Secure your own oxygen mask first before you assist others

Secure your own oxygen mask first before you assist others

This longread is also published on Medium.


Each time we get on an airplane, we hear flight attendants share some variation of the Oxygen Mask Rule; “should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please secure your own oxygen mask first before you assist others.” In this writing I like to explain what could possibly be wrong with helping others first and how the oxygen mask could be a metaphor for life.



The oxygen mask


secure your own oxygen mask firstEvery time I take the plane it strikes me again: the rule of the oxygen mask to help yourself before you help others. When I hear the flight attendant reminds us of this rule, I can’t help but always visualize a baby next to me. If fate would actually hit and the oxygen level would drop dangerously low, it would be hard to imagine that it’s better to save yourself than saving the vulnerable baby. In that situation it would feel inappropiate or selfish to save myself first.


However paradoxical to me – it’s actually an important safety rule for people to follow. Here is what happens to the passengers when the cabin pressure drops on the plane. When the oxygen in the plane is lost, the passengers will start to have a reduced amount of oxygen in the tissues of their bodies. This phenomenon is called hypoxia, and the physical symptoms vary from person to person. Most often it includes headaches, rapid breathing and dizziness and the longer the brain goes without oxygen, the more your capacity to do simple things detoriates.


As a result, flight attendants want us to attend to our own masks first, simply because the mask ensures we have the mental and physical facilities needed to take care of ourselves. In case we become incapacitated through lack of oxygen, we’re not only able to take care of ourselves, but of others too.



Metaphor for life

The oxygen mask is an important metaphor for those who spend a great deal of their time taking care of others. Take for example the mothers, nurses, caregivers, and teachers among us. I appreciate and admire people for this quality, and we should praise and embrace those who do make such efforts because the world can never receive enough of such acts of kindness. On the other hand, taking care of others is also a balancing act. If only caring for everyone but ourselves is taken into account, it can easily deplete the caregiver in various unhealthy ways.


For example, parents may choose to help their children willingly and lovingly. And if one of our loved ones experiences problems in life, it’s natural to want to be part of the solution. In other situations we may find ourselves devoting abundant energy to other people’s problems in various ways – educating ourselves about the problem, trying to keep the peace with our loved one, or worrying about the future.


However, our choice to help the other person may come at an expense of our own physical and mental health. While using our valuable and limited time and energy to help others, we prioritize other people’s needs and may choose to belittle our own. Although helping other people may sound like the right thing to do at all times, the signs of over-giving are often visible. Some feelings that are related to over-giving are exhaustion, frustration, loneliness, a feeling of not being enough, anger, along with possibly feeling ineffective or helpless.


It’s a simple concept that makes sense to me, and I think to many more women. Every once in a while we have to remind ourselves that you can’t help others for very long if you don’t take care of yourself first. And yet, so many of us carry on assisting others with their oxygen masks, while giving little thought to how long our own oxygen supply will keep us going.



Generous giving

As often happens, people’s greatest weaknesses are the flip sides of their greatest strengths. Most over-givers have exceptionally kind hearts and they are incredibly caring by nature. But the willingness to give can stem from various needs. It can stem from selflessness – just because you feel like it and without looking for something in return. But the willingness to give can also stem from the subconscious need to feel wanted and needed.


The first version of giving might come from a place of generosity. It’s an act of kindness and in that case you give without looking for something in return. The second version might come from an empty place. A place that you try to fill by giving other people a good time and looking for outside things to make you feel good. Helping others then might give you a feeling of being needed, being worth it, or being valued as a person.


Giving with strings attached isn’t really giving as far as I am concerned. It’s because you expect something to get back, and it makes you believe that you need things from the outside world to make you happy.


Yet we often keep continue doing the over-giving without often asking ourselves where this behavior stems from. At the same time, for reasons just mentioned, the habit of over-giving is often not pleasant for the people that are in the receiving end. It’s unpleasant because it tends to be an one-way flow of energy. As the psychological Law of Reciprocity prescribes, when you give a person something, the recipient will feel compelled to return the favor. In this way the gift is more about the other person wanting to be helpful, while you might have never asked for help or you don’t need it – which can make you feel uncomfortable.



Keep yourself healthy

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) teaches that we are each responsible for our own happiness. Managing our self-care is a key responsibility to maintain our happiness, our physical health, and our mental wellbeing. It requires consciously planning to include time in our day to attend to our own needs and make that time a priority. If we don’t, we eventually find ourselves in a situation where our happiness is suffering, and we also won’t be able to care for others.


I suppose it requires a shift in our thinking to see self-care as our main priority. Imagine that you, in life, metaphorically put your oxygen mask on first. Not because you’re selfish, but because you can do more – for others and for yourself – if you prioritize your own needs? Just imagine a life where you have more energy, have more time, and are more positive to give back to others. Who wouldn’t want that?


We may have become so accustomed in trying to “help” our loved one, that it may feel wrong to give priority to our own needs but doing is so critical. Exercise, good nutrition, alone time, social time, time for creative endeavors, medical care, and support groups are just a few ideas to consider if you want to maintain your physical and mental health. If we don’t take care of ourselves in simple ways like these, who will?


Airplanes have sensors to protect against oxygen deprivation. Fortunately, so do we: our friends, family, and support group members. We do well to pay attention when we hear others reminding us to take care of our oxygen masks first. They might see signs of “oxygen deprivation” in our life, signs that we have not noticed ourselves yet.




Many of us find meaning in helping others and especially our loved ones who are in need. But what not has to be forgotten is that there is a limit to how much of our valuable energy and time we can give to help other people.


When done properly, it can be a continuum between oneself and the other. Naturally, without loosing oneself or the other person in the process. Without feeling guilty for taking care of ourselves, but from knowing what’s best for us.


It might be helpful to recognize the difference between selflessness and self-care. It would be helpful to change our perspective on taking care of ourselves as a selfish thing, to approach it as something that helps you to become self-full. Just in order to stay healthy, happy and fulfilled in our lives, while being more effective in helping others too.


Let me know your thoughts on this message about self-care and being there for others. And do you secure your own oxygen mask first often enough?


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece of text, you will probably enjoy these articles as well: 


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