The Oxygen Mask Theory: Why self-care can make or break you

flight attendant

Trigger warning: depression

People who fly frequently can probably recite the flight attendant’s safety spiel by heart. They always talk about how to properly use the oxygen mask “in the event of a decompression,” then remind people that “if you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person” (Halsey, 2018). This concept seems so counterintuitive – why would anyone put their own mask on before helping anyone else, especially their own child? The answer is logical: if you fail to put your mask on as soon as possible, you will fall victim to a nasty little thing called hypoxia. Hypoxia, which does not take long at all to set in, “is a condition or state in which the supply of oxygen is insufficient for normal life functions”…and symptoms include “shortness of breath, the inability to communicate, confusion, possible coma or death” (Davis, 2018). Obviously these symptoms would completely eliminate your ability to help those around you.

The Oxygen Mask Theory applies that same concept to emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. A former therapist referenced this theory all the time when discussing self-care. What is self-care and why would it be compared to life-saving oxygen? I’m glad you asked, because I’m learning too. It is “the mindful taking time to pay attention to you, not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that ensures that you are being cared for by you” (Baratta, 2018). In her 2018 book Girl, Wash Your Face, Rachel Hollis states, “You should be the very first of your priorities! You cannot take care of others well if you’re not first taking care of yourself” (p. 31). Sounds a little like the flight attendant spiel, right?

I am drawn to this topic for a couple of reason. First, it is an area of my life that has some room for improvement. Okay, fine…it’s basically non-existent. Second, it seems to be a difficult concept for a lot of people – I would go so far as to call it a universal struggle. For the sake of solidarity, I want to share my own struggles, as well as some recent epiphanies. On this subject, I think it’s important to note that “the particularity of our problems can be made bearable only through the recognition of our universal humanity. We suffer uniquely, but we survive the same way” (Strayed, 2015, p. 97). We each have our own life to live. Within that life, we each have our own custom set of experiences, blessings, losses, traumas, victories, and painful events to deal with. What I love about the above quote is the very last part – just because we all have different experiences, we survive the same way. Apparently, self-care is one of the very first chapters in the Surviving Life Tactical Manual. Yes, I know that isn’t a real thing, but someone should totally make it happen. (Lynette, Heidi, and Emily…I dedicate that imaginary book to you)

What life looks like without self-care

I have spent my entire life making sure everyone around me is happy, cared for, and following their dreams. I am passionate when it comes to loving other people. However, focusing solely on other people, and never turning that passion inward, is what led to my current place in life. I am alone. I am depressed. I literally have no idea who I am. I have the emotional stability of a very small and scared thing that’s small and scared because it is so very small and so very scared. (if you didn’t get the hint…I’m not very emotionally stable)

I mentioned in a previous blog post that during a core value exercise several months ago, I realized that my core values revolve 100% around compassion and service towards other people. Do the math. This leaves 0% of my energy available to show compassion towards myself. That was the beginning of the life overhaul I am currently experiencing (more to come on that later). Once I realized how little regard I have for myself, I have been able to look back on my failed or strained relationships and recognize how my lack of self-care has not only burned me out, but resulted in the end of many relationships.

As I said before, I am passionate about loving others. Like, to the extreme. I believe great love can be shown in both big and small ways – it might be committing the rest of your life as a care giver to your family member or it might be buying someone a Pepsi because you know it’s their absolute favorite. I have spent my life allowing my great love for others to manifest in all sorts of ways, regardless of the mental, physical, and emotional harm it does to me. That’s pretty much the opposite of self-care.

An example is this: my most recent marriage ended because he desperately wanted a family, while I have never once thought being a mom sounds like a good idea. Although he initially thought he was willing to give up that dream to be with me, he later had a change of heart. Because I loved him fiercely and wanted him to be happy, I told myself, “Who am I to deny him the fulfillment of a life-long dream? Why does it matter that I do not want a child?” And so, we proceeded to try off and on to get pregnant. I say off and on because after a few weeks of trying, I would panic and try to stand my ground that I wasn’t ready or that I just couldn’t do it. That was my inner self fighting to the surface and trying to scream that it wasn’t right to compromise over such a life-changing decision. But then I would feel guilty for being so selfish and we would try again. The more we tried, the more depressed I became. I was at the point of feeling that the best possible outcome would be for me to get pregnant and then experience some complication during child birth that would cause the baby to survive, while I passed on. My rationale for this was that he would end up with his child, but I would be out of the picture. Suicidal thoughts increased as well. As I didn’t want to go through another divorce, I started to think that I could “set him free” by taking my own life. Can we all agree that this is not a healthy mind-set? Yeah. I was in a bad place.

