My Thursday to-do list included three things. (Three, by the way, is the “sweet spot” for getting stuff done. JUST THREE THINGS! Try it and see.)

The first to-do: plan my Artist Date for the week. This would be easy, I had all kinds of ideas! I’d been paying attention to what sparked my curiosity the last few days and caught myself watching our turtle, Carole Baskin (because she basks in the sun), swim around in her tank. I’d also been fascinated by the ducks, geese, and squirrels at the lake by our house. So I decided to follow my “animal instinct” and plan a solo trip to the aquarium or wild animal sanctuary.

Simple enough, right?

I pulled up the aquarium’s website and started getting excited. Colorful fish, bright coral, playful otters…there was even a scuba-diving class! Then I noticed a Homeschool Day coming up. The kids would really enjoy a trip to the aquarium, I realized with a surge of guilt. I switched gears and pulled up the wild animal sanctuary’s website. Lions and tigers and bears—oh my! But wait…the kids would really enjoy this, too. And it would be such a fun adventure to go on together.

In that quiet pre-dawn moment, the million-dollar question arose:

How would I decide which activity to do with the kids and which one to do for my Artist Date?

A lightbulb flickered on. “Of course! I’ll wait until the kids get up and ask them which one they’d rather do, then I’ll do the other one for my Artist Date.”

BAM! The realization hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. Instead of listening to what *I* wanted to do on my Artist Date, I’d buried my inner voice and personal desires under a pile of crap. That crap-pile was comprised of seemingly sparkly gems like:

  • “I don’t want to make the kids feel bad or left out.”
  • “I don’t want to abandon my family on a Saturday.”
  • “I don’t want to be SELFISH and take the best thing for myself.”
  • “I want to be a good, selfless person and a fun stepmom.”

By trying to create the identity and image I thought I should fit, I’d completely lost sight of the simple thing I’d set out to do: plan my Artist Date for the week. The real kicker: I’d done all this while the kids were still sleeping. They never would have even known the “sacrifice” I’d made for them.

Self-sacrifice vs selfishness: What lies in between?

A burst of emotion welled up, which is how I knew I was onto something important. How many times had I followed this pattern of self-sacrifice in my life and career? And how many other women and mothers were doing the same thing without even realizing it?

I’m sure it happens to men too, but I think the challenge is unique for women. In the not-so-distant past, our very livelihood depended on taking care of others. The subtle but powerful notion of self-sacrifice was engrained in me at birth, then reinforced through cultural expectations, religious beliefs, and societal rewards as I grew up.

Sure, sometimes sacrifice is a necessary part of relationships and life. But how many unnecessary sacrifices are women making simply out of fear of appearing selfish? Who are these sacrifices actually serving, and what’s the hidden cost?

At what point does our desire to be “selfless” result in actually losing ourselves?

It’s no wonder so many women end up overwhelmed, exhausted, unfulfilled, and unable to sleep at night. If the Golden Rule is to treat others the way you want to be treated, maybe the Platinum Rule should be: first, treat yourself the way you strive to treat others. (Related Post: Radical Self-Love for People Who Are Full of Shame)

Choosing me, me, me

As I sat in my living room Thursday morning, I closed my eyes and asked myself: what do I want to do for my Artist Date? The answer came back loud and clear: go to the aquarium on Saturday. I opened my eyes and looked at my husband, who had just woken up. “I have my writing group on Saturday morning, then I’m going to the aquarium by myself. I’ll be back by 4.”

“Sounds good.” He yawned and wandered into the kitchen.

I sat in shock and elation. WHAT THE HELL HAD BEEN HOLDING ME BACK? A lot of unnecessary sacrifices, that’s what. They weren’t serving anyone—and they were costing me my life.

Letting go of the urge to put others first isn’t selfish; it’s the most selfless thing we can do. Now, because I know what I need and am giving myself permission to get it, I can show up to my family and loved ones as a complete, joyous person. I can listen to my own needs AND theirs; it doesn’t have to be one or the other. But it does have to start with me.

I glanced at Carole swimming around in her tank. She glided through the water, arms and legs outstretched. I could swear I saw a smile on her face. I grinned back and bought a ticket to the aquarium. Then I got to work on the other two items on my to-do list.