Me First!

Putting others' needs before your own can be hazardous to your career and your health

too much for that person to handle comfortably.

“People often don’t realize how limited their resources and abilities are in any given situation,” says Darryl L. Townes, an Atlanta psychologist. “When you allow the demands of life to exceed your abilities and your resources, it’s going to cause you undue stress. With too much stress you can get overwhelmed, and that causes physical and emotional problems.”

It’s important to note that not all stress is harmful. “There’s something called eustress and that’s when you’re under deadline or working on a project and you get that burst of energy to complete the project, but then your stress levels go back down,” says Janet E. Taylor, a psychiatrist at New York’s Harlem Hospital. “But what’s killing people is they don’t realize that they’re stressed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have this chronic stress and their body is so tense and hyperalert that they don’t even realize it. It becomes more like a natural state.”

For some, the constant stress of trying to meet too many demands can lead to mistakes, missed deadlines, and a failure to complete promised tasks—all behaviors that can derail a career, says Carl C. Jefferson, president of the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources. “When you’re not performing well, you’re impacting your reputation,” says Jefferson. “Once others lose confidence in your ability to perform, the probability of someone asking you to do more is very low.”

The stress of putting everyone’s needs before your own can also lead to depression and physical illness, says Tyeese Gaines Reid, resident physician at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut whose tendency to help others but neglect her own needs led to insomnia and depression.

“When you’re too busy, it can affect your blood pressure, your heart, and your ability to sleep,” says Gaines Reid, who detailed the steps she took to put her needs first in her book, The Get A Life Campaign: A Pocket Guide for the Busy Woman Who Wants It All (Infinity Publishing; $10.95). Some overworked people engage in self-destructive behaviors such as overeating, excessive drinking, and [substance abuse], says Martin. “They’re trying to cope with the stress that they’re under and they’re using these ways to escape.”

A Matter of Life and Death
The physical consequences of putting her job’s needs first almost cost Twanna Harris her life. Four years ago, the 35-year-old president of a multicultural brand engagement firm in Atlanta hid her pregnancy for six months from her employer at the time because management had expressed discontent with a previous pregnancy.

“I didn’t want them to think I didn’t consider the company to be a priority,” recalls Harris. “Essentially I neglected my health and tried to hide the doctor’s appointments and developed preeclampsia [a disorder characterized by severe hypertension during pregnancy] in my sixth month. I delivered my baby 14 weeks early at a pound and a half, and both her life and mine were within minutes of being taken away.”

Harris says the experience changed her. “Will

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