Put On Your Own Mask First (Yes, You Really Can)

“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.’”

Put On Your Own Mask First, Heart

“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.

Put On Your Own Mask First, Mirror

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.

Put On Your Own Mask First, Be Kind

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. 

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Do you struggle to put on your own mask first? Join the conversation in the comments below!

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It’s fitting to close this post with a short excerpt from longtime AWCC reader Harriet Cabelly‘s new book, Living Well Despite Adversity.

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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8 thoughts on “Put On Your Own Mask First (Yes, You Really Can)

  1. Welcome back! Great post and I love the quote as well! Loving yourself first as a whole is most difficult to me although I dare say a vast majority of people on earth do just fine putting themselves first in general… But I’m glad this tribe is the exception =D thank you for your generosity!

    • Thank you, Clarissa! It’s good to be back. And you have a good point; there are plenty of people out there who don’t share this issue.

      I remember feeling so surprised during a gathering a few years ago, when one woman shared that she had such a hard time taking care of her own needs, and another woman said that she had the opposite problem. The latter’s challenge was to remember to take others’ feelings into consideration and not just do what was best for her and her alone.

      It was a good reminder that we all have our different temperaments and upbringings and lessons to learn. In any case, I’m grateful for this tribe and for all that we’re learning together; thank you for being a part of it. 🙂

  2. I’ve always struggled with this, and I’m only just now learning to say “no” when I need to protect my own energy. You articulate beautifully what that’s so necessary.

  3. Growing up I learned that to be a “good christian” meant always putting yourself last – serving and sacrificing for others. To look after yourself was selfish and “ungodly”. I was told that this was gospel truth. It wasn’t until a few years back, after bullying and abuse in the church drove me to question everything I’d ever known, that I started to see how this “gospel” had set me up for abuse (and ultimately to me having a breakdown).

    I ended up needing to see a secular psychologist (shock, horror!) to learn how to function as a healthy, whole person. And that’s what helped me to discover the paradoxical reality that we cannot love others if we don’t first love ourselves.

    This year, as my youngest son has plumbed the depths of depression, I found myself slipping… and then remembering how important it was to look after myself first, because I couldn’t help him if I wasn’t healthy myself. And it was then I remembered the advice they give you one the airlines about putting your own mask on first. I not only “could”, it was imperative I “did”.

    • Oh Living Liminal, I hear you. (Also, I love the name you’ve chosen for yourself!) You write so well about the struggle to get out from all of that self-negating baggage; my hat is off to you.

      I’m so glad that you were able to receive support in un-learning the abusive dynamics. Thank you for highlighting the important truth that we cannot truly love others unless we love ourselves. If we despise ourselves, we cannot extend love to others, because we are all connected.

      It’s been really illuminating for me to realize that no one who truly loves me would want me to hurt or neglect myself. I always knew that I didn’t want my loved ones to hurt or neglect themselves! – but it took me a long time to realize the reverse.

      Thank you again for sharing part of your story here. My heart goes out to you and I pray for your youngest son’s healing.

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