Secure your own oxygen mask first

Every time we fly, we hear flight attendants sharing 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 blog I like to explain what could possibly be wrong with helping others first and how that’s a metaphor for life.

The oxygen mask

secure your own oxygen mask first

Every 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 that, I 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 safe yourself over saving the vulnerable baby. In that situation it would feel selfish in a way to safe yourself first.

Yet it’s actually an important safety rule for people to follow. This is what happens when the cabin pressure drops in a plane and the passengers go without enough oxygen. The longer your brain goes without oxygen, the more your capacity to do simple things deteriorates. The physical symptoms vary from person to person but includes headaches and dizziness and disappear as soon as the oxygen mask is put back on.

So without oxygen, you might not be physically capable of putting your child’s mask on, let alone your own. But by attending to your own first, it ensures you’ll have the mental and physical facilities needed to take care of your children. If you become incapacitated through lack of oxygen, you’re no use to anyone.

Metaphor for life

This 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, fathers, care-givers, doctors, nurses and teachers among us. Taking care of others can easily deplete the care-giver.

It’s a simple concept that makes sense to me and I think to many more women.  You can’t help others for very long if you don’t take care of yourself first. And yet, how many of us carry on assisting others with their oxygen masks and giving little thought to how long our own oxygen supply will keep us going or if the mask is even on? First, make yourself happy and after that start to fix other peoples problems. It’s a mantra that I try to live my life by because I think it’s the most healthy, meaningful and equal way of living your life.

If someone we love has an addiction that is creating problems, it’s natural to want to be a part of the solution. As a result, we may find ourselves devoting abundant energy to the addiction in various ways (educating ourselves about addiction, trying to keep the peace with our loved one, worrying about the future, trying to influence our loved one to address the problem). We may choose to do this willingly and lovingly….but in many cases, our choice may come at an expense to our own physical and mental health.

When “helping” (whatever that means in our situation) seems to leave little time for anything else, the result is quite often “burnout”. Some feelings that may accompany “giving too much“ are exhaustion, frustration, and anger, along with possibly feeling ineffective, helpless, or hopeless.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) teaches that we are each responsible for our own happiness. When we find ourselves in a situation where our happiness is suffering, the “oxygen mask rule” analogy is helpful. To avoid burnout, managing our self-care is a key responsibility to maintain our happiness, our physical health, and our mental health. 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 won’t be able to care for others.

What if, in life, you 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?  It can be counterintuitive.  But, imagine a life where you have more energy, more time and are more positive. In this scenario you’re more present with others and more creative. Who doesn’t want that?  What family, work environment and world doesn’t need or want that?

Keep yourself healthy

What do we really need to maintain our physical and mental health? Exercise, good nutrition, alone time, social time, time for creative endeavors, medical care, and support groups are just a few ideas to consider. We may have become so accustomed to “dealing with” the addiction or trying to “help” our loved one, that it may feel wrong to give priority to our own needs but doing so is critical. If we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?

Airplanes have sensors to protect against oxygen deprivation. Fortunately, so do we: our friends, relatives, and support group members. We do well to pay attention when we hear others reminding us to “take care of you first” or reminding us of the Oxygen Mask Rule. They are seeing signs of “oxygen deprivation” in our life, signs that we have not noticed ourselves yet.


Make yourself happy first, then start to fix other people’s problems, is a mantra that I try to live my life by. What about you? Do you secure your own oxygen mask first?

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