Monday 11 May 2020

Put your own mask on first...

Anyone who has flown will be familiar with the safety briefing and its instruction about what to do should the cabin lose pressure. We are told that oxygen masks will drop from the panel above our head, and that we should put our own mask on, before helping others to do so.

That, of course, is sound advice. We are better able to help others if we put our own mask on first; and also, we are less likely to need help ourselves (and thus become an additional problem).

I have heard this quoted a number of times in recent weeks, in the context of resilience during these extraordinary times, and have indeed used the metaphor myself.

Both halves of the admonition are important: looking after yourself first is not selfish. If you fail to do so, you may well end up being an additional problem, just at the time when we (your family, your community, your colleagues, the NHS...) really don't need additional problems.

But the second half is equally important: before helping others... That is to say, we should not only look out for our own well-being, but contribute to others' too. Apart from the obvious reasons - the dictates of charity, or altruism, or community solidarity, or whatever frame you want to put around that universally recognised value of beneficence - there is an interesting feedback loop. Helping others is key to our own social and psychological well-being.

And both of these imply a third aspect to attend to: being prepared to ask for and accept help. That is important, both as a part of looking after yourself, and also in order to permit others to help you, which is good for them, too.

All of which is obvious, just like the things we all know about our physical wellbeing (the importance of hydration, a balanced diet, rest, exercise and so on). Yet knowledge is not always enough. Sometimes, and particularly in periods of extended (or acute) stress, we adopt maladaptive strategies.  On the physical level, we may cut down on exercise, and rest, to make time to get more done: and keep going on caffeine, and perhaps console ourselves with alcohol. All of which have a short term benefit (or we wouldn't do them) but with a long term cost attached.

Returning to the theme of looking after yourself, we may do similar: tough it out (because we are tough) for example, or martyr ourselves in the service of others, or simply not notice that we need to ask for, and accept help.

Reflective practices and feedback are valuable here: which is, indeed, why I am writing this blog post.  I realised, when I started to make some simple errors, that I was more out of shape than I had thought. When I reflected on that, it was obvious: we had had a death in the family, 80% of my work had been cancelled, three of my children are looking for jobs at a time when they are hard to come by... and I had given no thought to the fact that I might need additional support at this time.

Fortunately, I am well-supported, both personally and professionally, and the minute I realised this, I was able to draw on that support, take a little time, put a few self-care measures in place, and I am the better for it.

But I thought it might be helpful to share the experience and the reflections it prompted. Hence, as I say, this post...

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