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I am currently in the process of reading Kristen Neff’s book Self Compassion and just came across, seemingly for the millionth time, the reference to “putting on your own oxygen mask first.” In case you haven’t heard this frequently used in-flight instruction demonstrating the importance of self care, I am here to break down why it is simply the greatest psychology metaphor of all time.

Psychotherapy and Exploring The Self

So much of what we psychotherapists are doing with our clients is exploring The Self: the self as separate from family of origin, from partners, parents, friends, children, and siblings. So often, the reasons that elicit the need for psychotherapeutic services are relationships gone wrong. Early childhood trauma, parents that were too self absorbed or uneducated on the basic needs of infants and young children or the lifelong impact of not meeting those needs, and unsatisfying or abusive adult relationships often leave individuals feeling confused, stuck, and anxious and lead people to seek help.

As we look at what has transpired within these relationships, and how they have become sources of pain, we also begin to look more closely at the self of the person who has sought our help. Together, we begin to inquire. Who is this person? What are the needs of this separate self?

What we often find is that the self has needs, desires, and ways of being that are distinct and unique. Taking good care of that separate self is one of the chief tasks of adulthood. Hence, the analogy.

We, as adults in relationship with others, must become good stewards of our own experience so that we can, in turn, be good caregivers to others. 

An Experiment for Cynics

Don’t believe me? Here’s an experiment: for the next week, avoid doing anything simply because you enjoy it. Commit only to doing things that are in the service of others: your kids, partner, friends, colleagues, etc. Notice how you feel at the end of that week (if you can make it that long!). Exhausted? Irritable? Angry? Resentful?

How are the relationships themselves? Strained? Tense? One-sided?

When we care for others at the expense of caring for ourselves, ultimately, relationships suffer and everybody loses. A burned-out, overworked and anxious employee is hardly in a position to offer the same level of clarity, creativity and critical thinking as someone who has a balanced work/play/rest lifestyle. An exhausted, energetically depleted mother can not give the same level of presence and empathy to a struggling child as a mother who is rested and well cared for.

Back to The Metaphor

The instruction given at the beginning of every commercial flight states “in case of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting someone else.” This clearly illustrates how caring for yourself is paramount in order for you to truly care for others. Breathing is a symbol for life, for being. Inhabiting a human body requires regular care and maintenance: rest, food, water, touch, movement. If we don’t tend to the needs of the body we get sick. Tending to the needs of the psyche/soul also sustain life, infusing it with meaning and understanding, allowing us to make connections, grow and evolve. Taking a holistic perspective requires that we view ourselves as consisting of many parts: mind and body; soul and spirit.

As adults, we afford ourselves and those in our care the opportunity to experience true generosity and abundance when we are able to tend to our own metaphorical gardens. Otherwise we run the risk of showing up for relationships empty handed, without resources and craving that someone else will fill us up. Not only can this lead to disappointment by expecting from others what they may not be able to give, but this caring for ourselves also serves as a protective function. When we do show up for relationships in desperate need for affection and attention, we open ourselves up to victimization by predators who may give us something, but ultimately take more than what’s offered.

Essentially, this metaphor encourages us to help others. It stresses the importance of being able to be there for others in their time of need. But who are you going to help if you can’t breathe?

No one.