Sometimes you must take care of yourself before taking care of others
When on a flight, the flight attendant tells us that should there be a change in cabin pressure, we must put on our own oxygen mask before helping others. While perhaps unsettling as a premise, we cannot take care of anyone else if we have passed out from lack of oxygen. Define oxygen how you want—free time, social time, financial stability, playing sports, cuddling on the couch, exercise, date night, watching your favorite TV shows, listening to music, traveling, spending time with family, eating healthy food, a great glass (or bottle) of wine, passion projects, etc. We must make time to take care of ourselves before we can be our best selves for others. And we cannot only fill ourselves with “air” when it becomes an emergency. In a culture that places extreme value on busyness and doing, we often do not take time to take care of ourselves until our bodies are screaming for us to stop, until the anxiety, depression, and fatigue catch up to us, until we have run out of oxygen and can no longer breathe. I have learned that self-care must be consistent, authentic, and practiced in both stable and unstable, busy and relatively idle times. Furthermore, it sometimes must be practiced instead of or potentially even at the expense of taking care of others. This might be a terrifying and unnerving concept for the givers of the universe (of whom I am one), but I have found that intentionally taking care of myself not only serves to build me up but also strengthens my capacity to give in the long-term.
I have seen many friends and family members pour themselves into being perfect and ever-doting partners, daughters, sons, friends, employees, and volunteers. Giving and serving have become the core of their identities and they often view self-care as either a selfish indulgence or “nice-to-have” when there’s time. Yoga takes a backseat to bringing soup to a sick friend. Therapy is sacrificed for the mother in crisis. Exercise is surrendered during a seventy-hour work week. Travel is impossible because of our children or pets. While there is value in taking care of others and we sometimes must make sacrifices, we cannot make a habit out of forgoing our own well-being. As the saying goes, we cannot pour from an empty cup. Of course, it is possible that giving helps fill our cup; there is real science about the power of volunteering and giving back to improve emotional and even physical well-being. However, I am suggesting that we must be honest with ourselves about what is necessary for us to keep going and what we need to be able to most successfully care for the people we desire to care for. For me, this requires self-discipline and relentless honesty. Yes, I want to be there for my friends and family. Yes, I want to give back to my community. Yes, I want to change the world. Yes, I need to sometimes stare blankly into space and not think about any of that. Yes, I need to sometimes ignore phone calls that will add stress to my life. Yes, I need regular cuddle time with my boyfriend. Yes, I need to take my vacation time. Yes, sometimes I need to say “no.” No, NOBODY gets to make me feel bad or guilty about what I need to continue performing at my best in the service of others and the world. No, I am not selfish. No, I do not need to apologize. Yes, this is hard for me. No, I haven’t fully figured it out.
Sometimes I fall into the traps of believing that sacrificing my happiness makes others happier, that pursuing things that make me joyful somehow robs others of their own joy, that being a giver somehow makes me more virtuous or deserving of love. I use two strategies to try to counteract these limiting beliefs. First, I try to shift my thinking in four key ways: 1) My happiness is a gift that I can give to others; 2) Others are responsible for their own joy; 3) Being virtuous is about living according to high moral standards, only one of which is giving; and 4) I am worthy of love regardless of any action I take or sacrifice I make. By placing value on my own happiness, I am forced to acknowledge its presence or its absence. By relinquishing responsibility for the well-being of others, I am less prone to anxiety and feelings of powerlessness. By redefining virtuousness, I create space for the myriad gifts I offer the world in addition to taking care of others. By reminding myself that I am worthy of love no matter what, I begin to believe it.
My second strategy is to purposefully assess my give myself to give others ratio. I ask myself what I have done for myself today/this week/this month and compare that to what I have done for others. There are rarely times when there is perfect balance and I do not think that an even fifty-fifty split is required. However, being aware of where the scale is tipping helps me make decisions to better take care of myself, even if that just means taking a half hour during lunch to go for a walk in the park or an hour at night to watch a corny and brainless television show. Sometimes, albeit rarely, the scale tips the other direction, and I need to do better at reaching out to others and offering support or care.
For me, part of this lesson is that it is not one-sided. Sometimes we forget that the other people in our lives also need to take care of themselves, meaning they cannot always give us what we need in the moment that we need it. I have found that maintaining relationships built on mutual respect and mutual accountability helps. Being able to tell my boyfriend what I need means that I need to be willing to hear what he needs, even if the two needs are incompatible. Being able to tell my parents, “no, I can’t do that this weekend,” requires me to hear their “no’s” without being offended or upset. Knowing how to clearly articulate when something is not working or taking a toll on my health, means needing to accept when others might need a break. I believe that part of building a more compassionate society lies in this tension. If we simultaneously commit to taking care of ourselves and each other, we will inevitably create spaces where everyone has access to the oxygen they need to be their best selves and to continue living their most authentic and meaningful lives.