Self Care: Put That Oxygen Mask On Your Own Face First
A few days ago, when Phoenix actually saw temps under 100 degrees and the air was thick(ish) with humidity, I was driving the minivan. The low-tire-pressure light came on. Instantly alert, I hauled the Swagger Wagon to Costco to get it checked out.
Notice what I did there? The moment a light came on telling me something was wrong, I took the car to a service. I didn’t ignore the light, hoping the problem would just go away. I took action and got things fixed up pronto. I was on it.
This got me thinking. How many service-engine-soon lights come on in our lives, alerting us to faults that jeopardize our health and happiness?
Maybe it's because we hope that things will just work out by themselves, so we shut the our minds to the warning signals and keep going as usual.
When it comes to other people's problems, we're often more aware. If our friends look wan and tired, suffer from frequent headaches or show signs of mental exhaustion, we urge them to cut down on stress and see a doctor, or a counselor, or nutritionist, or whatever. But we ignore our own physical, mental or emotional exhaustion. We put off seeking help, because we prefer to think the problem doesn't exist.
Yes, it's easier to see the danger our friends and loved ones are in, and we help them get the assistance they need. How many times do we give the child beside us the oxygen mask before putting one on ourselves? We get the principle drilled into us when flying: put your own mask on first before helping someone else- but do we do this in practice? Do you?
I often don't. I'm slow to respond to warning lights (and dropping oxygen masks) because I delude myself that the problem isn't real.
The subject of self-care has been hot for a while now. I remember it floating around when I was a kid in the 80s, when women started talking about taking care of themselves instead of everyone else. I’m gonna be honest, Heifers, that left a bad taste in my mouth.
As a kid, I watched my mom take a whole lot of care of herself at the expense of my father, brother and me. She seemed to take self-care to an extreme and ended up neglecting everyone else. This early experience may be at the root of why I neglected myself so badly for so many years. I equated self-care with selfishness, and didn't want to become like my mother. When I had kids, I was determined that they should never feel the way I'd felt: alone, neglected and invisible, while their mom practised 'self-care' at their expense.
What happened then? Well, in my effort not to become like my mother, I went to the other extreme. While my mom focused almost entirely on herself and her needs, I focused almost entirely on the needs of the people around me. I put my thought and energy into making a nice home and life for my husband and kids. It rarely occurred to me that I was neglecting myself... and in the rare moments of realization, I actually felt virtuous. I was proud to of my self-neglect, because putting everyone else's needs before mine seemed to prove that I was a good wife and mother.
As time went on, I started to see and feel the effects of not taking care of myself. I put on weight. A look in the mirror showed a tired, worn-out woman. I felt tired, depressed and overwhelmed.
Today, I only need to look at the photos of that period, and I can clearly see the signs of self-neglect. But at the time, I was so caught up in taking care of everyone else (and trying so hard not to become like my mother) that I didn't see the damage I was doing to myself.
The warning lights were on, alerting me that my body (and my mind) needed care. But I chose to ignore them, because I thought those potential problems were not urgent and didn't matter anyway.
The greatest irony: I wasn't even the best mother or wife I could be. Feeling frustrated, angry and tired all the time, with suppressed resentment against family demands fermenting in my guts, I didn't have the energy, strength and inner joy to give genuine loving care. Although I sensed that something wasn't right, I didn't pause for a check-up and examine the root of the problem.
Instead, I just kept going on in the same direction just pushing myself even harder, giving away even more of my time, my energy and myself.
It's no surprise this approach failed. There’s only so much we can give. When we don’t refill our own reserves, things dry up pretty quickly.
When I was forty, I finally looked at myself honestly, and saw a woman struggling in many areas. I was unhealthy from the inside out. I finally grasped (with the help of therapists, friends and my own self-reflection) that I needed to take better care of myself. Moreover, I realized that it wasn’t anyone else’s responsibility to make me healthy and happy. It wasn’t up to my husband and certainly not my kids. I would have to do it myself, and it was going to take full-blown effort and focus.
I was willing to accept that responsibility.
But it meant that I had to redirect some of my efforts away from other people and towards myself, and this concept was difficult to accept.
Heifers, this was hard. I know it seems all good on paper It's sensible to believe that you deserve to take care of yourself. But I struggled.
