Thursday, May 26, 2011

Put Your Oxygen Mask On First

If you fly often, you can probably recite the flight attendant’s instructions in your sleep.

“In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, a mask will drop down from your over-head compartment. Secure the mask around your head, and breathe normally. If you are traveling with a child or someone who needs assistance, secure your own oxygen mask first, and then offer assistance to your companion.”

When we first heard these instructions, we might have thought that in such a crisis we would help our loved ones first. However, on further reflection, we understood that we could help our loved ones better if we weren’t passing out from lack of oxygen ourselves!

Several people have commented this month on the need for us to be kind to ourselves. This is not selfish. It’s not a me first attitude. It is a wise recognition that being gentle with ourselves is the model for how we treat others.

Although there are many contexts in which we might fail to be kind to ourselves, parenting is the one that comes to mind for me. As a single parent raising kids with a variety of issues, I was running on empty a lot of the time. I had my shortcomings as a parent, to be sure, but I think I did a good job of taking time for myself when I needed to. I took lots of bubble baths. I did not feel bad about leaving my kids with trusted childcare providers, so that I could have dinner with a friend, or have some time by myself at the cabin, or take an occasional short vacation.

When the energetic oxygen in our home was depleted, I put my mask on first. Not only was I a much better mom, but my kids saw me taking care of myself. When they become parents, I hope they will remember.

In the last post, I outlined three kinds of kindness. The second was planned kindness, and I suggested that we could plan specific acts of kindness toward identified individuals. Let’s go back to that idea, and make a plan to do something nice for ourselves.

Hmm, I see a bubble bath in my near future. What will you plan?


  1. It took me some time to realize that I cannot help others if I am not well myself. It sounds like such a simple and logical thing, yet many people don't see that. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Hi Galen,

    The Chinese have a saying that we should put our house in order first before we turn to external matters. It certainly makes sense to have a safe and secure base to operate from. If we are a mess internally or have major problems at home, we would hardly be in a position to offer help to others.

    I feel that your example of parenting is useful for us all. For it would be hard for you to extend love and care to your kids if you did not have a sufficient tank to do so. There are times when I feel burned out from writing or my projects and I just have to stop and put everything aside. But once I take care of my "me time" I come back refreshed and ready to give my all again.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

  3. Great post! Making sacrifices for our loved ones should never include sacrificing our own health. I'm planning an easy-paced jog down some abandoned railway tracks with my dog.

  4. Galen: I love that...I will have to think of something great for myself as well :) It is so true that we have to also show ourselves kindness. I think this is something we should always keep top of mind.

  5. I'm going to keep reading, and writing, two things I used to never set time aside for. Both activities recharge me, and give me more energy I can give back to my family, friends and patients.

    (Apt and well-chosen metaphor too. My mask has OX built-in.)

  6. I have had a hard time putting myself first - all of my life. As a child, "do unto others" was the first message of everyday and "as you would do for yourself" always came second.

    18 months ago I started putting myself first - I am still finding it extremely difficult, such as this week I got home with $200 worth of food for my partner's training needs and week, and only a package of lean ground turkey for myself...I sat down just now and made another list and am going back to the store for what I want and need to eat after I post this is in the little things we need to also change to put ourselves in our mask!

  7. Ah, a weekend away. Bad thing is I may not come back.

    But this is very true. As parents, we're taught family first. When we have children, we sacrifice SO much of ourselves to nurture and help the child(ren) grow healthy and happy lives. Because children practice what they see, live by example. SO the partying nights stop, excessive shopping, no more lunches with friends, and less nights out. We get so caught up in it, that taking a little time out for ourselves is almost a guilty pleasure! But it's ok. Took me a long time to accept that.

  8. I believe our number priority is to put other first and yet we must take time to recharge our body and spirit or we become good for nothing.

  9. Thank you all for your comments! Thanks for sharing some of your ideas for being nice to yourselves. I appreciate the acknowledgment that it is often difficult to think of ourselves. Why do you think that's so hard?

  10. My three have over the years had to remind me to put my mask on first. Out of the mouths of babes as they say. And they were right. Now I am finally doing just that. Learning how to breathe again has been wonderful... and those first few breaths of oxygen were simply amazing [grin]

    Nice post Galen :-)

  11. Jean--Isn't it nice when our kids can show that kind of empathy?! Thanks for your comment.


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