If you’ve ever taken a flight you’ll have heard the safety briefing before take-off. If oxygen levels in the cabin drop below the required level, breathing masks drop from the overhead lockers. Put on your own mask before helping someone with theirs. The words never had much of an impact on me until my first flight with my 6-month old. I couldn’t imagine making that choice in an emergency. Luckily for us both, I didn’t need to find out.
The truth is that this wise piece of advice is often ignored in so many realms of our lives. How often do we disregard our dreams, our ambitions, and often our basic needs (both physical and mental) to help others?
I’ve seen women who forget to eat because their kids are so demanding. Those who risk running aground rather than asking for help from an overcritical entourage. You may think of this as a noble sacrifice. It does take away any chance of time to reflect on other goals and ambitions you may have had. But what if it leads to a quiet crawling resentment for what you have given up?
Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses
Here’s a story about a friend of mine named Mary. Mary was a mom who cast herself in the role of hero and martyr. She cooked, cleaned, shopped, cared for her family, made the kids' clothes, worked a full-time job….
The kids had a great home life, they felt loved, and cared for. Mary’s husband Jim was great with DIY and seemed to know how to fix anything, grew food, was there for the kids to talk to, draw, paint, make models…. But as the years went on Mary began to criticise Jim more and more, somehow nothing he did was ever good enough. She bemoaned his lack of investment in the family, elevating her contributions above his at every turn.
In truth, this wasn’t really about Jim, but about what Mary felt she had given up for her family. Her resentment eventually prompted her to look outside of the family for what she was missing. This led to an affair, which resulted in her walking out and slamming the door on her family shortly after her daughter Laura’s 14th birthday. Jim was crushed.
If Mary had only taken the time to reflect on what she wanted out of life - and learned how to explain it to her family - things could have been so much different. Her family loved her but couldn’t understand her growing resentment, they didn’t know how to help - because they didn’t know what was wrong.
Why do we struggle to put ourselves first?
Made in your image
Like it or not, most of us are made in the image of our parents. If we are lucky, our parents are amazing role models that have the whole thing worked out. We can learn and grow simply as we are.
It’s much more likely that, having identified traits in our parents that we don’t approve of, we spend a great deal of time trying to break the mould. We rebel against learned behaviour, only to find ourselves mimicking our parents when our attention to detail falters.
Parents who set ridiculously high standards for themselves also inadvertently impose them on their kids. Those that never ask for help demonstrate that asking for help is a weakness. Combine the two and you have an explosive cocktail of chronic self-reliance and fear of failure.
Hardworking, forthright influences in your life are a positive thing. If you do a job you will “do it well”, and being able to “just get on with it” when you need to definitely has its merits.
But it’s not the whole picture. Never being content with where you are right now, struggling to exteriorise your needs and putting yourself first, all come at a cost.
I remember my dad telling my mom to “just sit down for a minute” - when I heard the same phrase directed at me, it hit home.
I’d willingly tell anyone until that point that I didn’t ever remember my mom sitting still and spending time with us. And now, here I was, doing the same! Running around sorting out everyone else, without a thought for myself.
We think we have to, that it’s expected of us. If we don’t do it, then it won’t get done. Or it won’t be done right…
Now here’s the thing, I know you love your kids, your partner, your family, your friends, beyond measure. Yes, you would do anything for them. But does this mean you have to stop focussing on yourself?
Of course not. Why? Because they also love you beyond measure!
Simple isn’t it? So simple I’ll bet it hasn’t even occurred to you. So how can we start to make the change?
Just do it
That’s it. Just do it. And the crazy thing is, when you start to focus on yourself, you’ll find that you can better prioritise the needs of others too. Don’t ask me how it works, it just does.
The start of this year was a turning point for me. Once I started to consider my own needs and desires more seriously things started to change. Progress was slow at first but soon began to gain pace.
How many of us have read self-help or personal development books that tell us the first thing we need to do is “define our goals”? Before February 2021 I’d never even read a self-help book. Since then I’ve read four of them, and the message in each is the same - workout what you want, and go for it.
Putting my mask on before helping someone with theirs has now somehow become synonymous with my thinking. The phrase popped into my head whilst reading the first book - “The Slight Edge” by Jeff Olson. This book blew me away, but I soon realised I had no idea how to make a list of goals. At the age 52, I had never done this.
After reading The Slight Edge I made some flaky notes, not compelling enough, but at least it was a start. From Olson’s book recommendations I picked up a book by David Bach - his books are centred around personal finance goals - this time I faired a little better.
Bach uses a clever idea called a “Values Ladder” as a starting point to help you identify what’s important to you. Next, I moved on to Jim Rohn. I started to see a pattern forming. All these great and successful people advocate documenting what you want - and then going for it. Not one of them says to preoccupy yourself with everyone else’s needs, neglecting your own in the process.
If you’ve never made a list of goals, start now. I mean right now, because it may take longer than you think, and you don’t have a moment to lose.
Get a pen and some paper, or notes on your phone, and start writing. For me, this is still a work in progress. But the act of putting pen to paper has already started to put wheels in motion.
I’m putting on my own mask first now. And because my mask is on, I can breathe and help others with theirs.
Have you put your mask on first? You should.
Much love and encouragement,
The Reluctant Achiever
The Reluctant Achiever is written by professional copywriter Wendy Ann Jones.