Putting on Your Oxygen Mask First: Self-Care for Parents and Givers

I work with the parents of our students in the field. My role is to offer space for families to experience their own process, which often parallels the student process but is distinctly different for obvious reasons. Teens are in the woods, with both the discomfort that it brings and the luxury of not having to attend to their “normal” lives.

They get to be completely present with their feelings, wrapped up in 24/7 support. On the flip side, parents are trying to manage day to day life, kids, finances, responsibilities, etc. AND participate in this incredibly intense emotional experience. Parents have often been in crisis mode with their kids for months or years leading up to the wilderness experience and are quite simply exhausted. This sets the stage for discussion of self-care…before we can do meaningful work on family dynamics, parents must restore some semblance of their own emotional balance and stability. This is the essence of the oxygen mask.

If you are or have been a healer, helper, parent, caretaker, or “giver” in general, you have probably heard the oxygen mask analogy. It refers to the safety spiel airlines give you to secure your own mask before you help anyone else secure theirs. Why? Because you will pass out from lack of oxygen before you even get to the person you are trying to help if you don’t. We apply this analogy in the helping professions and in caretaking because if all we do is give, give, give, we will burn out and have nothing left. It is more drawn out, more gradual than the airplane. We will not have an immediate effect. We will not die…directly. We will slowly wither and fade, and eventually crumple. We may or may not be able to recover the light inside of us that has gone out, or replenish the emotional reserves we have depleted.

Dramatic, right?! If you have a hard time taking care of your own needs over other people, I have already likely provoked an involuntary eye roll or impatient sigh. You may be already coming up with the reasons in your head that taking care of yourself isn’t feasible, or perhaps even necessary. As givers, we think we can keep giving more. We can handle it. If not us, then who? What will so and so do without me? There are lots of reasons that people need us. And there are lots of reasons why we love to give. I believe mostly these reasons are admirable and genuine. We are compassionate, sensitive, loving souls. We feel and care deeply for others in pain or need. We recognize we have something special to offer, and people seem to find comfort in us. I personally have felt most alive, purposeful, and rewarded in those moments where my love and compassion has alleviated another human’s suffering and created a glimmer of hope, peace, and connection.

So why is this bad? It’s not inherently. Like everything in life, the key is balance and moderation. The struggle is that there are deeper needs for many of us that are getting met in the giving that can be hard to see and acknowledge. Sometimes we give to others because it makes us feel important, needed, worthy. Sometimes we pour ourselves into others because we believe we are supposed to, that to take care of ourselves is “selfish” and to take care of others is “noble.” Sometimes we give to others to distract us from being with ourselves and our own feelings, needs, and desires. Sometimes we give to others what we wish someone was giving to us.

Being the giver also offers an element of safety and protection. The giver is in a position of power. The giver has something to offer that the receiver needs. Being the receiver is incredibly vulnerable and humbling. It takes courage, both to acknowledge we need something and then to allow someone close enough to give it to us. All you givers, pause for a moment and think about a time that you needed something and allowed someone to help you. Or perhaps when you needed something and you didn’t allow someone to help you! Think about what it would be like if for a whole day, all you could do was receive love, help, support, and nurturance from the people that care about you, no giving allowed. Could you do it?

For me, being a good receiver is part of my personal growth journey. I’m still a giver, but I recognize the need to do both in order to do either well. I need to receive from the people that love me, so that they feel the joy of giving too. I need to receive from myself, which may be the more difficult part to figure out. I believed for a long time I was worthy because of what I could do for other people, not for who I was, so to think about “being” instead of “doing” was terrifying. Without the external validation, I didn’t know or believe that I was ok. How could I be worthy of love if I’m not providing something to someone else always? Who am I when I’m alone with me? Why do I deserve to take care of myself? I didn’t have to answer these questions when I was giving and doing.

But the “being” part is how we put on our oxygen mask. It’s how we fill up our cup so we can offer others the overflow instead of emptying ourselves entirely. It’s not just about taking care of ourselves. It’s about loving ourselves enough to make it matter that we are well and whole. It’s about honoring ourselves and our spirits, sitting with the discomfort of our own baggage to flesh out our feelings and needs. It’s about courage, vulnerability, and being willing to connect as humans in our beautiful flawed condition. It’s about taking care of each other so we all get to experience the joys of giving and receiving.

I challenge you, givers. Make an effort to receive. Sit in your discomfort. Love yourself enough to put yourself first. Give the gift of giving to someone you love. Put on your damn oxygen mask without grumbling. Consider for a moment that if you focus on being the most whole, full, healthy you that you possibly can, you have the potential to inspire others in ways you could never do through regular giving. Be instead of do. Let your light shine simply because you are you.

Parents: We know this is hard to do, which is why we walk you through it and create opportunities to connect with other parents having the same struggles. Because while we need to learn how to care for ourselves, we don’t get extra points for gasping through it alone. It doesn’t have to be hard and unpleasant all the way through. We don’t have to pretend we know what we are doing. Get support. Maybe even enjoy yourselves! Kids learn healthy habits from watching their parents, and this one piece could make more of an impact than you know. They might thank you (someday… secretly… on the inside).