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Prioritizing Yourself

Updated: May 4, 2023

Quarantine peony. Watercolor on paper. Tsim Sha Tsui HKG, 2021.

In my last article I talked about how I see the role of doctors are changing in the information era. So how have our roles as patients been changing? (And FYI - every health practitioner is actually first a human who has health needs, even though you probably know doctors who still refuse to admit that).

You are the expert

I’m hoping that patients no longer put doctors on pedestals so much. First and foremost, doctors are highly trained and experienced experts who want to help others. They may have spent years or decades honing technical or analytical skills, and they may have access to modalities or facilities that can help us.

But doctors can not know what is best for us. No one can know that but ourselves.

Which means that we have a responsibility to know our bodies and our preferences, and to prioritize our self care. This sounds relatively straightforward, but actually it may not be so easy.


When I was a working mom of two school aged children, I was completely focused on being Dr Mom for my kids. Whatever they needed was what I wanted. And next came work priorities, and then came household chores, and then relationships, and so on. I was always at the bottom of the priority list.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Mind you, I had a coach at the time, and so I knew that self care was important. So I dutifully did my workouts and personal development work. But I didn’t really “get” what it meant to put myself first - it felt like just another thing that I had to put on my never-ending list of ToDos.

Back then, I had goals like getting promoted, writing that article, or training for the next half-marathon. But I realize now that I was so caught up in the day to day that I had trouble accessing what I actually wanted for myself. My brain was so busy telling me how to keep being productive that I didn’t have time to dream bigger. It felt like I wasn’t supposed to want more for myself.

Taking responsibility

It wasn’t until my husband left me to pursue his architecture degree that I began to realize how stuck I was. I had worked so hard to be supportive of his dream that I hadn’t realized what I was sacrificing myself. I felt lost and terrified to be on my own as a single mom, responsible for our two children and home and job.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

And while that was a traumatic time for me, I learned through my husband’s example that I owed it to myself to figure out what I wanted, and to take action. That’s when I began to see that I missed making art, so I set up a studio for myself in our basement. I also started training in acupuncture and integrative medicine.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my career in academic medicine. I loved being in that learning environment, teaching trainees and taking care of the faculty. It was a safe and secure career path that I could have stayed on for another couple decades at least. My brain was confident that I could continue to succeed and thrive.

But it wasn’t where my heart wanted to go. My heart wanted to come back to my family, to pursue integrative medicine, and to see what else was out there for me.

What do you want

I’m not suggesting that everyone has to go through traumatic events to reassess their priorities. Most of us would prefer not to. But the reality is that our lives are filled with a series of routines that take on a momentum of their own. And there is a sense of ease and comfort in staying with that momentum.

As much as we want to achieve certain goals like losing weight or getting fit, it’s not so easy to create new routines unless we have a clear idea of what we want for ourselves. Perhaps it’s a new identity or a new relationship. When you get clarity on your compelling why, and that’s when it becomes a priority.

25 wants exercise

One way to begin to get in touch with what we want is to write a list of 25 Wants on a sheet of paper or in your journal. Start with things you already have, like maybe a home or job, your education and family. Maybe you want small things like a houseplant, or big ones like a convertible, or maybe you want to lose 20 lbs. Whatever they are, just allow yourself to write and write.

List at least 25, but you can keep going. The idea is to let yourself dream without judging yourself nor letting your brain censor yourself in any way. You are not committing yourself to anything - we are just exploring what’s there. We will deal with all the thoughts as they come up later.

When you have your list, take a close look at the whole thing. How do you feel? Scared? Excited? Notice that your brain has come up with a layer of objections for why you can’t do these things. Things like time, money, space, people, etc. Write them down. Then there’s also a layer of judgment - like you’re being selfish, greedy, or pathetic, etc.

You get to choose

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

What you do next is up to you. Maybe you weren’t able to come up with 25 things, so you’ll need to come back to this exercise. Sometimes it can take a while to open up our brains to allow ourselves to daydream. You may want to come back to do this exercise again once a quarter or a couple of times a year, when you sit down to do some planning.

Imagine that your wants are little seeds that you have gathered in your brain. You can choose to plant them in the soil and bring them to life, removing all the obstacles that are like weeds and the judgment that’s like a dense overgrowth blocking out the sun.

The important thing is that you have that handful of seeds now. I’d encourage you to follow your heart.


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