Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

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Before you can help others you have to help yourself

You need to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help others.  That’s what the airlines tell you.  But it also holds true for the rest of life.  You’re no good to others if you’ve passed out.  Being fatigued, burned out and miserable depletes you of the energy that you need to be able to help others.  So if you want to be able to care for others, you have to take care of yourself first.  You’ve all heard it before…self-care, self-care, self-care.  But no matter how many times you hear it, it’s easy to forget. 

“Self-care” can have lots of different meanings.

The kind of “self-care” that I mean isn’t just getting a massage once in awhile.  A massage is a great start, but what I’m talking about is the kind of “self-care” when you take stock of whether you’re happy with how you’re living.  When you consider your choices of what you’re doing with your time and energy and what you’re not doing.  It’s easy to get pulled into a routine of taking care of tasks, work and other people while depriving yourself.  Are you trying to meet the demands of everyone around you, fulfilling the desires of your children, family, spouse or co-workers while neglecting your own needs?  Or are you balancing your needs and the needs of others, making sure that you what need to feel happy, healthy and fulfilled isn’t last on the list? 

Now I’m clearly not talking to people who lean to the far opposite end of this spectrum.  I’m not talking about people who disregard the needs of others entirely.  I’m talking to the much larger segment of our society that puts others needs before their own.  

You may say, “Isn’t that a wonderful thing that people will sacrifice themselves for others?”  Yes and no.  It’s fantastic that people can be so generous.  The world would be a better place if more people were considerate of others. 

Being considerate has its down side.

It’s not a good thing to be so considerate of other’s feelings and needs that you sacrifice yourself.  Eventually, self-sacrifice will leave you feeling depleted, miserable and resentful.

Imagine waking up one day to the realization that you missed out on many wonderful opportunities to enjoy your life and grow as a person because you were afraid of others people’s judgments about your choices or their disappointment at having to share you with yourself.  You’d be angry!  Angry at yourself.  Angry at others for wanting so much from you.  And that anger doesn’t help anyone.  

You might blame others and resent them for making it difficult for you to do what you needed to do for yourself. That resentment can destroy relationships.

How did you get to be so self-sacrificing?

It can be helpful to look into why it’s so difficult to make time for yourself. 

Are you afraid that the people in your life will get angry at you?  Do you think that they will end the relationship because they can’t stand you doing something that they don’t want you to do?  Do you associate self-care with selfishness?

Women have unconsciously inherited the belief system of generations and generations of subservient women taught to take care of others and live their lives in the shadow of powerful husbands.  Even though times have changed tremendously, it’s in our collective unconscious.  Women today still struggle with creating autonomy for themselves when they’re in relationships.  Men have difficulty with this too.  Many men unconsciously learned that the way to earn love and acceptance is by providing for others.

What would happen if you put yourself first?

How would your life change if you said no to some demands on your time so that you could use that time solely for yourself? 

First, you’d have to figure out what you want to do with your time.  Don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t know right away.  If you haven’t had much time to yourself, you may be out of practice at listening to your inner voice.  In fact, people do all sorts of things to avoid looking inward.  But you just need space and time to figure this out.  You’re not a void.  You’ll figure it out.

What if you knew what you wanted to do such as: take a college course, join a sport’s team, write a book?  Maybe you just need time to get a massage or go spend the afternoon with friends. Whether big or small you might be stopped by the belief you would inconvenience or disappoint your loved ones.  Would you be able to survive their disappointment in order to make sure that you didn’t disappoint yourself?  That’s self-care!

You may discover that everyone around you is actually happy when you take care of yourself. Or if they are upset, after you’ve all survived the upset you’ll all be stronger and more autonomous. You’ll be happy to be doing what you felt you needed. You’ll feel freer. They’ll learn that they can adjust to your needs and that it’s actually good for everyone. And you won’t be feeling the resentment that may have been growing inside of you.

You can take baby steps first

It can be helpful to know what the root causes of this mindset of self-denial are in order to free yourself from them.  But you can also just take action.  Take care of yourself and feel the anxiety or guilt rise up in you. Notice if others get upset.  But do it anyway.  Ride it out.  Talk yourself down.  It’s only a few hours.  The world won’t fall apart if you change the routine.  But the world may begin to shift…towards a healthier, happier, more satisfied you.   Ultimately, the freedom to follow your dreams with the support of you loved ones is beneficial for everyone.

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Rena Pollak, LMFT, CGP  | 15720 Ventura Blvd., Ste. 508, Encino, CA 91436 | 818-245-5298