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How to Avoid Putting Your Needs Second
Pamela D. Wilson - Caregiver Subject Matter Expert Pamela D. Wilson - Caregiver Subject Matter Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Denver, CO
Wednesday, November 30, 2022


The Caring Generation® – Episode 155 November 30, 2022.  Learn how to avoid putting your needs second in caregiving relationships without feeling guilty. Caregiving expert Pamela D Wilson shares tips about how to stop overgiving and take care of yourself while caring for someone else. 

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Ever wonder how to avoid putting your needs second in caregiving relationships? When putting yourself second, there are many factors and elements that result from gender expectations, cultural norms, workplace beliefs, individual experiences, and personal needs, values, desires, and dreams.

So there are no easy answers to why putting yourself second happens, but there are solutions. Time and willingness to change are important factors.

What to Do When Family Caregivers Come in Second

When caregivers place relationships on a pedestal, their needs often take a back seat. What questions can you ask to learn why deprioritizing what you want in life happens and how to change this dynamic.

Because when caregivers constantly do for others, they give away opportunities to create lives, dreams, hopes, and relationships.

How Habits of Aging Parents Affect Caregivers

Are you a caregiver for an aging parent who has a behavior habit that sends your emotions skyrocketing? If so, this issue repeats and repeats and repeats, even though you have made it clear that you no longer want to be involved or can’t solve the problem.

You didn’t create the problem but you’ve become a victim of a parent crying wolf or constantly needing attention. In this case, let’s say that the repeated issue is alcohol addiction.

When mom or dad drinks, they become angry and mean, don’t eat, forget to take their medications, and blame you for everything that isn’t right in their life. As the caregiver, you feel unappreciated, resentful, and conflicted about what to do.

You want to be done with caregiving. But others tell you that caring for aging parents is a family obligation. So instead, you feel stuck in an impossible situation even though you realize that you can choose.

Having choices mean having power, freedom, and responsibility to make decisions and live with the consequences. But what prevents caregivers from making different choices about relationships that are emotionally draining?

  • Not having enough information causes delays in making choices
  • Feeling overwhelmed with daily activities
  • Fear of change and the corresponding consequences
  • Hesitation to make others unhappy if changes you make affect them

How to Avoid Putting Your Needs Second in Caregiving Relationships

The first step to avoid putting your needs second is to recognize that you are doing for everyone else and not for yourself. Wanting to do what you want by placing others second may make you feel guilty.

How do situations arise that make family caregivers feel guilty for wanting to make their needs a priority? If you are a woman, there may be beliefs or behavior patterns in your family where women put the needs of others first. You may have watched your mother spend all her time working to fulfill your father’s needs and care for the family.

So the idea of doing for others may be part of your life, beginning as a child, and that becomes a behavioral pattern in adulthood. Cultural family beliefs where expectations that family takes care of family can lead to adult children caregivers feeling overburdened by parents who expect to live in the same household and be financially supported in old age.

Breaking Free from the Expectations of Others

This collectivist view passes caregiving responsibilities down from generation to generation. Breaking free can result in separating from family relationships and becoming the black sheep of the family.

There are also beliefs learned in life situations. For example, a workplace culture that focuses on the idea of hard work.

Some professions, like doctors and attorneys, require a lot of working hours and availability 24/7 for patients or clients. Unfortunately, these work demands translate to marriages, family relationships, and personal lives coming in second or third to the required effort it takes to succeed.

Similarly, there are other relationships where family caregivers—desiring to be helpful—continually say yes to requests and find themselves working 24/7 with no additional financial reward. As a result, caregivers sacrifice or trade parts of their lives.

Family caregivers eventually become physically or emotionally burned out and resentful when putting needs second in caregiving relationships. How to avoid putting your needs second in caregiving relationships also relates to overgiving.

Caregivers Can Become Overgivers

Overgiving means to give up, surrender or relinquish control to others. It can also be a sign of codependency—which is a need to please others.

Being a caring or generous person is one thing. Overgiving takes being helpful to a new level because there is usually an underlying intention or expectation.

Overgiving means giving because you think or hope others— like aging parents or siblings– will appreciate your actions. Overgiving can help you feel good about yourself and may result from moral obligations or social responsibility.

