by Sarah Alexander, LCSW
When flight attendants give their pre-flight safety instructions, one of the things they tell you is that, in the case of a change in cabin pressure, be sure to place the resulting oxygen mask over your own face first before assisting anyone else, even your own children. This instruction flies strongly in the face of most parents’ instincts. Have you ever wondered why they would advise this? It’s because if your children lose consciousness, they are still breathing. If you lose consciousness, however, you won’t be available to help your children. Even if you get their masks on them before you pass out, you won’t be available to help them with what comes next.
This is an important analogy to remember for people who run around taking care of everything and everyone except themselves. Some people think that it is their duty to put everyone else’s needs first when, in fact, unless you prioritize self-care, you will burn out and not be any good to anyone (whether that takes seconds or decades).
If you don’t have adequate levels of self-care, you will eventually experience sleep disturbances, fatigue, reduced mental effectiveness, mood destabilization, and a myriad of health problems.
In many people’s lives, the higher the stress levels, the less likely they are to make time for self-care when, in truth,
The higher the stress levels, the more important self-care becomes.
There is a great story about Gandhi that illustrates this point well. While attempting to drive the British out of India, he was scheduled to facilitate an important meeting between the Hindus and Muslims who were battling one another for the imminent vacuum in power. On the day of the meeting he was asked if he was going to skip his morning meditation to prepare for it. He responded, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must mediate for two hours instead of one.”
People often tell me they do not prioritize self-care because they feel “guilty” for putting their own needs ahead of others’ (in their mind, self-care = selfish). Without realizing it, these people are mistakenly using the word guilt when the word shame is the accurate term for this scenario. Although they feel very similar, guilt and shame are two different emotions with two very different sets of instructions:
GUILT (“I did something wrong”)
1. Make amends (which, in the 12-step tradition, is more than just apologizing; it’s restoring justice as much as possible).
2. Change behavior (i.e. stop doing the thing that is wrong).
SHAME (“I am something wrong”)
1. Do the thing that brings you shame over and over and over again (in this case: prioritize self-care rather than neglect it).
2. Forgive yourself over and over and over again for having (and/or judging) your perceived flaws (in this case: forgive yourself for being human and needing self-care just like everyone else).
Here are some examples of basic self-care to get you started:
- Get enough rest.
- Nourish your body appropriately.
- Hydrate well.
- Engage in pleasurable movement (not the chore of exercise, but the simple joy of physically moving your precious, miraculous body).
- Spend time in nature (even if it’s just getting some sun on your skin or putting your bare feet in a patch of green grass).
- Practice deep belly-breaths throughout the day (maybe even daily meditation!).
- Listen to uplifting music or inspirational audio programs (like audiobooks or spiritual talks).
- Journal (written, drawn, or collage).
- Keep a daily Gratitude Journal.
- Find opportunities to enjoy humor and laughter.
- Enjoy quality time with your favorite person/people in the whole wide world.
- Snuggle with a beloved pet.
- Get creative (painting, playing music, gardening, decorating, doodling, cooking, writing).
- Have a list of inspirational sayings or images to turn to for a quick lift (for example: my Facebook photo albums Self-Care and Self-Care 2).