By Natalie Rivera
In the event there is a drop in cabin air pressure, put the oxygen mask on yourself first…
While there is great wisdom in the above statement, we rarely follow it, regardless of whom we are. On an airplane in distress, it is obvious that if you don’t put your mask on you’ll lose consciousness and will be unable to help your child or anyone else. Yet, flight attendants remind us on every flight because we are so quick to put others’ masks on first. In everyday life we tend to think, “Well, I won’t lose consciousness HERE…surely I can wait…I will put my mask on once I know everyone else is okay.” But what we fail to see is that we ARE losing consciousness…just in a different way…and the longer we go without taking care of ourselves the harder it becomes. I know because it happened to me.
I am an empathetic, caring person by nature. Starting in middle school, I was the one everyone went to with their problems. Total strangers would spill their guts to me. By high school I was everyone’s counselor. I was the rock. I was calm through chaos. I could see solutions where others saw only struggle. I would encourage and console and offer guidance. My parents used to joke that I “always attracted the hard-luck cases” for friends, and they were right. Where other people saw only dysfunctional teenagers, I saw hurting souls from dysfunctional homes. I understood their plight and was willing to see their inner spark rather than their sometimes damaged and dingy exterior.
My open mind and heart were my gift, and yet my curse.
I had one friend who was kicked out of an abusive home, and I convinced my parents to let her stay with us for a while. I had another friend whose mom was schizophrenic, herself being bipolar. One night she took a bottle of sleeping pills to take her life. Shortly after, she thought about how it would hurt me if she died and so she changed her mind—but it was too late to throw them up. She stayed up all night and called me in the morning and asked me to meet her in the lunch room. I stayed in the lunch room with her all day to keep her from falling asleep. I had a dear friend who suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. I never once judged her—in fact I would perform many of her “touching” rituals with her and talked to her nearly every night to encourage her that she would be safe while she slept.
Into early adulthood I continued my tendency to spend much of my time and energy devoted to “helping” others. One day I noticed I didn’t talk about myself much, if ever. I noticed I harbored my own problems, never confiding in anyone because I figured if they came to me to help them then surely I should be able to handle my own problems—and, if they couldn’t handle their own issues, they probably couldn’t help me. After caring for everyone else, I rarely had time to give myself a second thought. More than that, I often conceded to others’ desires, sacrificing my preferences. I did this so long I forgot what my preferences were—I forgot how to dream.
By my early-20s I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), which is a blanket label given when you’re exhausted and sick for no apparent reason. I had been experiencing these symptoms since my mid-teens. I was living my life for everyone else. Then one day I couldn’t take it anymore.
I PUT ON MY MASK…because my soul and life depended on it…and it transformed my world.
It wasn’t until several years later that I realized the cause of my unexplained fatigue. I had gone beyond caring for others—I had sacrificed myself for them, and it was killing me. What saved me was a healthy dose of self-help and self-love. But it wasn’t easy.
Understanding and Navigating Mixed Signals
It’s not easy to learn to love ourselves or love others in a healthy way because we receive mixed signals from our environment and then must navigate through them. Our society preaches “self-love” and companies spend billions of dollars marketing products and services to us that they hope we will consume in our attempt at self-care—pampering ourselves with luxurious products or consuming diet foods in attempt at being “healthy.” But then our communities and families criticize us for being “selfish” while glorifying those who sacrifice themselves for others. We get mixed signals and it can be confusing.
- Signal 1: Be SELFLESS: put others first
- Signal 2: Be SELFISH: put yourself first
At first glance, most people would declare that selfishness is not a virtue, but I challenge you to look again. While it may be noble to act on behalf of others’ needs rather than remain focused on one’s self, it is not without consequences. In my quest to learn to love myself I have found there are several misunderstandings surrounding love:
- Putting others first is always good
- Putting yourself first is always bad
- Love is finite and giving to one takes away from another
This is not a zero-sum game, folks. To love and care for others does NOT have to take away from ourselves, and caring for ourselves will not take away from what we can give others—in fact it adds to it. There is no limit to love. However, the way we choose to live often limits how much we have to give.