For example, being helpful can be a person’s way of saying, “I love you.” On the other hand, overgiving can come from wanting to feel valued or needed.

Overgiving becomes a bartering relationship where the giver wants attention or recognition for their efforts. This type of overgiving can be personally damaging when thoughts of “after all I’ve done for you” mean that the giver expects the receiver to owe them in some way. Owe them, love. Owe them appreciation.

Sometimes people overgive because they lack self-esteem or fear loss. Overgiving can be an addictive behavior. What are signs you might be an overgiver?

  • Hoping for a return of what you give
  • An extreme desire to be appreciated or loved
  • Giving to feel good about yourself
  • A desire to be seen as indispensable meaning that no one else is capable of being the caregiver so you have to do it all
  • Believing that giving will make you feel less guilty

Giving and Expecting Something in Return

avoid putting yourself secondAn example of overgiving is finding rewards to encourage people to spend time with you. You pay for meals or entertainment, or maybe you always offer to drive because you have a reliable car.

Friends or acquaintances get used to you paying and giving because you never ask them to reciprocate. An unrealistic expectation might be set specific to participation rules for this relationship.

As the constant giver, you fear friends won’t want to be around you anymore if you stop giving. What would happen if you lose your job and can’t keep paying or driving?

Will these friends empathize, take you out to dinner and pay, and be supportive? If not, the relationship is not reciprocal but superficial and built on a rocky foundation because there was no expectation or discussion about equal investment or participation.

The Unintended Consequences of Overgiving or Being on the Receiving End

Relationships should not be tied to giving and expecting something in return but mutual expectations. For example, let’s link overgiving to a parent inviting a son or daughter to live with them.

Mom or dad are motivated by receiving care, so they say, “it’s okay. You don’t need to work. I will pay all the bills.” Instead of discussing expectations or asking questions you jump in with both feel and give up your job.

The question to be asked should be “mom or dad, why are you willing to do this for me?” What do you expect in return for this offer?

Moving in with a parent to care for them and not have to work to earn money can sound like a dream if you don’t have a job you love. That is until you realize you are 100% dependent on a parent for financial support.

Realize that you will be working for free. Mom or dad owns your life and your schedule.

Receiving Can Lead to Resentment

Aging parents may be the ones who say, “after all, I’ve given you,” when you want to spend time with friends or get a job. Parents can become over givers when they feel vulnerable and fearful about needing care.

So then, what happens when you no longer want to be the caregiver? You leave.

An elderly parent feels abandoned. Do you feel guilty? How to avoid putting your needs second in a caregiving relationship can relate to emotionally accepting life’s realities.

By this, I mean finding emotional acceptance about a parent being sick, needing more care than you can provide, and eventually dying. So you help mom or dad make a plan for their care and involve them in the decision even though they may not want the change.

There are other situations where aging parents have mental health disorders or addictions. Caregivers do more and more because they fear criticism.

Early Parent-Child Relationships Impact Caregiving Relationships

These behaviors can relate to parent-child relationships. Children may have felt criticized or struggled to do more and more to make their parents happy. So you may have compensated by becoming overachievers in the hopes parents would be proud of your accomplishments.

Caregivers can be life-long overachievers seeking approval from elderly parents—even though they live independent lives. On the other hand, some caregivers go above and beyond to care for parents because they fear something terrible will happen.

As a result, caregivers take on more responsibilities than is practical for anyone to manage. When caregivers do too much, they can become resentful or angry, especially when watching siblings, who are not caring for aging parents, go on with their lives.

Who Were You Before Becoming a Caregiver?

The role of a caregiver can take over a life so much that caregivers forget the person they were before becoming a caregiver. Caregivers in overdrive may not be able to remember their needs, dreams, or desires because they are constantly going.

Are you experiencing any of these situations or feelings? If so, you may be putting yourself last.

Taking steps to put yourself first without feeling guilty involves planning, initiating, and creating change. Unfortunately, most people—especially elderly parents with expectations of their caregivers—dislike change.

When caregivers are stressed and focusing on how to survive the next 24 hours—oh if I can only get through this life will be better or easier, the brain shuts off and reacts. This brain drain is why caregivers become impatient or forget to complete important tasks.

