Adjust Your Own Oxygen Mask
before Helping Others

Regina Brett

Whenever the flight attendant gives the standard safety lecture, no one pays attention, but I stop whatever I'm doing and make myself watch.  It's a welcome reminder to take better care of myself.  I savor the part where the attendant holds up the oxygen mask and tells everyone, "If you have small children traveling with you, be sure to secure your oxygen mask before assisting others."

How often do you get permission to put yourself first?

Traveling parents aren't the only ones who need to heed that advice.  Too many of us, especially women, are guilty of neglecting ourselves.  We're raised to put our spouse, children, neighbors, and strangers, even jobs, first.

I once interviewed a psychologist from the Cleveland Clinic for a radio show about stress.  Dr. Michael McKee said something I've never forgotten:  "Don't have a double standard for you."  You need to treat yourself as well as you treat everyone else.  That lesson hit hard one day when I planned to go to yoga class and finally penciled it in on my busy calendar.  I hadn't been to one in months and made sure I kept the evening free for me.  Two hours before class, a dear friend called and needed a sitter.  Could I watch her son that evening?

Sure, I said, and canceled my yoga plans.  Why did she need me to babysit?

She wanted to go to yoga.

I got screwed out of going to yoga and I did it to myself, all by myself.  I had a wonderful time visiting with her child, but I didn't stop and consult me before giving my time away. . . .

How do we change?  How do we put the oxygen mask on first?

First, give yourself permission to do so.  Consider this your official permission slip to take better care of you.  The care and feeding of you is up to you and no one else.

Dr. McKee offered a few solutions to try.  Here are some of the takeaways from our conversation:

Take care of yourself:  Don't have a double standard.  Don't respect your commitments to yourself less than you do your commitments to others.  Don't give yourself away so there's nothing left of you for you.  Don't pencil in time for you--put it in ink.

Take five:  Stop and take five minutes to get calm, centered, and clear.  Before picking up the kids after work or stopping at the store, sit in the car and be still.  Reboot.  You'll make better decisions and discover you really aren't the axis on which the world spins.  What a relief.

Take six breaths a minute:  I suck at breathing.  Dr. McKee suggested taking just six breaths every minute.  Inhale for five seconds, then spend five seconds exhaling.  Try it.  It's amazing.

Take it back:  Don't hand the remote control of your emotions to others.  No more blaming:  "That guy is driving me nuts. . . My boss is giving me an ulcer. . . The kids are giving me a migraine."  Take back the remote and keep pressing CALM.  You can't control what others do, but you can control your emotional reaction to them.

Take a breather all through the day:  Pick cues for practicing your new breathing, like when you're stopped at a light, get an e-mail from your boss, or have to wait in line at the store.  Take one or two ten-second abdominal breaths and say to yourself, "All is well, all is well."

Take a pleasure cruise:  Every week set aside one hour for you.  Make it your own personal pleasure cruise.  Take an hour of beauty and go to the art museum, a jewelry gallery, or visit a flower shop.  Take an hour of calm and listen to your favorite music, read a favorite poet, use your favorite bubble bath.  Take an hour of nature and soak up the sun, the sound of the rain, the glimmer of stars.  If you can't do 60 minutes straight, give yourself three 20-minute gifts of pleasure.

Take a blessing inventory:  When you're stuck in rush-hour traffic, look around and make a quick gratitude check.  The car next to you is held together by duct tape.  Ah.  Be grateful for your car.  The car in front has three screaming children.  Om.  Be grateful for the silence inside your car.

Take the short view:  See life as a series of sprints, not one long endless marathon with no end in sight.  In between the series of jaunts, rest and renew.

Aristotle separated the world into thinking, feeling, and doing.  Dr. McKee said to manage stress well, one has to change in each of those domains.  My favorite Aristotle quote is this:  "We are what we repeatedly do."  Try to make it a habit to love yourself as much as you do everyone else.

Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, and everyone around you will breathe a little easier, too.

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What is important is to realize that whether we understand fully
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Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross



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If you love yourself, you take good care of yourself.  But early in life
many of us stop loving ourselves and lose a sense of our own value.
Others grow up with a sense of self-worth but get beaten down by
the difficulties of life and then give up caring about themselves.  I
don't want to criticize people and tell them what to do.  But I would
like to see everyone accept themselves and love themselves as much
as they love their pets.  Some people only learn to love themselves
when a life-threatening illness awakens them.  When they are facing
death, they stop smoking and start eating fruits and vegetables.  Why
wait until your life is almost over to realize that you should care for yourself?

Bernie Siegel


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