The Selfish: Those who love THEMSELVES and neglect others:
As children, it is a powerful life lesson to learn how to think outside of ourselves—to overcome our egocentric or self-centered instincts. As we grow up we learn not to be selfish—like how to share—and later how to develop empathy and compassion for others. Many people do not ever learn how to do this and their lives, their loved ones, and their communities often suffer as a result. We are taught and observe that “selfish” people act without considering the consequences. They abuse their children, harm their neighbors, and take from others. Selfish people do not love themselves or others effectively.
But most “selfish” people are actually quite caring. They are not selfish out of ignorance or disregard for others. These individuals were often the most compassionate of all and somewhere along the way they over-sacrificed themselves and got hurt (more on that below). They recognized the unhealthy patterns that self-sacrifice and self-neglect create and instead believe and preach that
You CAN’T love others unless you love yourself first.
This is a classic pendulum swing overreaction. To avoid being hurt, they put themselves first at all costs. They preach letting go of your concern for what others think and even how your choices effect others and instead to make your decisions based on what you feel is right for you—only. Although it is understandable one would come to the conclusion that they should cease giving to or giving in to others unless they are secure in themselves, they misunderstand love.
You do NOT have to love yourself before you can love someone else…
You can see this clearly in those who are “selfless.” They can truly love others, even if they neglect themselves. Don’t get me wrong though, often their love for others is unhealthy or even harmful. Neither extreme is a good place to be; we must find balance in life and love.
The Selfless: Those who love OTHERS and neglect themselves:
More than any other message we hear in our culture, we’re taught to be selfless and that loving others means saying:
To heck with what I need, what do THEY need?
We glorify givers and those who practice self-sacrifice. We honor those who go without so their children can have a better life or those who let go of their dreams to support their spouses returning to school or to take care of someone else.
It is good to champion giving acts and encourage caring behavior, but so often we take it too far.
What I am about to say is hard to hear, especially for those whose identities are wrapped up in being the “helper” or the one of supreme “self-sacrifice.” Putting others first, while neglecting your own needs, can cause the following negative consequences:
- Can develop codependency—a need to be needed that is so strong you unknowingly keep others in a vulnerable state so that they continue to need you.
- Can use caring for others as an excuse to punish or neglect yourself—covering up underlying feeling of unworthiness by using others’ needs as an excuse to not meet your own.
- Can cause a sense of guilt in the other party—as they see you giving to them at your own expense, or they can sense a feeling of desperation, neediness, or unworthiness within you, they may resent your love or help.
- Can do more harm than good by “helping”—helping is like pushing your preferences on others. It limits their ability to self-empower and enables their poor habits and choices.
“What most of us think of as “helping” is merely ego disguised as benevolence. It’s a way to impose our beliefs and perceptions on others in a way that can be seen as generous. Helping is often a disguise for rescuing and is anything but generous.” —Staci Backauskas, Out Your ego.
Rather than swoop in to help, why not offer support as they care for themselves?
- Can set a bad example of self-love for your children and others—you may think you are showing them how to love by caring for them, and your hope is that they feel loved and cared for and grow up to be happy, well-adjusted people. However, if you are neglecting yourself your example will teach more than your acts of love, and your children are not likely to grow up to be well-adjusted, happy, self-caring individuals. Rather, they will lean toward becoming victims of self-sacrifice who neglect themselves—just like you.
- Can cause yourself harm—symptoms of self-neglect include stress, a tendency to complain, not enjoying things you once did, overworking, exhaustion, constant distraction, or feeling trapped, resentful, or hopeless. Physically you may have sleep disturbances, digestive issues, anxiety, fatigue, pain, or headaches. And, if you are a chronic practitioner of self-sacrifice, it can develop into chronic illness, like cancer.
So why is it that we glorify unhealthy, unbalanced people who harm themselves unnecessarily in order to “help” others who may be better off being allowed to take care of themselves? Two reasons:
- We are afraid of being called “selfish.”
- We are feeding our egos with “selflessness.”
“If you’re not selfish enough to come into vibrational alignment with who you are [love yourself], you have nothing to give anyone anyway.”—Abraham Hicks
I apologize if this is hard to swallow, but sometimes lessons are painful. Only by realizing that neither extreme (selfishness or selflessness) are healthy ways of loving can you learn to effectively love yourself and others.