So how do you stop putting aging parents and others ahead of your needs?

Questions to Ask About How to Avoid Putting Your Needs Second

If you are a caregiver who feels last on the list for getting the things you want out of life, ask yourself these questions.

  • How much of your time and your life do you own?
  • Do other people and activities consume much of your time and brain power?

If you are a live-in caregiver for an elderly parent, you probably own very little of your life. As we go through life, we lose parts of ourselves because of desiring to fit into social groups at school or work or make other people happy.

  • What makes you feel good or bad?

Caring for an aging parent who is critical, ungrateful, or disrespectful may not feel good. But, on the other hand, there might be a great personal reward in caring for an appreciative parent you love even though you are giving up a lot.

If you didn’t have a close or positive relationship with a parent when you were young, you might be a caregiver due to a sense of duty or obligation. This generally may not feel good, but you have peace of mind that you are helping a parent get the care they need and live safely.

  • Are you putting your energy into positive or negative activities that contribute to happiness and well-being?
  • How can happiness or contentment in daily life result from the use of energy?

Positive activities include education, evaluating information to make good care decisions, exercising, socializing, self-care related to health, and focusing on achieving personal or career goals. Activities that take away from life include feeling stressed, always running behind, feeling angry about a lack of accomplishments, or being irritated with family members.

Changing Overgiving Habits

How to avoid putting your needs second in caregiving relationships means reducing the stress that results from realizing that you don’t want to be the caregiver anymore. Surviving each day becomes so much of a priority that you feel unable to identify your needs as a caregiver.

  • What hobbies or interests do you participate in that are only for you?

Many caregivers would respond to that question with “none.” However, when you give all of yourself to work and caring for your family there is no time for self-care, enjoyable activities, sleeping or eating.

All of these “lacks” negatively affect brain function and health. Part of changing the activities we prioritize in life relates to becoming accountable for our choices.

Self-Sacrifice Can Be Emotionally and Physically Draining

Stressed caregivers lack the emotional and brain energy necessary to solve problems. Instead, time may be committed to drinking, drugs, overeating, shopping, self-isolation, and feeling depressed which are self-destructive behaviors.

These activities can distract you from the problem that remains to be solved. You want to focus on yourself.

Changing your relationship with the role of caregiving you designed may not be easy. In this case, it can be admitting that the choices you made resulted in the current unsatisfactory situation.

Making different choices can be challenging and hurt others. Hurting others is a behavior caregivers want to avoid.

So instead of hurting others, caregivers hurt themselves by sacrificing their lives to help others. Moving forward takes gaining insight into why actions occur and choosing to do something differently.

Shifting Habits to Prioritize Caregiver Needs

avoid putting your needs secondChanging is better than staying in an unequal relationship that drains your emotional and physical health. When caregivers stand up for their needs, they can be shamed by others which results in feeling guilty.

Getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable is a requirement to avoid putting your needs second in caregiving relationships. Shame and guilt relate to other emotions like pain, sadness, or anger.

Dealing with emotions and personal change can feel like climbing a mountain. So instead of solving their problems, caregivers throw themselves into a project that serves as a distraction. This project may be caring for aging parents.

Worry Can Result in Overwork

Caregivers can become overcontrolling out of fear that a parent’s health will worsen. Aging and chronic disease contribute to declines when parents get older that may be manageable but are unlikely to improve.

If your parent has numerous health conditions, the best you can expect to manage them. Going backward may not be possible.

If so, you may be trying to tell a parent how to live by controlling their daily activities. This seems odd when creating routines for parents can be a positive activity to support health and well-being.

Our earlier conversation about paying for activities to motivate others falls in place here. A parent may be trying to please a caregiver, so they participate in activities but respond with resentment, anger, or criticism because they feel stuck in a corner.

If parents don’t participate, you won’t help them. More steps to avoid putting your needs second in caregiving relationships combine the idea of exerting emotional and self-control.

The more you concentrate on how you respond to situations and what you can do versus life throwing you curves and people doing things to you, the better you will feel. When you believe you have more choices—and begin making them—you distance yourself from fighting to survive and focusing on all the parts of life you’ve lost.

Fighting for Survival

Think of survival this way. When you have to survive you might make choices that you would never make if life was easy.