I was willing to put the oxygen mask on my own face... but couldn't bring myself to put it on myself FIRST, before looking after others.
How many of us put ourselves and our needs last? How many times do we meet everyone else’s needs before our own? How many times do we feel guilty or lazy for spending our time, energy and money on our own needs?
If you’re anything like I was, it’s a lot. We are all caretakers, in one way or another. Some of us have kids and husbands, others have pets or care for our aging parents or someone who has a chronic illness. Many of us are caretakers at work, putting the needs of employees, employers and companies ahead of our own. Others work for charitable or environmental causes that need our help.
We promise ourselves that we’ll take some time off, go on vacation, workout or eat better... when everything else is done.
But this moment never comes. There always is more work to be done. A carer's (parent's, spouse's) work never ends.
So, if we understand that done is never done and that the moment is now to start taking care of ourselves, what does that even look like? What is self-care? And, maybe more importantly, what is it NOT?
According to my therapist, self-care is identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them.
That's simple, clear and powerful.
Self-care is NOT about hanging out all day in massage parlors and nail salons, shirking responsibilities and neglecting the people around us. Self-care is not what my mother did, ditching our family countless every time she pursued new boyfriend.
There is a huge difference between self-care and selfishness.
Self-care actually helps us take better care of not just ourselves but of the people around us. That's the key difference between someone who selfishly pursues a life focused entirely on themselves, and someone who meets their own needs so they are healthy and happy in all of their relationships.
Putting on your own oxygen mask first enables you to help others.
My distorted, negative idea of self-care fueled a lot of my self-neglect over the years. Add to that the fact that I didn’t have good examples of self-care and hadn’t been cared for by others, and my ideas about all of it were pretty messed up. When I finally understood the real meaning of self-care, I could see that meeting my own needs wasn't selfish at all.
Caring for myself didn't mean I couldn’t take care of others. In fact, when I began to meet my own needs and fill up my own energy reservoir, I had more energy, patience and resources to give to the people around me.
Taking care of ourselves is the first step in healthy relationships outside of ourselves. When I take care of my needs, I don’t feel so exhausted and worn out when someone around me needs me. I also don’t feel resentful and frustrated when someone else needs my support -- and that’s a pretty big deal for a mom.
Self-care is important for so many reasons. It gives us confidence that our needs can and will be met and that we don’t have to wait for someone else to do that for us. When we take care of ourselves, there is a lot of peace in knowing we can do that for ourselves. We don't need to wait for someone else to meet our needs - which is often a futile hope anyway.
Our own self-care also sends important signals to others.
When I started treating myself better and taking my needs more seriously, the people around me changed how they treated me. It wasn’t some mega, overnight success story, but over time, my kids began showing more respect, especially when I took time for a run or to prep healthy meals or to take a break. They ceased taking it for granted that every minute of my day was theirs to demand. When I stopped acting like their beck-and-call girl, they stopped treating me like one. (For the most part. They're still teens, after all, and it's in their nature to see what they can get.)
When I no longer volunteered for school functions and other tasks, my friends adapted. When I took an hour out for a run, the world did not end. When I began eating better, going to bed earlier, taking naps and treating myself to a vacation, people didn't stop loving me.
Self-care teaches us how to treat ourselves better, and when we do that, we teach other people how to treat us better.
Isn’t that a nice little psychological circle?
I’ve come full circle with this whole idea of self-care and neglect and selfishness and woe-is-me. I’ve come from a place of being neglected, gone through a phase of neglecting myself, and am finally comfortable with taking care of myself. I’ve learned to identify my own needs and to meet them, not because I’m selfish and narcissistic, but because my health and happiness depend on regularly scheduled maintenance and attention.
A car will only go so long without an oil change or new tires or engine service. A human being is the same, Heifers. We need the same upkeep, so that we don’t break down in the middle of the highway, shoved off to the shoulder of the road, abandoned in the dead of summer.
Okay, that image is dramatic.
Seriously, though. Self-care is real. It’s important. And it’s totally within our reach. I’ll blog more about how to identify your own needs, how to start including self-care in your life and what to do when the people around you sit up and take notice.
Until then….be good to yourselves and keep mooooooving.
Tell us: what do you do for self-care? Do you have little self-care rituals? What symptoms have you experienced that were your body's (or mind's) warning signals? Post a comment to share your experiences and tips. Thanks!