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Self-care: putting your own oxygen mask on first

If you’ve ever been on an airplane you will have been told that in the case of an emergency you have to fit your own oxygen mask before helping others to fit theirs.  Whilst I’ve travelled on a lot of airplanes, thankfully I’ve never actually had to follow through with this instruction.  In real life, with feet firmly planted on the ground, how easy is it though to care for yourself before caring for others?  For women especially I have really strong feeling that we have to work really hard to nail this whole self-care thing.

Self-sacrifice vs self-care

It’s one of the wellness industry’s favourite buzzwords “self-care”.  We’re all supposed to be doing it.  And it’s a very personal business. It can be anything from having a mani/pedi to taking a walk along the beach. There are over 57 million google hits for the term and I feel like I’m one of the last people on the planet to write about it.

Women are the nurturers of the world.  We ask how school / work was today, feed, shop, clothe and soothe.  We are the safe pair of ears to hear the worries, and an even safer pair of arms to provide the comfort.  As a general rule, women are excellent at ‘service’.  However in my experience we aren’t so good at self-service.  (And for once I’m not talking about masturbation!)

I work with women every single day who cancel their own attempts at self-care – either a PT session or a coaching session – because they place the needs of their children or other family / friends above their own.  Now don’t get me wrong I am the first to sympathise with a mummy who has to cancel because she’s been up half the night with a vomiting little person.  I’ve been there.  I’ve done it a thousand times and continue to do so.  But I know it doesn’t serve any of us very well in the long-run.

Thea the martyr

I am frequently inspired to write because of events in my own life that pull me up short, and because I have always been motivated to work with like-minded women, I can pretty much guarantee that when I stuff up there will be others out there who totally get it.  And I am quite happy to stand up and own it when I get it wrong.

Like this weekend.  Got. It. So. Wrong.

That sorry tale is coming up, but I shared a video last week on Facebook page…and I’ve replicated it here so you can hear it straight from the horses mouth.


Anyway, this annoying hip situation is proving to teach me a whole bunch of useful life skills, but this weekend it really highlighted how I’m just too ready to put other people’s needs before my own.  And to my own physical detriment.

Put a brave face on it

This weekend was the Sandown round of Supercars Australia.  Andrew works for Prodrive Australia, one of the race teams and had a big weekend of work down at the track.  It was our weekend without the #bradybunch so I had Saturday pretty much to myself enjoying some very precious peace and quiet after working in the PT Studio in the morning.  On Sunday though, I was track-bound thanks to Andrew getting me access to the garages, paddock and even the grid before the race!  I knew how busy he was going to be, and knowing him as I do, I also knew he would want it all to go swimmingly and with lots of professionalism.

I’m a good girlfriend.  Or at least I try really hard to be.  But I wasn’t going to be heading to the track with him at the crack of dawn so I ubered my way there mid-morning.  When I got out of the uber my hip did its buckle-grind-pain thing that it does with increasing frequency these days. A shearing bolt of pain made me catch my breath as I tried desperately not to get run over by the crazy Supercars fans all trying to get a park before the race.

But being (trying) a good girlfriend meant I didn’t tell Andrew that I was in a lot of pain when I saw him.  Instead I asked him how his morning was going and put a brave face on the deep nagging hip pain that I knew was just going to get worse as the day wore on.  I spent the day enjoying the spectacle that was the race but I wasn’t my usual smiley self.  I stood up all that time and walked a lot, and my hip hurt like hell.

Lesson learned

The relief of sitting in the car at the end of the day literally brought tears to my eyes.  No joke.  And then I had to explain the tears.  Turns out I probably should have said something earlier.  I thought I was doing the right thing by keeping my discomfort to myself because the day was a big deal for Andrew and he was working.  Worrying about me, or having to make allowances, wasn’t really part of his plan.  And worse, I didn’t see it as something he should have to be thinking about.

I too often see my needs as not as important as those of the others in my life.  I will consider my children’s needs before my own.  That’s what a mother is supposed to do, right?  Andrew’s needs too.  Somehow they are more important than mine.  I will frequently agree to things with my friends or clients without really considering the implications for me.  I never schedule a lunch break in my day because I try to make myself available to my clients.

See.  Told you.  A martyr.

Learned behaviours

And I know it’s dumb.  I’m forever encouraging my clients to put their needs first, to prioritise their self-care.  And yet, I’m utterly rubbish at it.  But I am getting better.  I am learning to schedule time for myself, to say ‘no’ (nicely) and I’m hard working on my boundaries.  As this weekend showed me, it’s still a work in progress!

However, I could only start to improve by understanding where this people-pleasing, brave-face wearing approach came from.  I had to address my learned patterns of behaviours that are so ingrained in me.

Turns out they’re deeply rooted in my little 10-year old self who had to learn how to navigate the scary world of boarding school.  In that isolating world I learned slowly that to survive I had to suffocate my own needs.  To ignore the deep yaw of homesickness to avoid being bullied for crying and wanting to phone home every single night.

When you’ve spent the best part of 30 years perfecting self-sacrifice it is understandable that self-care doesn’t come naturally!  But you have to do the work.  You have to unpick where your own hang-ups come from to figure out how to move forward.

Permission to receive

And there’s nothing that makes moving forward easy.  There is no magic pill that dissolves the guilt you feel – misplaced as it is – when you do something solely for yourself.  This is the crux of the issue though.  Until you accept that there is nothing wrong with putting your needs first then nothing ever changes.

We don’t need permission to take.  We don’t need permission to receive.  It’s there for us to take.  We are no more or less deserving that anyone else in our world.  And I promise you this: until you learn to give to yourself first, then you will constantly be depleting yourself.  You will leach and leak and you will be left lacking.

And so this is where you have to put your own oxygen mask on first.  You need to breathe so that you can show others around you how.  You need to be strong and uplifted so that you can uplift others.  It is your obligation to put your needs first.  To do any less is to be selfish actually.

Mine before yours.  Me before you.  Try it.

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