You board the flight, stow your carry-on luggage, and settle into your seat. Maybe it’s because you’re queueing up a few podcast episodes for the trip, taking care of a few last-minute emails that can’t wait, or distracted by your 3-year-old who is already making a valiant attempt to lick every surface within reach, but you’re only faintly aware of that worn-out phrase drifting over the cabin intercom: “In the event of a sudden drop in air pressure...secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.” If the announcement registers at all, it may even provoke a hint of annoyance!
To be fair, the oxygen mask phrase and the idea behind it is so commonplace that most of us have probably often heard it used as an analogy for responsible caregiving. “You can’t care for others if you don’t care for yourself.” On its face, it’s a pretty simple concept. Both on airplanes and in life, we assume we’ll have the presence of mind to secure our own vital needs before turning to care for others. But we need to be realistic: in the event of a sudden “drop in pressure” (unemployment, serious illness in the family, a painful divorce, a suicidal teen) many of us - especially parents - aren’t thinking much about our own needs. Chances are, in the event of a catastrophe, you’re pretty much only thinking about the well-being of the people you love and care about...yes, including your toddler who’s giving the airplane seat armrest a spitshine right now.
After all, when you’re juggling all the other responsibilities of a busy, stressful life, self-care just can’t always be a priority.
In her book Simple Self-Care for Therapists, Ashley Davis Bush challenges this assumption when she distinguishes between macro-self-care and micro-self-care. Bush explains that we tend to think of self-care through a “macro” lens - practices that are high-cost and high-commitment (vacations, gym or spa memberships, hobbies, regular exercise, healthy eating), and virtually unattainable for many people just trying to make it through the week. Micro-self-care, however, involves “bite-sized” ways to practice caring for and centering ourselves in minutes and even seconds during our everyday schedules. This means that there is always time to take a step back. Pause. Breathe. The great news? Bush’s recommendations aren’t just for therapists and counselors...they can be applied to anyone who carries the (sometimes heavy) responsibility for the well-being and flourishing of another human being.
Sidenote: Perhaps for some of us, the problem is not only that we lack the time to care for ourselves, but that even the notion of caring for ourselves is difficult to swallow. If the ideas of “self-care” or showing kindness to ourselves prompt traces of guilt, annoyance or even resentment in us, this should trigger some alarm bells, says licensed social worker and podcast host, Adam Young. This insight has convicted me at multiple points, and according to Young, this may indicate the presence of unprocessed trauma that may be worth exploring in therapy. It’s never too late to learn to be kind to ourselves.
With this in mind, I’d like to commend to you one practice for micro-self-care you can learn in under ten minutes and start using today!
Dr. Kristin Neff is a psychology professor and author who has pioneered the research of “self-compassion” (for a great overview of this concept, check out this article by one of our staff counselors at SSC). On her website, Dr. Neff has made available several guided meditations that can be used to personally practice self-compassion in discrete moments throughout the day or week. To all caregivers who expend energy to care for important little ones in your life (this includes parents, teachers, daycare professionals, healthcare professionals, and even older siblings of young children), I recommend this brief guided meditation, "Self-Compassion for Caregivers" by Dr. Neff. Through it, we are reminded that our own breath matters for those we seek to love, instruct, protect, empower, and encourage). In order to breathe into their lives effectively and provide inspiration for wellness and growth, we have to make our own respiration a priority.
I invite you to take a moment today to pause from breathing out into the lives of others. Recognize and accept your own needs without guilt. And breathe in.
Nick Burner | Intern