We hear it on airplanes all the time, “in case of emergency put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.”
We are told this because we are no good to anyone else if we pass out from lack of oxygen. So, why is it so hard for many of us to apply this wisdom to other areas of our lives?
I have to sit back and wonder if the drive to put others’ needs ahead of our own comes from the way we were raised, the messages we receive from our society, or because we never really learned how to take care of ourselves, only others. I have met many women, and some men, who say that they feel selfish when they put themselves first.
“I can’t meditate, I have to cook dinner.”
“I can’t afford to take that class because we need to pay for my husband’s/wife’s conference/class/etc.”
“My family doesn’t believe in that stuff so I’m not going to pursue it (whatever it is).”
They believe that they can take care of everyone else around them and still have the wherewithal to take care of themselves. They always put themselves last and then wonder why they feel resentful towards all the people they supposedly love the most. I was very aware of the people around me going through this emotional drought. I had witnessed this play out for most of my life. I spent a lot of time coaching family and friends through self-care and then I realized…
I had forgotten to breathe.
All this time I was helping others put on their oxygen masks and I had forgotten about my own. I’m not sure what flipped the switch. Maybe it was Kristin’s death or maybe it was just a part of getting older. I guess the catalyst doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I woke up from the fog brought on by a metaphorical lack of oxygen. I reached for my mask, my writing, and took a deep breath. It was like waking up from a deep sleep. I was a little disoriented, a little cranky, and a lot curious about what the hell I had been missing in my own life.
How many dreams had I sacrificed for someone else? How many bucket list items had I missed out on because someone in my life wanted/needed something and I put them first? How many times had I betrayed myself, lied to myself, shushed myself so that someone else could speak, dream, live?
My heart ached. My head pounded. I took another deep breath, closed my eyes, and slid to my knees. A tear fell and then two. Soon they fell like rain and I let them fall. I was grieving for my dreams. I was grieving for my innocence and my inner child. I was grieving for my lost self, the self I had tucked away out of fear—fear of losing people, losing face, disappointing others, fear of what unleashing my dreams might bring and whether I was strong enough to handle it.
When the tears finally stopped I stood up. I wiped away the tears. I made myself a promise. I promised to put my mask on first. I promised to listen and take seriously my inner longings. I promised to feel my feelings and reach for my dreams. I promised to no longer be afraid of losing people. I knew that if they really loved me and really wanted me in their life then they would stay, either way I would be ok. I promised to be afraid and do it anyway.
I promised to be kind to myself and to always believe in myself even when everyone else says otherwise.
I am still a bit shaky and uncertain. I’m still finding my bearings and breathing deeply. All I know is that it’s not selfish to take care of ourselves. I believe that it’s quite the opposite. If we allow our wells to run dry then we have nothing to give to anyone. If we fill our wells so that they overflow and provide for others from that, we will always have enough to sustain us and help them.
Editor: Amy Cushing
Photo: Flickr via quinndombrowski
Tanya Tiger, LMSW is a creative and fiery soul who dreams of a world where everyone is free to be their authentic selves. She has been writing, drawing, sculpting and otherwise flexing her creative muscles since she was a young child, often at the exasperation of her teachers but always with encouragement from her parents. Tanya recently found herself going through a major shift in the very foundation of her being. This shift happened when her youngest daughter, Kristin, died unexpectedly at the age of 16-months. Forced to face her greatest fear, Tanya chose to turn away from the shadows of anger and hatred that loomed and instead turned toward the light of love in her daughter’s honor. Tanya is also mother to an insanely funny 3-year-old girl, who keeps her imagination running at full force and effect with her larger than life personality. It is Tanya’s heartfelt hope to inspire people through her writing and to show that strength can be found in vulnerability, that a person can survive the worst kind of pain, and that there is always a choice when we are faced with tragedy.