Why we need to put ourselves first sometimes

There’s a lot to be said for treating yourself – especially when you feel you don’t deserve it.

Wow! Gather round! That’s it, nice and close. Something just hit me with the force of a cartoon anvil.

You know how we hear so much about special snowflakes and hipsters and privileged people feeling they’re unique, and thus entitled to respect, excellent bite-sized snacks and a beautiful life? The people of whatever tribe – from mono-grammed velvet slippers to vegans – who suffer from entitled-itis? You’ve heard the lament: stop thinking you’re all that. Get down from your flying white unicorns and learn to schlep along like the rest of us.

Well, what if – bold thought – there are quite a lot of us who actually have the opposite problem? We don’t feel we have the right to ever have a single ride on the flying unicorn, even if it bends down and beckons us to hop on and go for a spin, just for fun.

What if you’re the one who always picks the Harrogate toffee flavour no one wants, the carton of yoghurt that’s just past its use-by date, or the house that isn’t even from an era you like? What if you’re the one who feels you don’t deserve to have what you want, no matter how hard you work for it?

This is a little like Burnt Chop Syndrome, when you – the mama, usually – give yourself the charred portion, because well, someone has to have it. But I think it’s more than that.

Cinderella Story

Remember that famously misquoted quote, often ascribed to Nelson Mandela but actually written by spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your choosing the burnt chop does not serve the world.”

I changed that last sentence, but you get the gist.

Why do we do this? Maybe it’s because of the stories we tell ourselves.

Yes, I know life is not a fairytale. (If you lose your shoe at midnight, you’re drunk.) But just like the storybooks, some of us have already given ourselves the role of marked child, an outcast. In this narrative, you’re not the princess. You’re never going to go to the ball and you’ll never get to be the apple of your lover’s eye. So you don’t try. You just despair. Some people describe depression as “a disorder of power”. With no power to get what you want, you become like one of those disconsolate rats in a lab experiment. You give up. You’re never going to get a pellet, so why bother pushing the lever at all?

It’s not that hard to see how this happens. As a child, on a typical birthday I received a thesaurus when I asked for a bikini. I love ‘thesauruses’ – thesauri? Must look that up – but still. Now I’m a grown-up and can buy my own bikini, if I want to. Lamé, with sparkles and feathers. Or Lonely. Slutty or dirty. What the hell.

Surely sometimes you have a right to get what you crave, your heart’s desire, not just what’s good for you? So why is it even when we can treat ourselves like princesses, like stars, we don’t? We deny ourselves, we choose to be less, we don’t want the limelight or the fun. Bikini? I’ll have a book instead.

Kidding Yourself

This also sounds a bit like imposter syndrome. But it’s more like being an imposter to yourself. There’s part of yourself you cannot see as worthy of the best.

For those of us with this syndrome, we don’t feel entitled at all.

Those copywriters know a thing or two: “Because you’re worth it.” Except sometimes we don’t think we are worth it. What if, as a child, you never felt like you came first when it mattered, and so later on, now it’s all up to you, you don’t know how to put yourself first?

Of course like anything, it’s a paradox, and some people with this sense of unworthiness go in the other direction. (Kingsley Amis: “I want more than my share before anyone else has had any.”)

Embracing life

But in my case, I never thought I deserved to have a white wedding – have my father give me away to my own husband, do a dance in front of my friends, make them cry or any of that normal happily-ever-after stuff.

The thought of ‘having it all’ made me uncomfortable, so I’d sneer at it, mostly.

“Bourgeois white-picket-fence types,” I liked to scoff, especially at wholesome people who liked staying home, who gardened – couples who felt they were allowed to partake in the conventional joys of everyday life. I didn’t feel like I deserved to have the ordinary pleasures of life, so I’d deride others who dared to partake. “Normal people” – pah!

I don’t spit at them anymore. These days, I like normal things too. Recently I went and bought myself some proper made-to-stay-outside furniture of a kind that not so long ago, I wouldn’t have felt entitled to own. One of those comfy swinging chairs, and a coffee table for outside, some geraniums in pots, hibiscuses (hibisci? Must look it up) and gardenias, and palms, and a watering can, and… sheesh, now I’m one of those white-picket-fence people. Strangely, I like it.

Even better, I increasingly see, especially in other women of my age, a feeling they can choose to matter to themselves. That it’s not too late.

I see women reinventing themselves, getting braces, having surgery, going back to university, windsurfing, embarking on life-changing adventures. They seem to have asked themselves the question: “Is there a life I’ve always imagined for myself in the future? I should start living it now!”

In my case, I’m throwing myself a fancy 50th birthday party this year. Yes, it’s in a beautiful restaurant with chandeliers. Yes, I could probably spend the money on something more worthy. Or maybe, just maybe, I am worthy. My dad won’t be there, but maybe I will have a dance, and make my friends cry. And if any of the chops are sooty, baby, you can bet I’m not going to be the martyr who eats them.

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