Are you a priority in your own life?

red shoes collage

by Carolyn Thomas    ♥   @HeartSisters

Five months after surviving a misdiagnosed “widow maker” heart attack, I attended the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium for Women With Heart Disease at Mayo Clinic.  Cardiologist Dr. Sharonne Hayes (founder of the Mayo Women’s Heart Clinic) told us about a study on women’s life priorities called Hierarchy of Female Concerns that asked its female participants this one question:

“What is most important to you?”

Now, when I do presentations about women’s heart health, I like to ask my audiences to guess in advance the correct order of this study’s top six answers, just for fun.

These rankings are surprising, in an amusing-yet-oddly-pathetic way.  The order of our reported priorities may also help to explain why, even when women are experiencing dangerous cardiac symptoms, they are significantly more likely than our male counterparts to delay seeking treatment if something ‘more important’ crops up.

‘More important? What could possibly be more important when you’re having a heart attack? Check out the terrific 3-minute Elizabeth Banks film Just a Little Heart Attack” for a brilliant example of this classic  treatment-seeking delay behaviour.

And then see if this list of women’s reported priorities matches the answers that you might give, too:

Baby best #1 – Children: a mother will lift a 2-ton Buick to save her toddler trapped beneath.  Our local news ran a story this week of a mother who threw herself between her 3-year old and the huge cougar who was mauling the child. Think back: how many times, as a new Mum (even if you were feeling desperately ill, at death’s door, puking and feverish) did you drag yourself out of your deathbed in order to feed the baby or drive the kids to hockey practice?  Who else on earth would you do this for?  I blame motherhood for a lot of my selflessness.

42-16568233 #2 – Home:  StatsCan tells us that Canadians spend billions of dollars every year on our home improvements, decorating, and renovations. Women seem to care very much about our homes, big or small.  For both owners and renters, feeling responsible for providing a clean, comfortable and safe home for our family is near the top of our priority list. And let’s face it, heart sisters, if your house is untidy because you just haven’t had the time or energy to clean, your visitors will never say: “Boy, is HE a messy housekeeper!”

CB006513#3 – Work:  Whether we have children at home or not, women rate their careers right in the middle of our priority lists. According to Catherin Hakim in her European Sociological Review article called ‘Grateful Slaves and Self-Made Women‘, even women working in low-status, low-paying jobs appear to be ‘disproportionately satisfied’ with their jobs compared to their male counterparts. How we spend our hours in the workplace is important to us in ways that go beyond just a paycheque, from social relationships with co-workers to intellectual stimulation, skill mastery and increased self-esteem.

CBR001055#4 – Pets:   This fourth place priority listing always draws a knowing laugh from my audiences.  We do love our pets!  The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association reports that over 40%  of women claim that their pets “understand their emotions and moods better than other family members”. Nearly half of women say they rely more on their pets for affection than on their family.  That’s a bit frightening. And when asked if they were more likely to lose their temper with a family member or a pet, 67% of women point to those aggravating relatives.

husband vintage BBQ#5 – Spouse:  Yep, on this particular priority list, significant others are right up there. Just below the dog. While this may seem odd and even shocking at first (we love our pets more than our hubbies?), see #4 for possible explanations for our partners’ fifth place ranking. And for both married and single women, my audience members insist that their female friendships can equal spousal relationships in their importance to our emotional, mental  and physical wellbeing.

#6 – SelfHere’s the pathetic part: perhaps the women  who put themselves dead last after everybody else’s needs are met first might suffer from what has been described as Type E personalities:  Everything To Everybody’. Women from birth are socialized to be nurturers and caretakers of both friends and family, sometimes at the expense of our own health. In fact, when we do take time for ourselves, we can often feel like we’re being selfish, which, as we all suspect, is the worst possible way to be. And we resent others who DO take time for themselves. By comparison, we’re applauded for selfless sacrifice: “How does Mary do it?  She does so much on so little sleep!”

It took a heart attack for me to finally admit that the earth will somehow continue to spin on its axis even if I’m not running everything myself.

© Carolyn Thomas

Watch this little 4-minute excerpt from my talk on women’s priorities 

NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about why women delay seeking help – even in mid-heart attack! – in Chapter 2 of my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”  (Johns Hopkins University). You can ask for it at your favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (if you use their code HTWN , you can save 30% off the list price).


 See also:

The Heart Patient’s Chronic Lament: “Excuse Me. I’m Sorry. I Don’t Mean to Be a Bother…”

Listen Up, Ladies: 16 Things I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You

Knowing and Going: Act Fast When Heart Attack Symptoms Hit

In Praise of Solitude After a Heart Attack

Could Goodism and Self-Sacrifice Be Linked to Women’s Heart Disease?

Women Heart Attack Survivors Know Their Place


23 thoughts on “Are you a priority in your own life?