You may stay in an abusive or harmful relationship or continue to live 24/7 with an aging parent because you feel there are no other options. But when you move from fight and flight to being thoughtful about your actions, you choose to become more aware of why things happen and take responsibility for identifying your participation and patterns.

By realizing that behaviors are not helpful and deciding you are ready to change, you move your attention and energy from negative to positive. The stage between survival and change can be difficult.

Confronting your feelings and experiencing pain happens at some point so you can move forward. You may experience teary episodes or emotional breakdowns while alone in the bathroom or sitting in your car, where you feel safe because no one sees how you feel.

Can Change Really Be That Awful?

Readying for change involves thinking about losses. What you believe you will give up can be horrible or not so bad.

What are you willing to give up to create the life you desire? Creating the life of your dreams may mean learning how to reintegrate into the life you left behind by unpacking the emotional baggage you no longer need.

You leave behind the drama of old situations and people that were emotionally draining. Initiating change may mean forward and backward movement.

How often have you made progress toward a goal only to revert to old behaviors that make you feel comfortable or that you know how to manage? Recognizing this possibility makes it easier to take one step back and another step forward.

Taking care of yourself while caring for others means learning to be alone and establishing a foundation as a person with needs, desires, dreams, and hopes. Initially, this may mean learning to do things by yourself that might feel scary.

Is It Time to Begin Putting Your Needs First?

So how do you start putting your needs first in caregiving relationships? Decide you are ready for change and commit to putting in the effort.

Value your needs, create priorities, a plan, and a timeline to hold yourself accountable. Then announce the changes you will make.

Because until you say “no, it’s time for a change,” the elderly parent or a spouse you care for will think that everything is okay. Family members, including your siblings, have gotten used to you being available and taking care of everything.

You’ve made it easy for everyone else to go on with their lives. You threw out the floatable lifesaver, and they jumped on for the ride.

Now that you want to change the comfortable situation, mom, dad, husband, and wife are unhappy. Your actions created expectations. Their comfort zone is being disrupted.

It might feel like their life is unraveling as well as yours when you pull apart the situation you created. Remember that you didn’t do this alone.

Others accepted what you had to offer and got comfortable, never thinking that the situation might change because you did not set expectations or boundaries about activities or time frames. A lack of discussing expectations often happens because you didn’t realize the importance of having an exit plan for your life.

Eliminate Thoughts and Behaviors That No Longer Serve You

Caregivers have difficulty talking about their needs and asking for help. For this reason, many caregivers are stuck putting needs second in caregiving relationships.

Change is about awareness and taking responsibility for actions instead of blaming others. You begin controlling your thought and emotions. You eliminate thoughts and behaviors that no longer benefit you.

How to avoid putting your needs second in caregiving relationships means committing to love and care for you. Gratitude is an effective replacement for anger.

Acknowledging participation in life situations is a path to change. Don’t allow criticism or the opinions of family members, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers to make you doubt that you are worthy of having a good life—you are.

family caregiver support programsWhen you believe that you have a lot of life in front of you and remain positive you will realize that you are a wonderful person who has accomplished great things in caring for a loved one. But now it’s time for a change.

It’s time for you. Find peace in the actions you will take to avoid putting your needs second in caregiving relationships. Be inspired by the new world you are about to explore.

Looking For Help Caring for Elderly Parents? Find the Information Including Step-by-Step Processes in Pamela’s Online Program.

©2022 Pamela D. Wilson All Rights Reserved

About Pamela Wilson

PAMELA D. WILSON, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA helps caregivers and aging adults solve caregiving problems and manage caregiving needs through online programs, live support groups, and an extensive caregiving library that includes articles, podcasts, videos, and webinars.

   Check Out Podcast Replays of The Caring Generation® Radio Program for Caregivers and Aging Adults HERE

Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, CG, CSA is an international caregiver subject matter expert, advocate, and speaker. More than 20 years of experience as a direct service provider in the roles of a court-appointed guardian, power of attorney, and care manager led to programs supporting family caregivers and aging adults who want to be proactive about health, well-being, and caregiving. Wilson provides online and on-site education and caregiver support for caregivers, consumer groups, and corporations worldwide. She may be reached at +1 303-810-1816 or through her website.


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