“Nice try,” the counselor said with a kind smile. “But there’s one thing … ”
He bent his head to write on my paper, and I frowned. I’d labored over the words of the affirmation, trying hard to get them exactly right.
It was one of my first workshops at The Clearing, the residential rehab where I spent a month learning how to heal the underlying core issues that drive substance abuse.
(Though I didn’t use drugs, my work as a digital copywriter and some unexpected struggles opened a door for me to participate in the program.)
Our participant group was charged with writing personal affirmations, and I’d thought that mine was done: “I am a strong, courageous woman, living in my integrity, loving myself and others.”
I’d chosen each word with care, so where had I gone wrong?
A New Way to Look at Love
Then I took a deep breath and reigned in my perfectionism, reminding myself that I was there to learn.
“Okay, what is it?” I asked the counselor, listening closely.
He looked at me gently, with a spark of humor in his eyes. “There’s someone in every group who writes, ‘Loving myself and others’.
It’s sincere, but here’s the problem. What you really mean by that is, ‘Loving others, and then if there’s anything left, maybe loving myself a tiny bit.’”
“Try this instead.”
He passed me the paper, and I read what he’d written aloud:
“I am a strong, courageous woman, living in my integrity, loving myself first and then others.”
“Oh,” I said. The revised affirmation was a shock to the system. My voice and posture changed when I came to the final clause.
Now I get it.
Put On Your Own Mask First
Loving myself first and then others.
How many of us struggle mightily with this? How many of us put other people’s needs and wants far above our own?
So often we’re blind to it, because it’s a default setting. Surrendering our truth to please someone we love is a knee-jerk reaction. It’s automatic, born from years of self-negating practice.
We think that love means giving up all of our limits. As Liz Gilbert wrote of her own codependent relationships:
“If I love you, you can have everything. You can have my time, my devotion … my money, my family, my dog, my dog’s money, my dog’s time—everything.”
The result is that we become, in Gilbert’s words, “exhausted and depleted”. So, how can we beat generosity burnout, functioning as self-protective givers rather than selfless ones?
It starts with loving ourselves first and then others.
This is another way of saying what every airline flight crew will tell you: When cabin pressure drops and it’s time for oxygen, put on your own mask first, and then assist others.
Real World Examples
I’ve been repeating my (revised) affirmation every day for over a year, and here’s what I’ve learned.
On the physical level, loving ourselves first means making sure that we get good sleep, healthy food, and quality medical care. (It might also mean daring to dress better.)
On the mental level, it means questioning our painful thoughts (or our inner cruise directors). It’s taking responsibility for our own mental health and writing a better story.
On the emotional level, it means feeling our feelings and offering ourselves compassion. It’s about peaceful permission to be human, not hiding away when we’re struggling.
On the spiritual level, it means being still, remembering who we are, and living by love instead of fear.
Does This Sound Impossible?
If so, consider that you’ve been doing it the opposite way – loving others first, giving them their oxygen masks before reaching for yours – for years. We both know that it ends badly.
Consider the struggle and pain that path has brought. Take a hard look at how many times you have literally and metaphorically passed out, collapsing from lack of self-care. (At least, I know that I have.)
Then try doing it differently, just as an experiment. You don’t have to make a lifelong commitment.
Just see if loving yourself first doesn’t help you to feel freer and happier and — surprise! — more loving toward other people.
The Ideal Setup for Loving Others
When you love yourself first – when you set boundaries and declare dominion over your own life – you are liberated to love others in a new way.
You don’t need them to change or be different in order to help you feel better, because you already have that covered.
When you know that you are safe and loved, generosity is the most natural thing in the world. Loving yourself first is actually the ideal setup for loving others. Who knew?
I didn’t know that before, but I’m learning it now. I’m putting my own oxygen mask on first, then extending my hands, grateful for each breath.
Do you struggle to put on your own mask first? Join the conversation in the comments below!
It’s fitting to close this post with a short excerpt from longtime AWCC reader Harriet Cabelly‘s new book, Living Well Despite Adversity.
The quote is from an interview with my Vassar College professor, fellow writer, and autism parent Priscilla Gilman:
“Just as I want to know [my son, Benj, who has autism] and I want to help him be as happy and fulfilled as he can be, I feel the same way about myself. It’s very important to be able to look at ourselves and say, ‘These are my strengths, these are my challenges, these are my weaknesses,’ because everybody has challenges and weaknesses. The more honest I can be about my limitations as well as my strengths, the happier and more peaceful I can be.”
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