5 minutes read 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 that’s a metaphor for life.
The oxygen mask
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 save yourself over saving the vulnerable baby. In that situation, it would feel inappropiate or selfish to save myself first.
Yet it’s actually an important safety rule for people to follow. Let me explain 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 include headaches and dizziness and disappear as soon as the oxygen mask is put back on.
As a result, flight attendants want us to attend to our own masks first, simply because it 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. Especially the mothers, fathers, nurses, caregivers, doctors, and teachers among us. Taking care of others can easily deplete the caregiver in various unhealthy ways.
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.
If one of our loved ones experiences problems in his or her life, it’s natural to want to be a part of the solution. Especially parents may choose to help their children willingly and lovingly, but in many cases our choice to help the other person may come at an expense of our own physical and mental health.
As a result, 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. But while using our valuable and limited time and energy to help others, we basically prioritize other people’s needs and choose to belittle our own.
Although helping other people may sound like the right thing to do, the signs of a potential imbalance are always visible. Some feelings that are related to “giving too much” are exhaustion, frustration, and anger, along with possibly feeling ineffective, helpless, or hopeless.
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. Therefore, we need to recognize the difference between selflessness and self-care. Just in order to stay healthy, happy and fulfilled in our lives, while being more effective in helping others too.
The oxygen mask rule is the mantra of how I like to live my life. To me it’s the most healthy and meaningful way of living life. What about you? What do you think of this message about self-care and being there for others? And do you secure your own oxygen mask first often enough?
Did you like this story? Other stories that I wrote: