Most people love their families. Would do anything for them. Especially when we’re talking about parents and their children. It’s hard-wired into us. Our family is our tribe and we are bound together by our shared DNA. When our ancient ancestors roamed the earth, life was about nothing more than simply surviving from one day to the next. The bond of family was essential to that survival. Putting the well-being of the family ahead of anything else was a crucial survival strategy because twenty thousand years ago, the individual was only as strong as the tribe. But life today is a bit more complicated. Modern advancements have made it so that we don’t have to wake up every morning wondering if we’re going to eat today, or if our shelter is going to be destroyed in a rainstorm, or if our young ones might be snatched up by a vicious predator. Yet the concept of putting family first is still ingrained in the very fabric of our genetic makeup. Today the question becomes, is it always best to put family first?
Caroline always puts family first. It is the guiding principle of her life. In high school she tried out for all the school plays and she ran on the track team. She didn’t enjoy running and she was terrified of performing in front of people, but her father had been the star of his high school track team and her mother loved the theater, so she wanted to make them proud. After college, she put the idea of graduate school on pause when she got pregnant with Brad. There would be time to go back and finish later. But when Brad started kindergarten and Caroline started toying with the idea of going back to get her Master’s Degree in art history, she got pregnant with Angie and decided the degree would have to wait.
By the time Angie started school it had been ten years since Caroline finished college and the idea of going back for a graduate degree seemed like an idea from another lifetime. After all, she was a mother now. The children were her number one priority. The notion of being an art curator seemed kind of silly by comparison. So Caroline poured her life into the family. And not just her children. Her husband, her own parents, her sister and two brothers and their children. She made it her purpose to see that the members of her family were prosperous, fulfilled and living their best lives.
Throughout their school years, Caroline made sure to sit down every evening with Brad and Angie and help them with their homework. Sometimes, well, most of the time really, she did the work for them. She didn’t want their grades to suffer, after all. She didn’t want them to experience that humiliation. And both of them graduated high school at the top of their class. So she was dumbfounded when they went off to college and immediately began to struggle with their studies. Both of them ended up on academic probation by the end of the first semester. And when she encouraged them to try harder, the kids got angry with her. The nerve!
For years Caroline made herself the organizer and host for all the holiday get-togethers. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, all the birthdays. She cooked the turkeys, ordered the Honey Baked hams, managed the secret Santa gift exchange, directed the Easter egg hunt. One year, while the kids were home for the holiday break, Angie came down with the flu. Caroline wouldn’t be able to host the Christmas dinner that year. And she was flabbergasted at first, then downright pissed off, when no one else stepped up to the plate and offered their home for the holiday. Did she have to do everything herself?
I could on and on, fill pages with examples of Caroline putting family first only to either be met with resentment from others or feeling resentment herself. Her marriage suffered, her relationships with her siblings became strained, her children were helpless losers who probably couldn’t keep a goldfish alive let alone manage their own lives. And more than anything, despite all her efforts, Caroline felt hollow, unfulfilled. Like there was always something missing. So what was going on here? The quick answer lies in the very principle by which Caroline has been living her life: putting family first.
Family first is a phrase that most of us are probably familiar with. It’s one of those things that’s not only considered a principle by which to live our lives but also a virtue. When I typed “putting family first” into Google, the screen filled with results like, “6 Ways To Put Your Family First This Year” and “Putting Family First Leads To Success” and “Here’s To The Husbands Who Put Family First”. Scrolling through the page it seemed that the answer to every one of life’s problems was simply to put family first. But there was one result that jumped out at me. The title was “What Can You Do If Your Partner Puts Their Family First?” So which is it? Should we put our family first, or put our partner first? Should we put our family first but demand that our partner not put their family first? Maybe we should put our partner’s family first. It all seems a bit confusing.
Now I’m going to say something that may seem controversial: We shouldn’t put anyone other than ourselves first.
What?! Are you out of your mind, Joey? Do you want to create a world of selfish, narcissistic assholes? No, of course not. Putting yourself first is neither selfish nor narcissistic. Addressing those personality traits is another discussion entirely. Putting yourself first simply means defining your experience of life for yourself and not trying to define the experience of others. When we take on the responsibility for how other people live their lives, we open a can of worms that’s very hard to close again.
As a teenager, Caroline put pleasing her parents ahead of her own wants and desires. She participated in activities that she didn’t care about, or even actively disliked, because she wanted to make them happy. When she had her own children, she denied herself the career she wanted because she continued the pattern that she developed with her parents. She thought she was living by a noble principle called “putting family first” but, because she had never created a vision of life for herself, she was actually living for her family. And that ultimately breeds resentment.
You can’t live your life for other people, not for your family, not even for your own children. In fact, it’s the children who end up taking the brunt of the harm, usually in one of two ways: You might smother them while trying to manage every moment of their lives and crippling them emotionally, or they become the focus of your anger and resentment, constantly being reminded how you “gave up everything” for them. Either way, it’s the kids, the very people you’ve devoted to “putting first”, that suffer the most.
When you live for other people, your happiness, your sense of purpose gets tied to ensuring the happiness of others. You make yourself responsible for other people’s experience of life. The problem there is that someone else’s happiness or life experience is not your responsibility. And your efforts may not always be welcome. It’s like the saying goes: You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose. Don’t believe it? Go ahead and try it some time. I promise your friend will not react kindly.
We must decide to live for ourselves first. And again, this doesn’t mean being selfish or self-centered, but rather to live for our own vision of the life we want to lead rather than trying to create or manage a vision of life for other people, even when those people are our own flesh and blood. Make your family a priority, absolutely, if that’s a principle you choose to live by. Place the wellbeing of your family above that of anybody else if that’s what aligns with your vision for a life of fulfillment. But there’s a distinction between living up to the principles that you have defined for yourself and living for other people. Recognizing that distinction begins with designing a vision for the life you want to create for yourself.
Vision is at the core of everything we do here at IMS. Our Power Series is designed to guide you through the process of creating your own vision and then providing you with the tools, techniques, and strategies for bringing that vision to life. When you begin to live a vision-centered life, satisfying your own wants, needs, and desires, you’ll find that you can actually fulfill a “family first” principle much more effectively. You will serve as an example, as inspiration and motivation for the people closest to you rather than trying to create those things for them, or worse, forcing it upon them.
It’s never too late to begin designing a vision for the life you want to lead. Click HERE to learn more about the Power Series and sign up today!