By Bill Nolan, LMFT
Access Wellness Group
I was sitting on the plane, waiting for the usual takeoff speech, half listening, half ignoring the flight attendant’s directions. You know, that two-minute rundown of all the essential stuff we need to know in case of an emergency. Thankfully, I’ve never had to use any of it, at least not while on an airplane.
On this particular flight I did happen to listen to one part of the attendant’s directions. I listened as she instructed the passengers about putting on oxygen masks in the event of sudden loss of cabin pressure. And then I heard her explain to those traveling with children the importance of putting on their masks first before helping children with their’s. I sat there wondering why would you tell people traveling with small children to put on their masks first rather than their children’s. That seemed so backwards to me as a parent. And then it dawned on me. If I pass out from trying to help my child put a mask on because I hadn’t put mine on first, then I’m no good either to my child or to myself. Duh!
And then it also hit me. This flight attendant had to specify this because it went against every instinct we have as parents.
You know, sometimes we need someone to give us permission, or rather instruction, to put life’s oxygen masks on first. Some of us are so in the habit of tending to others that we have neglected ourselves. And guess what, it catches up with us and eventually we aren’t helping anyone anymore. And then we feel badly for failing to take care of or being there for our family or friend.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for being there for others. Whether it’s been in my marriage, or raising three sons, or helping my clients, I have always felt it important to be there for the other person. I have also noticed over the years that when I started to resent having to be there, it was because I hadn’t done a very good job of making sure my mask was on first and I was running out of oxygen.
It is this inability to give ourselves permission to put our masks on first that gets us in trouble in the long run. For many, it really does run contrary to our nature or our instincts to help others. So we have to work a little harder at taking time to breathe.
For parents, this may mean that you set aside some time for yourself. And if you are married, by all means you need to set aside some time for your relationship. I am often surprised at the number of young parents who complain of not having time for themselves only to find out they haven’t set aside some time by insisting on something as simple as a regular bedtime for their children. It’s not only OK, but I would go so far as to say necessary for kids to have a time of separation from mom and dad at the end of the day to rest and sleep in their own beds. Kids need it, and parents need it, as well.
It’s also OK to limit kids activities. Too often I think the chaos families and parents feel today is created by allowing way too many things to fill up the calendars.
Aside from life as a parent, what are other ways of putting your mask on? If you’re an introvert like I am and are around people a lot, you probably need down time to refuel. It may be at the end of the day or week. Or it may be first thing in the morning. Either way, introverts have to recharge with alone time. One of my favorite times has been playing a round of golf on an empty course at the end of a busy Saturday. It was as if the course and I were “exhaling” after a busy and full day or week of activity.
Or if you’re not into golf, what about a nice walk somewhere else? Or perhaps a good swim? A good thing about swimming is there are no cell phones, no interruptions. And you really appreciate the value of breathing while swimming!
Then there are those of us who not only love to be around others but we feel compelled to say “yes” whenever asked to do something. This becomes problematic for people who haven’t taken care of their well-being first. They continue to say yes to others while depleting their reserves. Often, when tempted to actually say no, they feel the tinge of guilt over such self-indulgence and quickly avert this awful feeling by saying yes and overcommitting themselves once again.
This brings up the issue of boundary-setting, which is actually another article for the future. Let’s just say for now, setting boundaries for oneself is as important as taking time to relax and breathe.
So relax, make sure your seat is in the upright position and fasten your seat belts until the pilot has turned the light off. And in the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, i.e., when life shows up, be sure to put on your mask and breathe!
Bill Nolan is a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices at Access Wellness Group, a Lexington-based group providing counseling and addiction treatment services to individuals, families and Employee Assistance Program client companies. He works with individuals and families, focusing much of his work helping clients deal with problems related to addictions and recovery. In addition, his background and experience has led him in developing a passion for helping people who at times have been spiritually wounded.