Updated: Feb 28
"I felt like it was my job to look after everyone; I felt like it was my job to sort out people’s arguments; I felt like it was my job to make sure everyone was happy and healthy. But who was looking after me?" Catherine Shuttleworth talks about what happens when we give too much of ourselves.
Over the past four years, I’ve been on a journey of improving and looking after my mental health. It’s an ongoing process—some days are better than others, but, on the whole, I’m doing far better than I ever could’ve imagined.
At night, when I’m sitting alone in my bedroom – a situation that once meant I would spiral into a meltdown, where I’d constantly sit and churn over all these negative thoughts I was having about myself – I like to look back on the progress I’ve made during my recovery. I try to pinpoint moments that had a lasting effect on my journey towards positive mental health, even if I didn’t realise how important they were at the time.
I grew up being taught that it’s always important to put others before yourself, as most kids are; with a primary school that favoured telling biblical moral tales about helping others–such as “The Good Samaritan” and “The Selfish Giant”– over, well, anything else. So, I always made sure I looked after everyone else before myself, because I thought it was the normal— and morally right— thing to do.
I would always make sure my friends and family were okay, making sure they could always talk to me if they needed to, and doing everything and anything for them if I thought it would help. If there were any disagreements amongst friends, I’d offer to sort it; if a few of my friends wanted to do something at the weekend, I’d plan and organise the trip. It’s always important to look after those around you— friends are supposed to support each other, after all— however, slowly, and without realising, I would prioritise my friends' needs over my own. I’d constantly push my problems to the back of my mind, trying to use everyone else’s problems as a distraction to my own. If my depression was particularly overwhelming one day, I’d offer to help a friend out with whatever they needed, in an attempt to block out how I was feeling. I felt like it was my job to look after everyone; I felt like it was my job to sort out people’s arguments; I felt like it was my job to make sure everyone was happy and healthy. But who was looking after me? I was branded the “mum” friend of the group, and I decided to act the role wholeheartedly. I’ve often been told how mature I am for my age and, through that, I associated never letting my problems get to me with maturity. People would say “You always understand” or “You’re like a therapist!” and so I felt it was my duty to uphold this image.
I started to feel like I couldn’t ask people for help because it was a selfish act, convincing myself that the people around me were already busy with their problems, and thus they didn’t need mine on top of theirs. I’d always tell those around me to talk to someone if they were struggling; not to let it build up – yet I was doing the exact opposite. I was failing to follow my own advice. There was a time – about the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 – where I was simply just trying to get through each day whilst feeling completely helpless and depressed. I knew there were people around me who would listen, but I simply convinced myself – or, rather, my depression did – that they did not care, and that I was simply a nuisance.
I felt like it was my job to look after everyone; I felt like it was my job to sort out people’s arguments; I felt like it was my job to make sure everyone was happy and healthy. But who was looking after me?
After a year of trying to deal with my mental health problems (I use the term ‘deal with’ loosely, more like ‘suppress and hope it goes away’), I decided to reach out to someone – someone who’d been trying to help for months, and, finally, after spending another night crying in my bedroom due to my overwhelming problems, I decided enough was enough. After about a month of talking to them and getting help, they noticed what I’d been failing to – I was trying to get better whilst helping everyone else get better, too. When they asked if I was okay, I’d start talking about what was going on with everyone around me. I was focusing on the problems that I thought were most important, forgetting myself entirely.
It was then that they told me, “Catherine, you’re allowed to be selfish.”
I felt like the entire world had stopped in its tracks; a simple point had completely turned my world on its head. I had never thought about putting myself first before. It just seemed unthinkable, because I’d grown up thinking that being selfish meant not caring about others, and society had always taught me that good people were selfless. I saw it as a completely black and white situation – selfish people are bad, selfless people are good. But then I started to realise that if I wanted to get better— if I wanted to enjoy life again— I need to start being selfish. I started to prioritise myself before others, saying ‘no’ to certain things for my mental health’s sake, such as deciding to not organise the next group activity and letting someone else do it. Or, rather, explaining to people that I wasn’t in the right place to fully commit myself to help them. That’s when I noticed my life changing for the better.
Someone had finally given me permission to look after myself, which is what I needed all along. I could finally take a sigh of relief. I think that’s when I started getting better— for good.
Sometimes I still struggle with giving myself permission to take a step back and look after myself; after all, I’m having to unlearn a habit I’ve known my whole life and replace it with a healthier one. Those who know me know how often I say “sorry to bother you” every time I come to them when I’m not doing okay, and how I much I emphasise my gratitude whenever they take time to listen to me. I do believe this very common problem roots, not only from childhood teachings but from how we’re taught self-worth. How people define self-worth is often different for everyone, but in an aesthetic-focused society, we’re often taught that if you don’t have the ‘perfect’ body, you aren’t worth being loved by yourself or anyone else; we’re taught that if you aren’t achieving academically, then you aren’t worth the education system focusing on you. If you believe you are worth very little, why would you look after yourself?
To those reading this, know that you are worth so, so much—we all are. Please know that it’s okay to look after yourself. It’s okay to say no to things, it’s okay to take time out for yourself, it’s okay to remove yourself from a situation that hurts you more than it benefits you. It’s okay to be selfish. And it’s okay if it takes time to unlearn it.
Catherine Shuttleworth is a sixteen-year-old journalist from London. Her work has appeared in Blogosphere Magazine, YR Media and Gurls Talk. She has a passionate interest in politics and sociology and uses her platform to spread awareness and educate her readers. In her free time, she likes to do yoga, play guitar, and binge-watch shows like The West Wing, Sex Education, and The Office. You can keep up to date with her work and life on her Instagram: @catherineros.e.