Put On Your Oxygen Mask First

Whenever I hear somebody bemoan that they don’t have enough time for self-care, I evoke the common inflight safety instruction, which I have adopted as one of my personal mantras:

Put on your oxygen mask first before helping others.

So many of us seem to live our daily lives according to an unspoken but almost intransigent assumption: that decent humans put the needs of others before our own. We the sandwich generation carry the burden of care for our children and our parents, on top of our workload at office and at home. We are stressed, exhausted, at the end of the rope, burnt out, about to implode/explode. Too many things to do, too many demands from too many directions: we have ceased to be human beings; we have become human doings. Not enough time, energy, bandwidth. Depleted battery.

Through my own experiences over the decades with over-functioning, depletion and burn-out, I have learned the hard way — including through illness and injury — that, to be more fully present, and to be more able to fully give of myself to others, I needed to first replenish my reserve. I would submit that being selfish is the most selfless thing one can do. That might be going a bit too far, but at the least, I believe that self-care — securing one’s oxygen mask — is a sine qua non for living a kind, generous and loving life. How can you help others when you have nothing left to give?

So I’ve made a commitment to myself to do at least one thing each day to replenish myself. After I do that one thing, I note it in my day planner, with the initials of the activity: M for meditating, J for journaling, PB for attending a Pure Barre class, P for playing piano, R for reading a book, B for taking a bath. Less frequent self-care activities get spelled out: a hike, a museum visit, a massage.

Self-replenishment does not have to be a solitary activity. It can come in the form of a post-dinner dog walk, holding hands with my husband. It doesn’t have to cost much money or any at all. It can be as simple as lighting a candle to do consulting work, or making myself a steaming cup of tea.

I am not always consistent or diligent with this self-care regimen. Whenever I get sick or have a melt down, however, I can look back in my agenda and see the pattern, as clear as day: almost no self-care in preceding weeks.

The Dalai Lama meditates something like four hours a day and takes daily walks. This self-care notion is as old as the Old Testament, just an expanded version of the second of the 10 Commandments, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Friends, remember to love thyselves!