed because we have not done the work we intended to do.

Why is this? Why do my friend and I have this built-in tendency to put ourselves last? And why is this theme so prevalent in the work I do with mothers and daughters? My friend and I, and my clients are intelligent, accomplished women. We should know better, but somehow, when the call comes from our mothers, adult children, family members and friends, the conversation that asks what we need, and what is right and best for us gets pushed aside. Other people's needs override our own because they somehow ring more loudly in our ears, and feel more important in our hearts.

One reason why this happens for so many women is that we come from a long generational female history where women's needs have been deliberately silenced and denied by sexism and patriarchy. My friend and I, and many of my clients, come from families where what our mothers and grandmothers needed was not inquired after or honored. The language that asked women what they felt and needed was not spoken in our mother's and grandmother's day. And because this emotional language is missing, our mothers and grandmothers did not learn how to speak it. They did not know how to ask themselves what they felt and needed, and they did not know how to teach their daughters how to honor their own feelings and needs.

The other reason why this is happening is because of what I call "The Culture of Female Service." This is an umbrella term I use to cover all the cultural beliefs that we have about how females are the nurturing gender, and that it is a woman's role and duty to care-for and nurture their family and community, without needing care in return. This mindset has created the above generational pattern of women's unacknowledged needs. It has created a pattern of self-neglect that our mothers and grandmothers learned to tolerate and normalize, because they did not know anything different.

It is sexist to treat women as if they have no emotional needs, and expect them to over-accommodate other people's needs and under-accommodate their own. But even though it is sexist and wrong, this attitude is widespread throughout the world. It is so ingrained in our psyche and entwined in religious doctrines that we often do not recognize the damage it inflicts on our emotional wellbeing, empowerment, equality and mother-daughter relationships. In my friend's family and my own, this belief forms the norm of how women are viewed. And if we dare to say no and do not come when we are needed, we are treated by our family as being selfish and a bad, neglectful daughter.

Families like ours do not recognize that women have needs of their own. They do not see the juggling act women perform as they balance their own needs with other people's needs and expectations. They do not recognize that it is sexist and emotionally neglectful to expect women to sideline themselves. But when you grow up in a family where women's needs are not voiced or recognized, you do not learn how to recognize or voice your own. You become too comfortable with being last on your to-do list, and you learn to tolerate relationships in which you don't matter. And when you are called on to help out, your generational imprinting kicks in hard, even though at some level you know that you are neglecting yourself and you are in a relationship that is emotionally neglectful of you.

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