It’s become a bit cliché but the sentiment is still apt.
You know, when you’re on an airplane in preparation for taking off, the flight attendants run through a series of safety instructions. Amid the lessons on how to fasten your seat belt and how your seat cushion doubles as a flotation device, they tell you what to do in case of sudden cabin depressurization. An air mask will drop in front of you and before helping those next to you with their masks, you are coached to put on your own air mask.
Of course, the concept here is you’ll be of no use to anyone else if you’re incapacitated.
I often use this bit of advice in the kindness classes I facilitate, especially in support of a specific assignment I give to the students early on. The assignment? To do something kind for yourself. It can be a really difficult challenge for many people.
On the surface it may sound easy, doing something kind for yourself. But in our culture, we have made synonymous the prioritizing of ourselves with self-indulgence, selfishness, and arrogance. We certainly are told that we’re a selfish lot, we humans. So we learn to disguise our personal wishes or put on hold what we want.
A student in one of my classes who presented as an older woman told us that she was taught to put her needs behind those of others. Another student shared, “This assignment was tough for me as I am by nature ‘a pleaser.’ My natural instinct when asked to help out or do something is always to say ‘yes’. Even if it means turning my schedule upside down to accommodate the request.”
Generally, these kinds of comments yield a pretty useful class dialogue. For instance, in response to the above comments, another student told us that she used the assignment to write a letter to a friend she was missing, that she needed the excuse of the assignment to do it. In reflecting on the act, she discovered, “I think one of the loveliest things about acts of kindness is that the line between kindness to others and kindness to one’s self is often pretty blurry.” I’ve also had students use the nudge of this assignment to reunite with estranged relatives and make counseling appointments for themselves.
Another common response is students thinking they need to do something big. The mother of two children, a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old, shared her experience, saying, “For the assignment, I really wanted to do something big, like get out of the house for a whole day to go see a show or go swimming, BY MYSELF. But between being a constant milk bar for my younger girl, and my husband at work most of the day, I had to make myself happy with some little things. So I let myself stop feeling rushed. I went for walks with the kids slowly, took time at the playground (kindness for my toddler but for me, too, because she was happier). I played the piano more this week. I let myself ask for help with the kids so I could take a nap. I’m very thankful for this assignment but it was very hard!!!”
As the class facilitator, I found myself remarking on how big her little things were, that the ripple effect of slowing her walk might have caused her to relax, which would help her kids to relax, which would allow more openness in their relationship, which creates more time for noticing things like a spider’s web, which would increase their appreciation for nature, which would…
What I’m also hoping folks discover is that there actually is a connection between doing something kind for themselves and for someone else. Taken care of from the inside, we are in a better position to be thoughtful and kind to others.
Indeed, our personal kindness air masks fuel us. It’s okay to put them on first.