More often than I had expected, patients enter my office out of a sense of obligation. They were sent by a concerned significant other, parent or child, or they consider it a last resort after having gone through a roll call of home/over-the-counter remedies in an effort to contain an ailment without satisfactory effect. If an individual’s life is largely wrapped around taking care of others, whether at home or at work, I hardly see that person at all. People just can’t be bothered to take time to care for themselves when they are responsible for someone else. Besides that, no one really *wants* to go see their doctor; it means you’re sick. Well, remember the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”? I would like to propose that what most people need is a bit more fundamental than a daily helping of fruit (although that wouldn’t hurt). You need oxygen.
“Sssssssssso, you’re saying, Doc, that something is wrong with my breathing?”, you ask. No, allow me to introduce The Oxygen Mask Principle.
If you have ever traveled by airplane, you have heard the flight attendant spiel at least once while taxiing to the runway for takeoff. If you have traveled more than once by airplane, you probably still have only really listened to the rote recitation only once, and, figuring you have it down, picked up your book/magazine/smartphone-on-airplane-mode to indulge in your own entertainment. But did you happen to catch what you are instructed to do if the cabin pressure changes, oxygen masks drop out of the ceiling, and you are with someone that might need help?
“Please place your own mask first before assisting others.”
This is one line out of a whole set of recommendations meant to be employed under a very specific set of circumstances. But I have found the idea to be fundamental. What will happen if you try to help someone else get oxygen — even someone who might seem as much more fragile or more important than you as a child — before you?
You got it. If for any reason you wind up delayed by any obstacle while providing assistance, you could pass out. Then neither of you breathes.
Several years back, a book came out called “The Purpose-Driven Life.” The very first words in Chapter One which serve as the volume’s recurrent theme are: “It’s not about you.” The message of promoting utter selflessness was probably critical around the turn of the millennium when individualism, indulgence and competition threatened to poison society into oblivion. I certainly wouldn’t argue that altruism –selfless giving– is an important part of living a meaningful, satisfying life. However, I find it necessary to add one word to the mantra proposed by Rick Warren (the book’s author): “It’s not JUST about you.”
The truth is that in order to effectively give to others, there needs to be fuel in the tank of the giver. If you are constantly running on empty, eventually the engine will give out, and then you’ll be the one that requires towing. In other words, it needs to be about you, too. At least a little bit.
Conversely now, please do not mistake my own message as saying that ‘taking care of Number One’ ought to preclude taking care of all other numbers on the roster. We all have people who depend on us, even if they just depend on us to make them proud. The point of making an effort to take care of yourself –of placing your own oxygen mask, if you will– is to be well prepared for placing oxygen on the person who needs your help, even if for any reason it takes extra effort.
Let’s face it, some folks out there for one reason or another may be at risk for biting the hand that feeds them. Maybe they are too young to understand, or don’t have enough information to maintain a breadth of perspective. Dealing with such challenges requires strength, and being strong requires maintaining your own health. Chances are your needs are also your responsibility; if you are the caregiver in any situation, then essentially by definition no one is taking care of you… except you. Just as taking care of yourself at the expense of others comes with consequences, taking care of others consistently at your own expense will yield bad outcomes for everyone involved.
I speak from experience, believe me. When I became a wife and mother, I was convinced that my sole purpose in life was to serve my family. To the detriment of my own sleep for years, I consistently threw myself into the frenzy of household duties balanced with night shift work, until the sleep deprivation turned into depression and resentment towards the very people I wanted to take care of: my family. Meanwhile, the truth was that I never permitted them to take care of me because it hurt my pride. I wanted to prove I was resilient; I wanted to be the heroine. Instead, I was swallowed up by my humanity and everyone suffered, because they did need me, and I had become reduced to a useless pulp. Learning to ask for time and space to meet my own needs amounted to a massive overhaul in perspective for me, but it has been absolutely worth it for all of us. We are palpably healthier as a family simply because I finally learned that my own well-being was as much a priority as everyone else’s.
So let’s get to work on being whole. Step One is realizing that it matters. For all the people who matter to you, it matters to them that you be whole. If you are feeling a bit empty, stop and take a deep breath. Then and only then will you be ready for Step Two. Stay tuned.