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Saturday, January 4, 2020

What Does It Really Mean to Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First?

I doubt this is the first time you’ve heard that you should “put on your own oxygen mask first.” In fact, you’ve likely heard this advice so many times it doesn’t really sink in anymore. That’s unfortunate, because it’s such a powerful metaphor.

On a flight, the first person to put on an oxygen mask is the pilot. There’s nothing selfish about this. If the pilot loses consciousness, the plane will crash.

“Loss of pressurisation can very quickly lead to the incapacitation of the crew and passengers unless they receive supplementary oxygen... It is essential that the flight crew don oxygen equipment as soon as possible... [then] descend immediately to an altitude at which they and the passengers can breathe without supplementary oxygen.”  (Source:

If you are responsible for other people (as a teacher, school leader, counselor, parent, nurse, caregiver, etc.), you also have a responsibility to take care of yourself.

This isn’t a justification for selfishness or self-indulgence. Remember that the advice is to put on your own oxygen mask first, before assisting others.

I’ve never heard in-flight safety instructions like,

“Put on your own oxygen mask and then ignore the needs of the people around you.”

Nor have I ever heard a flight attendant say,

“In the event that you start feeling a bit hungry or thirsty, take as much as you can carry from the meal trolley. Don't think at all about the other passengers. In fact, feel free to look through their carry-on bags for enticing snacks or beverages.”

Similarly, practicing healthy self-care does not mean selfishly disregarding the needs of your colleagues, your family, and your students or clients. It means doing what you need to do to take care of yourself so your help can be more effective.

A bereavement counselor told me his biggest concern is for colleagues who don't take ‘comp time’ (equivalent number of days off) after working on the weekends. The organization isn't understaffed, and their boss encourages the counselors to take comp time, so it's clearly a personal choice.

They may be patting themselves on the back for being so dutiful, but in the long run:

“Those are the people who get cynical and burned out, who drag down the morale of the rest of the staff and end up becoming less effective in treating clients.”

I referred to this counselor in an earlier post on “What’s Draining Your Battery?

“A bereavement counselor told me about a day he spent at a school where one of the students had committed suicide. He knew that he really need to rest afterwards, but he had to go directly from the school to an evening support group for adults.

Here's what he did: he arrived fifteen minutes early and took a nap in his car. After that, he felt refreshed enough to give his full attention to the group of grieving adults, and the session went very well.

That specific solution might not work for you. (A car nap would leave me feeling rumpled and groggy.) But we can all come up with creative ways to sneak quick breaks into our schedules so we can be fully present for those who need us.”

We’re all far less effective in helping others if we work ourselves to the point of illness or burnout, or if we’re so busy we can’t think straight. So please take this analogy seriously, and make sure that you get the basic physical and emotional sustenance you need.

photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

You may find the following posts useful as you figure out a self-care routine that works for you, in the midst of your crazybusy schedule:

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)