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Priority Number One

Priority Number One

Constantly feeling the urge to make sure that everyone else is happy and cared for, I tend to put other people first. At night, I not only toss and turn because of the rheumatoid arthritis-induced achiness in my joints, but also because thoughts of things I need to do for others keep swirling in my mind. It’s hard to shift my focus from the tasks I need to complete for my children, work duties I need to perform for my supervisors and clients, volunteer activities I need to finish, friends I need to check on, and loved ones with upcoming birthdays/anniversaries/babies I need to celebrate. When I take a step back and think, “Wait, are all those things I need to do?” it becomes apparent that no, many of these things are not required to keep the world spinning or even to keep my own life ordered. Yet, I feel the compulsion to take care of others, and neglecting to do so feels like a personal failing.

Drawbacks to always caring for others

While caring for others is a good thing, it has some serious drawbacks. When I’m constantly trying to make sure everyone else is well cared for, I’m not spending much time ensuring my own physical, mental, and emotional needs are met. Somehow I’m never kept awake at night by worrying about a yoga class I didn’t sign up for, a walk I didn’t take, a healthy meal I didn’t carve out the time to prepare, a therapy session I didn’t schedule, or a nap or a hot bath I didn’t make the time for. Yet, when I put too many of those activities off, my RA symptoms increase, and the pain does indeed keep me awake. Maybe if I dedicated more time to nurturing my own needs, both the aches in my joints and the chatter of voices in my mind would both quiet down so that I could rest well at night.

Selfcare is challenging

Although at least part of my brain knows that I need to take care of myself, it is so challenging to get that message to sink into my heart and still the compulsion to constantly do for others. Yet, when I ignore my own needs for too long, eventually my body puts this compulsion on lock down, grounding me with pain and fatigue. Once I get to that point I’m in “survival mode,” and have enough trouble taking care of myself, let alone the people around me. If I neglect my own needs until I flare, my loved ones and I are all worse off.

There’s a reason we’re instructed on airplanes to put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others. If we can’t breathe, we render ourselves unable to help anyone. Recently I had two serious back-to-back infections, likely due to the immunosuppressant drugs I am on for RA, and I had to spend nearly two weeks in bed. My mom was understandably worried about me, and told me that I have to start making myself my number one priority. She instructed me to first take care of my health, then my kids, and then work. As she said this, it dawned on me that I’ve been running around putting oxygen masks on everyone else, not even realizing that I’m in need of oxygen until I’m gasping for air.

There are many challenges inherent in living with rheumatoid arthritis. Successful disease management involves much self-care, yet I continue to struggle with making time to do the things that will help my body and improve my quality of life. Until I learn to truly consider myself priority number one, RA will continue to provide physically and emotionally painful reminders that I’ll be rendered unable to help anyone if I don’t first help myself.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Cassandra Bird
    4 years ago

    Lol I’m sitting here in my hospital bed, with 247 oxygen mask on. The DR’s have stopped my immune suppression so I’m terrified where that will lead with my Ra having been so severe and difficult to gain control of. I’m a single mum of four and I foster a troubled teenage girl…..and no I really shouldn’t be taking on extra whilst I can barely care for myself. My kids are at home caring for each other and I feel a complete failure. My 19 year old son has been my carer for the last year and had been under pressure to “get a real job” which I say is ok, but in reality now, if I have to have oxygen therapy at home my care will be much more difficult. Half of me wants to let him go and be independent and part of me knows I really do need the care. For years I was miss strong independent single mum, fixing the car, decorating, diy and gardening…now I can’t even breathe independently:( sorry to go on but your post struck the right chord! God bless you all xxx

  • Lauren Tucker moderator
    4 years ago

    Cassandra Bird,
    We are sorry to hear you’re in the hospital and having difficulties. We are glad you reached out to us, and are here for you on your journey.
    We understand how hard it can be to be a single mom and you are courageous for doing all you have done to be the best mom you can be.
    If you need anything please do not heistate to reach out to us for support.
    In addition we hope you can find a local support person or support group that you can talk to and possibly find some inhome care.

    We are thinking of you and please come by anytime!!
    (Community Manager

  • roobott1
    4 years ago

    Thank you for sharing Tamara.. i’m also struggling with this one, having just having to ask my 24 year old son to move out as living with him is causing me so much stress as I am unable to care for myself well, and I am finding myself having flares which are undermining my confidence and leaving me isolating myself. Having been diagnosed about 1 1/2 years ago I am still coming to terms with it all having been an incredibly active person. I feel so disappointed and left out when I have to say no to things I would generally jump at the chance to do.
    I guess like you I will get used to this and as you put it keep the “oxygen mask on first.” and except that I can do great things but at my own pace..
    Thanks, Its good to feel not alone in this.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thank you for sharing! I’m glad you found the article helpful, and am sorry to hear you’re contending with so much pain. It’s good to hear that you are taking care of yourself in spite of how hard on the heart and emotions that can be. A year and a half in is still early in the process of dealing with this disease (I’ve been diagnosed nearly 16 years and still struggle with aspects of living with this disease), and it sounds like you’re doing an excellent job of handling a tough situation. I wish you all the best, and hope you find some relief from the frequent flares!

  • PamelaP
    4 years ago

    I do feel selfish when I nap or “just say no” to requests/invitations/you get my drift. But I really can’t do what is expected of my by my husband or by my daughter (with two little girls). Yes, I do feel like I’m missing the crucial and fun time of childhood — at ages 10 and 7 — but, well, I do as much as I can. My daughter is pretty much disgusted with this, and she is a nurse! So I’m back to feeling selfish again. Thanks for this article, Tamara. At least now I know others feel the same way.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Pamela! It’s hard enough contending with being unable to meet our own expectations, but feeling that additional pressure from your daughter must be very difficult. I wonder if she might be willing to read some articles to better understand what it’s like to live with RA. I send you all the best, and thank you for being part of our online community!

  • Cathy at
    4 years ago

    Beautifully stated! Caring for others, especially family, can be the source of great joy. Having RA means there is a fine line between feeling well and being fatigued, once the threshold is reached I bottom out quickly. The trick is to gain experience learning personal limits and adjust life accordingly! It is a process! Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on an important aspect of RA management!!

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, Cathy, and for being in our online community!

  • Heartsong
    4 years ago

    I always have the nagging feeling that if I don’t do for them, they won’t be around to do for me.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing! I know many in our community worry about a lack of support and assistance.

  • swbw
    4 years ago

    This is my struggle as well…taking time for myself. It just feels so selfish to put myself first. But, you are correct in saying that you can’t do your jobs if you are down. Well said!

  • Jillian S moderator
    4 years ago

    We are glad you enjoyed the article.
    I, like you and Tamara, struggle to put myself first as well. It just doesn’t feel right to be. Even though it is so hard for me not to be a “yes’er” (saying yes to everything that comes my way or is asked of me), it has been refreshing to say “no” every now and then and do something just for me.
    Let us know what you decide to do for yourself 🙂
    Jillian ( Team)

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