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There's More to Self-Care than the Oxygen Mask Airplane Metaphor


woman putting her oxygen mask on before helping a little boy next to her put his on
Image by Calla Macarone

People who are caretakers of others are often chided for not taking care of themselves enough or prioritizing themselves before others. And without fail, whenever the topic of self-care comes up, a well-meaning friend or family member magically pulls the oxygen mask metaphor out of thin air. You know the one. Of course, the loving intention behind these words is to help the caregiver remember that they can only be helpers to others when they have met their own basic needs for survival. And of course that simple piece of wisdom is true. But here’s the thing about cliché’s, they can only take us to some basic truths, they can’t actually help us accomplish the hard work of making that change. And when you are a big human taking care of little humans, it can be virtually impossible to grab a second to use the bathroom alone, let alone do other things like shower and get a good night’s rest.

Old Tool Boxes May Need New Tools

So how can we move beyond the oxygen metaphor into tangible steps we can take? We start by creating some new tools for our old tool box. And by “tool box”, I mean that each and every one of us has a set of things we do that help us stay balanced— especially under stress. The problem is, when we are stressed, we forget those tools and may lapse into old coping skills like eating copious amounts of chocolate, binging an entire season of Game of Thrones, and skipping the gym. Wait, that’s me. Ahem. Let’s get back to you.

As a parent or caregiver the scary (yet cool) thing is the little humans are watching everything you do. How you identify your stress, model your coping skills, and monitor your internal dialogue will color how your little humans will too. So, it’s important for you to:

1. Define what stress feels like in your body

· When you are stressed, where in your body does it manifest?

· Do you get tense in your shoulders, jaw, head?

· Does your heart pound?

· What else do you notice?

2. What helps you feel more in balance?

· Shower/bath

· Calling a friend or loved one

· Journaling

· Exercise

· Prayer

· Mindfulness exercises

· Doing an activity that you enjoy

· Taking a nap

· Humming/Singing

3. When you are stressed what do you say to yourself and how can you model this for the little humans?

· “Wow, I’m feeling anxious right now, I think if I go into my room for a few minutes I can take deep breaths and calm myself down.”

· “I’m feeling frustrated right now. I’m going to stop what I’m doing and sit for a few minutes with my eyes closed so I can allow this feeling a chance to pass.”

· I’m feeling angry right now. I think jogging/running for a little while will help this work through my body. Hey kids, why don’t we take a hike/run/jog/walk around the block.

· “I’m noticing how sad I am right now. It will help my body to cry and allow this sadness to be here with me.”

A note about modeling emotions for our little ones. How we experience them, will in fact influence how they feel and experience their own. What we label as “negative” emotions are the ones that we are sometimes the most afraid of. If we can find ways to just be with whatever comes up, we will give our little ones the greatest gift of not fighting or denying their full spectrum of emotions. Sadness, anger, frustration, irritability, jealousy and resentment are part of the human experience. Teaching children that the only acceptable emotion is joy, is to also imply that they are unlovable and unacceptable when other emotions arise. Staying loving and neutral with ourselves when we as big humans experience a range of emotions outside of joy, really creates a sense of self-compassion. In turn, this creates little humans who learn to accept themselves.

4. What new tools do I need to develop for my toolbox?

· Practice identifying body awareness

· Start exercise practice

· Learn how to release emotions in my body

· Take up journaling

· Reach out to people more for support

You can add so much more to this list. The bullet points are just examples to get you started.

5. Develop a Comfort Kit

In the Power of Three Program, one of the exercises I encourage big humans to do with little humans is to help create a kit of things that bring comfort. This kit is designed to bring comfort in times of stress and overwhelm. For little ones, it can be as simple as a stuffed animal, their favorite t-shirt, favorite songs etc. For us bigger humans, maybe our kit has more things in it. But, I think the same principle applies. Knowing how to find balance and return to a sense of peace and well-being even when you’ve got two sets of eyes staring at you underneath the crack of the bathroom door. Now that’s a feat that transcends the oxygen mask.

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