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Taking Care of Yourself:
You buckle in, ready for your flight. Soon the attendant or the video drones the familiar safety instructions. Then they get to this part: "In the unlikely event that the cabin loses pressure, an oxygen mask will drop."
Then they say something like, "Place the mask securely on your own face before helping children."
Have you ever really thought about that? Why would they instruct you to take care of yourself first? Because in this emergency situation, if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be capable of taking care of others. No air, no strength to help others.
But is this only true in the event of an airplane incident?
No, it's a principle that operates in everyday life, despite the apparent disbelief of that principle by harried Moms trying to keep everyone happy, insecure spouses determined to make themselves indispensable, adults in the sandwich generation attempting to be super-daughter or super-son to a parent with Alzheimer's while providing everything the rest of the family has come to expect, or even a doctor, therapist, or other helping professional burning out because of compassion fatigue.
I had already written most of this article and had left it overnight to come back and do final edits this evening. This afternoon while I was in the check-out line at Wal-Mart, my cell phone rang.
My girlfriend, a wonderful, caring physician, said, "I need a good shrink."
I told her playfully, "I'll let you know if I hear of one."
She said, "No, really. I need to talk about this. I should be happy. I got someone to cover for me to have a long weekend, but I feel guilty about taking time off. And, I have no idea what to do with the time. If I'm not working, it just feels weird."
I don't think she's alone in these feelings.
What causes us to go and go and give and give until we're emotionally and physically exhausted? I believe that there are three mental culprits behind the development of such crippling fatigue:
Spend a moment to reflect on your definition of a "good (fill in the blank)." Hopefully, your definition contains the seeds of the character traits and behaviors to which you aspire. However, any one of those aspirations, taken to the extreme to become a perfectionistic expectation, can absolutely wear you out.
I remember the seven years in which I was caring for my beloved mother, who died with Alzheimer's Disease. I could never have asked for a better mother throughout my life.
A single parent after my father died at the age of 38 with cancer, she struggled to make ends meet, standing by me lovingly through all my mistakes and ups and downs. I resolved to be the daughter in this time of need that she deserved.
A futile quest. I could never prove that to myself. In my eyes, no matter what I did, it was never enough. I never quite measured up to what a "good daughter" should do.
Another complicating factor is that we have the highest of standards for ourselves in multiple roles. Even things you reasonably "should" be able to do in a single role become unrealistic when you are juggling several "full-time" roles. The work is absolutely never done--and certainly never done the way a "good _____" would do it.
Do you secretly feel that you should be able to make and keep everyone happy and well? (Lotsa luck!)
If you carry this belief into your home and your work, you'll be doomed to a chronic sense of failure and a life of frustration. At first, you simply try harder. Then, you begin to get more resentful.
Soon, you find yourself filled with cynicism, hostility, or debilitating guilt. You wake up and realize, you've become someone you're not.
Here's the truth. Happiness is an inside job, and your best efforts can't impose it on others. And, you definitely can't please everyone.
Even the greatest leaders in history understood this principle. If you wait until everyone is happy and well to take care of yourself, you'll be sadly neglected. Both your psyche and your body will suffer for it.
Listen, there are plenty of people who truly are selfish. They are self-absorbed and egotistical. It's all about them.
They look out only for their own needs and wants, ignoring the perspectives and feelings of others. That's what selfish means. If you took the time to read this article, I doubt that this describes you.
On the other hand, if you are a person in danger of burning out, that's evidence right there that you are probably not a selfish person. In fact, the research on burnout shows, it's only the most compassionate and committed people who burn out. (Slackers and selfish people don't burn out. They don't care enough to!)
Think about your automobile. What if you never stopped to refuel, change the oil, get a tune-up? Soon the car would be non-functional, no use to anyone.
And so it is with you. If you don't pull away to refuel your energy, renew your spirit, and reconnect with the people and things that matter to you--you'll soon be nonfunctional, no use to anyone.
If you want to last in order to be of service to others, using your talents to make a difference to people over the long haul, you must take care of yourself. Can you see that it is not being selfish to make your personal mental, emotional, and physical health a priority? Taking care of yourself provides you the energy and the perspective you need in order to keep giving.
That, my friend, is unselfish indeed.
Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist, professional speaker, and executive and personal coach who specializes in creating Magnetic Workplaces® and in bringing out the best in people. She's author of the upcoming book: This Can't Be Happening to Me!. Sign up for her free email newsletter at her website: http://www.MagneticWorkplaces.com. Contact Dr. Bev by email at: Bev@MagneticWorkplaces.com or by phone, 877-CAN-LEAD (226-5323) or 601-264-0890.
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