The Oxygen Mask Principle

Posted by on Aug 15, 2013 in Creativity, Kaizen-Muse, SoulCollage | 2 comments

The Oxygen Mask Principle

My new class, My Funny Valentine: Loving Ourselves Warts and All, starts up in a few weeks. It’s going to rock, if I do say so myself. And yet, because it’s about self-love, people tend to say, “Why do I need that? There are more important ways to spend my time.” In a way, that’s not surprising. A lot of us (especially women!) have been trained, both by family and by culture, to put everyone but ourselves first. We may not even notice the expectations and their effects on us. We may be expected to:

  • take care of our younger siblings rather than being cared for ourselves
  • major in the field our parents think we should study
  • be who and what a significant other needs us to be
  • give up any time for ourselves to care for small children (and be happy about it, because otherwise we’re bad mothers)

At the extremes, in situations best described as abusive, we desperately twist ourselves into anything we can think of in order to win another person’s approval–parent, supervisor, spouse, even a child.

The problem is that we come out of any of these situations barely remembering who we are. We think we know, but then we realize that we don’t know how to answer when someone asks what our goals and aspirations are (or we say the words automatically, because they’re not really ours).

Or we wake up one morning and feel a creative pull but can’t figure out what it might look like, much less how to get there—or it dawns on us that we’re not in the right job, but a new career feels elusive because we can’t identify what we really want to be doing instead.

The answer to this problem is what I call the Oxygen Mask Principle. Anyone who’s ever flown on commercial aircraft knows that the safety instructions remind you to put your own oxygen mask on before you assist someone else with theirs. The videos show a mother keeping an eye on her child while she tightens her own mask. This is included as an important concept because parental instinct says your child comes first—even before your instinct for self-preservation—but if you pass out while trying to help your child, you could both die.

It’s a sound idea, and the only problem with it is that we forget it once we leave the plane. The real message of the Oxygen Mask Principle says that you have to take care of yourself first if you’re going to take care of anyone else. Even more, you have to love yourself first if you’re truly going to love anyone else. Without that prime force of self-love, anything you offer to others is just lip service.

These are not small issues. These are the core matters of life. We ignore ourselves at our peril, because inside each of us, there’s a soul with a destiny, and it’s fighting to be heard. (Click to tweet this!) At a certain point, we become our own captors, and it’s both encouraging and daunting to realize that that means we are the only ones who can free ourselves. And if we model self-loathing to those around us, our families, colleagues, even folks like retail cashiers or car mechanics, we’ll get it back. The illusion that we don’t deserve love will be reflected to us and make us believe even more that we don’t deserve it…and the cycle continues, on and on, generation to generation.

Life is short. We only get so many breaths, so many heartbeats. It’s criminal to spend them locked in a cycle of anguish and despair when we have the power to shift our energy to something much more positive and worthwhile. How many of us want to pass that sort of existence on to our children?

We’re the only ones who can put our own oxygen masks on. And when we do, we can finally discover peace, delight, and fulfillment that will carry over into everything else we do. Come join us, and we’ll start that journey together.


  1. Where’s my ‘Like’ button? This post is such good advice, so clearly expressed. I want to join the conversation, but it’s been a tiring couple of days and I need to sleep instead. But WOW I hope a whole bunch of folks decide to take this class!

    • Thanks, Maggie! Please do jump in with thoughts jf you get the chance.

      BTW, the equivalent to the “like” button here is that bar of sharing buttons down at the bottom of the post–you can share it on a bunch of different networks to help get the word out, if you like!

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