  1. Hah, you forgot “the world”. I have totally overstressed myself in volunteer activities my whole life, from church to environment, mental health support groups, recycling awareness, etc. Etc.

    It’s really hard to admit I put saving the world one reason my own health. Sheesh

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Martha – when I was reading your interesting “world” comment, I was reminded of another blog reader who told me about the challenges of being a Type A personality while dealing with her heart disease diagnosis (e.g. “What a relief it was to learn that there is plenty to obsess about in recovery! I stayed in touch with my Type A inner child by furiously studying nutrition and learning to prepare ultra-heart-healthy meals. Instead of resting, neighbours would find me frantically freezing individual portions in little Ziploc bags like the ‘I Love Lucy’ episode with the conveyor belt in the chocolate factory. I still do this on Sundays! Then came cardiac rehab – plenty more to obsess about!!” More from her here.

      I now look back at my early days post-diagnosis as a kind of forced rest camp; like you have been experiencing, I was simply too pooped to keep up my usual crazy pace – best thing I could have done for myself, as I really needed to recuperate! Take care…


  2. Dear Carolyn,
    Without doubt you are an outstanding example of a truly liberated and self-loving woman, with a sense of humor to boot. I love you so much for being you and for encouraging us to do likewise.

    I am committed to operating shamelessly in reverse order with “me” at the top of the priority list. If I’m not the best me I can be, then I don’t have much to offer others, and if I fail to manage my health wisely, then I won’t be here at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a lovely comment, thanks for this. ♥ And congratulations on your commitment to put that “me” right at the top of your priority list. In a society that values selflessness and disdains selfishness, this can seem like a tall order – but if we are not willing to put ourselves first, who’s going to do that for us?!


  3. Carolyn, I knew you were a great writer (as evidenced by all your posts I’ve “stolen”) – you are a wonderful speaker too.

    I so enjoyed the video clip. Clear, entertaining, informative and perfect audience interaction. Kudos. And anyone who has a sense of humor like yours is forever in my heart. You bring critical information (literally and figuratively) to men and women. So glad I found your blog.
    with love,

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. I agree with Jerrie. To put yourself first makes you feel somehow SELFISH.

    I just went down this priority list and I realize I’d answer in the same order about my own priorities. This is pathetic. While it’s nice to be concerned about others, to put myself DEAD LAST on the list helps to explain why I too keep putting others ahead of me when it comes to meeting their needs instead of mine. This breeds resentment and martyrdom I believe – not an attractive combo. Thanks Carolyn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You bring up a good point, Hat Chick: resentment and martyrdom can be the unintended consequences of putting our own needs last – especially if we tend towards scorekeeping when others don’t run up to help us with those needs ( “… after everything I’ve done for YOU…”)


  6. Have you been eavesdropping on my conversations lately? This is ME in every step. I’m trying to re-prioritize my life, but it seems automatic to put others’ needs well ahead of my own!! And when I don’t, I feel guilty. Sound familiar? How sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful essay here. This should be a MUST-READ for all women. Putting ourselves first has been drummed into us as a BAD thing, right? Even in the middle of heart attack symptoms. Sad and frightening. I’m a new subscriber to this blog and will forward a link to this post to all my friends and family this morning. Thanks SO MUCH for this.
    Jerrie Able,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Such an interesting topic. I laughed at the “pets” part – so true. Yet not funny at all that women put ourselves behind everything and everybody else, even at our peril. We need to teach our daughters to do better.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Carolyn –
    The study you talk about above (Order of women’s life priorities) is very interesting. Surprised about some things (like PETS!) but it is actually true when you think about it. Very sad that we put ourselves LAST on that priority list.
    Eddie B. in NYC

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Carolyn – this is a must-read for all women. I’m forwarding this link to everybody I know. When are we going to ‘get it’ about putting ourselves, and our own health, FIRST for a change?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Carolyn – I like the new look of your website – not to mention all the great content! You are doing a fabulous job of providing such valuable information.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Interesting article, Carolyn — I’m not surprised that kids rank #1, but am shocked that the house is #2! Though I like a clean house, I’m definitely not into the home improvements or renos…for me, life’s too short to spend on my house.

    I wonder if pets rank about spouses because pets are more dependent and less critical? That is, my hubby doesn’t need me as much as my cat does. Therefore I may rank her above him (I actually wouldn’t rank her first myself, but I can see how women would — especially if they don’t feel supported or loved by their partners).

    This is great food for thought. 🙂

    Take care,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Laurie! I too was shocked at the response order of this study’s results. These results do however help to explain women’s nutty reluctance to ‘make a fuss’ even in the middle of a heart attack! Not every woman would rank their priorities in the same way (wealthy childless career women, for example, might have vastly different responses than the brand-new mum of an infant, whose concerns about ‘the home’ fly right out the window!)



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