The CUP-FILLERS: Someone who loves THEMSELVES and OTHERS:
The key to understanding how love flows is to understand our CUPS. Remember the oxygen mask? Now imagine that instead of oxygen, it dispenses love.
We each have a vessel within us where we store our love and from which we pour our love onto others. There is an unlimited supply of love and we have access to it from within ourselves at all times (through the mask—our Source). However, most people forget they have access to it, and so believe they must coerce others into to filling their cups.
Now imagine a young man is hurting because his cup is on empty. He hungers for love, but those whom he loves are treating him poorly. He has forgotten that his source is unlimited, and so out of desperation he acts out in attempt to receive love through attention or sympathy. If his attempt is unsuccessful, he’s likely to act out again, this time in a more extreme manner and not in attempt at gaining sympathy. This time, he acts selfishly and recklessly with an attitude of “to hell with them, I’m doing what I want.” Even if his actions are self-destructive, his empowered position does fill his cup a small degree. After harming himself and at some level feeling guilt for his actions, his cup is once again empty and the process repeats.
Imagine a woman who also feels empty inside. She has been neglected by those she loves and feels unworthy of love. Her cup is empty and she has forgotten how to fill it herself. She crosses paths with someone who is in pain and seeing the needs of this person summons love from deep within her and she pours it onto them, which makes her feel good and partially fills her cup. She discovered the unlimited storehouse of love within her, but she didn’t realize it. She didn’t realize she could fill her own love vessel so that she’d have more to give. Instead she learns that being needed fills her cup, and so to avoid feeling empty she seeks to find more needy people.
Both of these examples are representative of what happens when we forget these two important keys to self love:
- It is your responsibility to fill your own cup, no one else’s.
- You have access to an unlimited stream of love within you, which is accessed when you care for YOURSELF.
As you can see, you CAN love others without loving yourself by summoning the infinite stream of love and bypassing yourself. But the love you give is more powerful and less dysfunctional if you funnel it first to into your own cup.
When we fill our cup, it overflows and fills the cups of those around us.
When we are a cup-filler, we love ourselves and others—no more selfishness, no more selflessness. We are balanced and our cups are full.
Below are benefits you will reap if you develop SELF-LOVE by putting on your mask and filling your cup first:
- Empower others to care for themselves—you support them rather than helping or “enabling.”
- Respect yourself—decide on your boundaries and honor them.
- Live authentically—nurture your talents and follow your own path, releasing the opinions of others.
- Value integrity—remain true to yourself without compromising your core values.
- Communicate your needs—be clear about what you want and how you feel rather than keeping it to yourself and resenting others for not meeting your needs.
- Honor your feelings—listen to your intuition and emotional guidance system and trust yourself.
- Take care of yourself—make the health of your body, mind, and spirit a top priority.
- Take time for the things that fill you—filling your cup and enjoying your life are your birthright, and by doing so you give others permission to do the same.
- Take responsibility for your own life and emotions—release the belief that your happiness depends on others compliance with your desires and recognize that true empowerment lies in self-love.
- Say “NO”—be honest with yourself and others by honoring when actions or situations are not in your highest and best good.
“I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself.”—Oriah, The Invitation
- Accept yourself exactly as you are—you are perfect in your imperfection, you are human. Know the love that you are.
Are you ready to put on your mask once and for ALL? If you have been waiting for someone to give you permission I am giving it to you now–YOU HAVE PERMISSION! I’m handing it to you now. Go ahead. Take a deep breath of freedom and self-love.
May your cup runneth over.
Natalie Rivera is a author, speaker and entrepreneur. She is passionate about empowering others to GET REAL and live authentically. After a decade of living a life that wasn’t hers and developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Natalie let go of everything and completely transformed. Through her journey to healing she rediscovered her true self and greater purpose—to inspire others to transform their lives. Natalie “retired” from the rat race at 24, put herself through school as a freelance designer, created a non-profit teen center, and later created Transformation Services, Inc., which offers motivational speaking, curriculum development, life coaching, event management, and publishing. She is also the Publisher of Transformation Magazine. Visit www.joeelandnatalie.com.