Secure Your Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others

Have you ever been called selfish when you’ve done something just for you? Do you sometimes feel guilty after taking time for yourself? If so, you are not alone.

I once struggled to pay attention to myself, and instead, I was busy dealing with all the daily rituals that keep us on life’s hamster wheel. Now I know that making personal time is extremely important and arguably one of the most critical life strategies that “happy moms” employ and “unhappy moms” resist. (While that’s the title of this ongoing series, the challenges also apply to men and women, parents and non-parents alike.)

You most likely recall hearing flight attendants explain that if a plane loses cabin pressure that you are to secure your own oxygen mask before helping others. If you pass out, there’s no chance to care for someone else. Securing your oxygen mask first actually allows you to care for a loved one. This instruction may seem unnatural, the exact opposite of what our instincts may direct us to do. However, I believe this directive also applies to everyday life: If we are unable to care for ourselves, for whatever reason, we will likely struggle to adequately care for others.

As flight attendants say in the event of an in-flight emergency: put on your own oxygen mask first, then help others. (Photo Credit: Zach Graves)

I’ve seen—and personally experienced—what can happen when we are too busy “putting oxygen masks” on family and friends before ourselves. I believe in and strongly encourage us to adopt an Oxygen Mask Mantra, or OMM. I like that it resembles the meditative OM sound since both promote approaches to wellness that help bolster our energy.

My Story: Not Easy to Do at First

Like many, I saw my mother, grandmother, and aunts sacrifice tirelessly, putting themselves last and focusing on others first. They were my role models. I remember my grandmother and mother constantly working, cleaning, and pleasing. They cooked and always ate last. If they knew someone liked something they made, like their fresh rolls or homemade lemonade, they would stay up late or get up early to have it ready. My grandmother had a large family and, other than when she ate or was at church, I don’t have a memory of her resting.

These exposures shaped me. I became a nurturer, inclined to take care of and please others. Therefore, as an adult, the thought of taking limited resources of time, energy, money, or attention and allocating them away from those I loved and on myself seemed inappropriate, even a bit narcissistic. I questioned if it was possible to be truly giving if I also prioritized giving to myself.

I was especially concerned after my divorce from my ex-husband who moved 1,000 miles away when our children were nine, 11, and 13. Anxious about how I was going to manage the challenges of being a single working mother, doing for myself took an even lower priority. My first goal in life was to be a mother and now, with more demands and less time, I wanted desperately to be a “good” mother and to excel at my job.

Is it possible to be truly giving if you prioritize giving to yourself?

I took a page from my past and consistently gave. Feeling exhausted and facing mounting stress, I strategized about how to best handle my situation. Every day I made my to-do list. On the left side were the things that I had to do for each of my three children and my home to run smoothly. On the right side were tasks I needed to accomplish for work. Invariably, the list was one to two legal-sized pages long. For example, it included all home management issues, like HVAC/insect control maintenance, food shopping, plumbing challenges, and car repairs. For the children, there were the lists of doctor and dentist appointments, Boy Scout events, Ryan’s science projects, Taylor’s sports outings, and Amanda’s early penchant for dance and acting. There was a litany of parent-teacher conferences. And then, there were the unexpected hospital visits for broken legs, arms, and a jaw that required time and attention…and more.

At the same time, my job demands also grew. As an investor, I had to read and read some more to know my markets, company, and industry trends and understand economic arguments regarding the likely direction of interest rates. As someone who helped set the investment strategy for several products, I had to be well prepared, since my views, steeped in research were frequently challenged and served as the basis for my decisions regarding how I invested clients’ money.

As an investor, I’d ironically require company CEOs to reinvest ample resources into their firms, yet I struggled attitudinally and practically to reinvest in me.

Learning How to Invest in Me

So, how did I fail at putting on my oxygen mask? For starters, I didn’t sleep much or regularly. Studies show that lack of sleep increases inner tension and makes you much less effective and prone to mistakes. I found myself testy and much less patient with my children. I was more likely to get frustrated, found comfort in food and gained weight, and constantly thought about what I needed to do next. I tried to be the best “me” for others, not necessarily to myself. Unfortunately, the fact that I was not taking care of myself eventually began to interfere with my ability to do my job well and be the mother I wanted to be.

A turning point for me was when a few close friends encouraged me to exercise as a healthy release. First, I walked. I loved being outdoors observing nature. I felt like I was a part of a broader universe. Then, I took up running and got a taste of endorphins that seemed to lighten any load. I eventually did weight training, and I’d think about my challenges and figure out ways to overcome them.

People who really love you want you to be happy, even if it takes some time away from them.

What a difference! I released stress, cultivated a “can-do” attitude, and felt very happy not, about anything in particular but everything in general. The endorphins triggered a natural high and I’d come home singing or kissing my children. If the kids messed something up, I’d be more likely to say, “It’s OK. You didn’t mean to do that, honey. No problem.” I could move with an inner joy and light instead of inner tension and heaviness, even in the midst of craziness.

To this day, exercise gets me centered. It got to the point where my children will say, “Mom, why don’t you go work out?” 😉 People who really love you want you to be happy, even if it takes some time away from them. My loved ones have come to see that the time I do spend with them is better when I’ve spent some time on myself. It is more “quality” time because I’m happier in general.

I still focused on crossing off items on my to-do list, but now life was fuller and more balanced simply because I was taking care of myself. I hadn’t discovered a magic potion. All I did was commit some time to myself to do things that added to my joy, like walking in the woods and working out. It was just when I realized that I, too, deserved some of the time and love I gave instinctively to others that I discovered it also enhanced my interactions with my loved ones and the joy I found in my job.

Almost counter-intuitively, taking time for ourselves can help us deal with other responsibilities more effectively. (Photo Credit: Anni C)

The Power of Modeling

Most birds learn how to fly by watching their mothers soar and then taking the leap themselves. Our children pay attention to us. My role models did not make time for themselves. If we want our loved ones to thrive, then they need to see us doing the same. Therefore, the best way that we can teach our loved ones to fly is to make sure we are soaring.

Is it selfish to be so focused on self? No, especially if you’re juggling too much and in danger of coming unraveled. To all care providers, men and women who are being pulled to provide to many, please know that not only is it not selfish to put on your oxygen mask, but it is also wise to do so.

Most birds learn how to fly by watching their mothers soar and then taking the leap themselves… If we want our loved ones to thrive, then they need to see us doing the same.

A few people I know cringe or scowl when they hear me advocate the oxygen mask philosophy. They argue that focusing on and prioritizing one’s self is, by definition, selfish and that life is a zero-sum game where resources spent on self are at the expense of loved ones. I argue that the Oxygen Mask Mantra (OMM) involves two parts and is about taking care of self so that you can adequately take care of others, making the approach inherently balanced.

“Happy moms” are willing to assess situations, decide what is needed, and act accordingly. “Unhappy moms” struggle to do for themselves, because they sometimes worry about what others might think of them or their decisions. With a bird’s-eye view of the needs of those in our lives, we must allocate resources accordingly.

Choose to invest in you, take care of yourself, and secure your oxygen mask in the way that serves you well, even if criticized as selfish for doing so. You—we—are worth it. Our loved ones will benefit and learn by example.

Now that you have been instructed, make sure your seatbelt is buckled and soar.

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