A couple of years ago I was walking around school when I bumped into a colleague who also happened to have been my old English teacher. He asked how I was, and I replied by telling him all about my concerns over one of my students and what I was doing to try and help him on the right path, and how hard it was for him. He nodded and smiled and then said, “But I asked how are you. How are you doing?”. I thought for a moment and then answered pretty honestly about my stress levels and tried to smile through my list of wider school commitments. He smiled and said the following, proving to be just as wise now as when he taught me at 15:
You can’t do it all. Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.
It hit me hard. Because here’s the thing: I don’t believe you can last as a teacher in the current system if you don’t care deeply about students, but I also don’t think you can last as a teacher if you care at the expense of your own sanity.
The same rules apply for our relationships with everyone.
We’re conditioned to put ourselves last, and at heart I don’t have a problem with that. Promoting a less selfish and more giving community is a good thing, I believe. When it starts to go wrong is when there’s nothing coming back – nothing going in your tank while you’re busy refilling everyone else’s. At the least you end up feeling taking for granted, and at it’s worst it’s called Carer Fatigue. You burn yourself out.
I went to a parenting seminar when my oldest was still very small and things at home weren’t brilliant. We were asked to rank where we thought most of our energy should go – to kids, partner, selves. That’s pretty much the order we ranked them in. We were told “No.” The correct order was Self. Partner. Kids. There was quite a bit of resistance to this, you could feel it in the air. We can’t put ourselves first! That’s selfish. We can’t be selfish. But the reasoning was as follows – if you put energy into yourself by doing the things you love, you have more energy to put into your partner, and them to you. Then if you’re both happy the kids kind of take care of themselves – happy parents = happy kids. I sat there by myself and tried not to cry in front of all these people I didn’t know. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done something just for me, just something that I loved doing because it made me happy. I also couldn’t remember the last time someone else had put energy into me. I felt tired and drained and unhappy most of the time. The thought of stepping away from everyone else’s oxygen masks and attaching my own was terrifying.
I don’t have a partner now and I still do put my kids first, but I’m a whole heap better at doing things for me. As frivolous as it is, getting my nails done on a regular basis reminds me that I can do things just for myself, just because. Writing is something I do just for me. When I write regularly it gives me more energy, more life, and I have more to give.
I’ve learned to step back a bit in my teaching. I can’t save everyone. I still try, because I can’t not, but I use the systems that are already in place a lot more than when I first started. There are still the students who become so very dear to your heart, and when they suffer (as too many young people do), I feel it in my heart and I am there for them. But I’ve learned to make sure that my own tank is filled, that my own oxygen mask is attached, before I use all my energy on them. It sounds terrible when I write it down like that. But it’s necessary. When I’m drained, burned out, gasping for air, I’m no use to anyone. Plus I need that energy for my own kids.
So how do we refill our tanks? What forms do our oxygen masks take? It depends on each of us, but here are some suggestions. And I know that these are dependent on your circumstance as to how accessible they are, but, when possible, refuelling our tanks, putting on that mask, will make so many thing so much easier emotionally.
Little Things. When possible, make time each day to either do something small for yourself or at the very least think about something that you enjoy. This could be going for a run or a walk, dancing for 10 minutes to your favourite song (on repeat, even!), or journaling, or making something. It could be having a glass of wine or a coffee on the deck. It could be simply reading, or watching a favourite show. It could be writing a song. These all sound a bit trite (and middle class), but daily somethings that make you feel good have big payoffs.
Big Things. Find something you really love doing that is just for you – is it doing your nails? learning a new hobby? going to Tuesday Night Pub Quiz? Poker Nights? Do It.
Say yes to things that you love or you know will make you happy. Catch up with your friends. Make new ones.
Say no to things. Protect yourself from over-stretching when you don’t have the energy.
Reflection Time– every so often, sit down and think about you. Are you happy with what you’re doing? what were some good things that happened? How are you coping?
Also important to remember – there are some relationships where you do more for them than they do for you and that’s fine. Your own children are one example, and my students are another. I’m not expecting my students, especially those who are suffering, to give back to me in the same way that I, as an adult, can do for them. But for our other relationships, whether romantic, friends, workplace, if we are constantly the one putting in all the energy without any coming back, it might be time to stop. Step back. Apply your own oxygen mask. Re-evaluate. Because I know I said that children and students don’t have to give back, but the thing is – they do. My kids notice when I’m down and hug me. They give me their love. They’re old enough now to show gratitude and to try their hardest to give back. My students have brought me cupcakes when I’ve gone through rough times. They write beautiful, heart-felt notes of gratitude. They have given me encouragement when they knew I was doing something out of my comfort zone. If they can do that, then other adults who you are surrounded by can do the same. Maybe not the cupcakes, but you know, why not? Love is better and life is better when you’re not drained, and although we can do what we can to apply our own oxygen, fill our own tanks, it’s always better when others help us too. Part of applying your oxygen is learning who is there for you too.
I leave you with this quote:
When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.