I might be classified as a workaholic. A full time job usually isn’t enough for me. I often have a full time job and a part time job – and frequently take classes on top of that! Up until recently, I was working two jobs, which only allowed me one day off a week. Naturally, that one day off was spent running errands, doing laundry, cleaning, and doing whatever else I hadn’t had time to do that week. I had no social life, but more importantly, I had no me time. Fits in with the rest of my life, right? Why should I make time for myself when I could be working hard and serving other people?

Now that I’m thoroughly saddened by the obvious lack of self-compassion I have shown myself, let’s talk about what I’m doing to change this pattern.

What life looks like with self-care

My struggle with self-care is this: isn’t it selfish? According to Karyl McBride, a doctor of psychology, “There is a difference between self-absorbed, narcissistic behavior and sound internal self-care. Self-care is about taking good care of our own feelings so we don’t project them onto others, act badly, or cause problems in relationships. Being in touch with our own feelings and embracing them is one of the healthies things we can do” (2013). Bam. How can such endeavors be considered selfish? They may appear selfish to people who are on the outside looking in, but as long as our heart is in the right place, their opinion doesn’t matter.

My first act of self-care transformation was quitting my part time job. It has made finances much tighter, but I have two full days off and all my weekday evenings. Now I have the time to run errands, cook, and clean in the evenings. I can literally lock my door on Friday night and not leave the house again until Monday morning. I do occasionally spend time with friends and family, but my social anxiety causes me to prefer less of that and more alone time. Granted, the more alone time I have, the more loneliness I feel. To combat this, I am finding the value of filling my time so that I’m not just sitting around feeling sorry for myself.

Thanks to the local library, I have rediscovered my love of reading. I am currently well on my way to reading all of Stephen King’s books. I feel so much accomplishment every time I check another book off the list. I have found self-help books that offer some insight. My aunt recommended Louise Penny’s books to me and I’ve fallen in love with those as well. Reading allows me to step out of my depression and into a whole different world. I also find that by reading memoirs and self-help books, I give myself the chance to see that I am not alone.

I have always been a big fan of both knitting and crocheting. Fitting in with my previous inability to show myself any love or compassion, I’ve never actually made myself anything. I work hard on projects and then give them away as gifts. Well…I decided that it was time to change that. For the last month I have been working on crocheting a blanket for myself. I read a quote by an unknown author the other day that said something along the lines of “I won’t spend $7 on a blanket at the store, but I’ll make my own with $92 in craft supplies.” That’s essentially what this blanket has turned into. But that’s not the point. The point is that I am pouring blood, sweat, and tears into something for myself. I chose yarn that love. I chose colors that love. When it’s cold and I am able to wrap myself in this blanket, I can do that in the knowledge that I made something for myself.

Painting. That is the new skill I am trying to learn. I am trying to take a class each month, then take each newly learned technique and apply it to projects at home. I went out and bought painting supplies with the intention of gifting whatever I painted. But the first time I sat down to paint something for someone else, I stared at the blank canvas for a while, then put my Pinterest ideas away and just painted from my heart. That painting is mine. That painting has meaning. That painting represents that I am a warrior. This one little painting has revealed the power of not just copying someone else’s design. Instead, I took nothing and created something with deep meaning…something beautiful. What a great metaphor for what I’m going through at the moment, and what a great lesson in self-care. I do not need to try to be what someone else wants or even needs me to be. Instead, I am taking my nothingness – my blank canvas – and creating someone meaningful. I am learning who I was made to become. That person is inside me, crying to be heard and understood. Who I am meant to be is not determined by those around me. Once I can dig down and reveal that innate being, I can discover just how much love I have to give both others and myself. I will have the confidence put a brush stroke in the middle of the canvas if I want to. I will no longer compromise my own wishes and needs to try and satisfy the needs of people who don’t even appreciate the sentiment. I am becoming.


I have read many definitions of self-care while working on this post. I came upon the best definition on “Self-care is putting absurd amounts of Parmesan cheese on your spaghetti” (Croissantboy, 2018). The reason I love this so much is because it shows that it is often the little things that make all the difference. It’s not going out and buying a new car, blowing $500 on new designer jeans, or spending a small fortune at some exotic spa. Rather, it’s figuring out what you love, and then doing it. If you love Parmesan cheese, put a little extra on your spaghetti! If you love wine, treat yourself to a nice bottle of wine every now and then. If you love crochet, make yourself a blanket. If you love to paint, paint yourself a picture. If you love to travel, take a day trip to somewhere you haven’t been before. If you love to exercise, make time for it. If you love animals, rescue a dog or cat. Whatever you love, do it for you…not solely because someone else will benefit. Learning new skills will increase confidence, which raises self-esteem, which results in a better understanding of the fact that you don’t have to tolerate mistreatment from others. You are better than that. You deserve more than that.

I hope that sharing my story helps others understand how important self-care is in the grand scheme of things. Don’t burn yourself out by telling yourself it’s selfish to practice self-care. Don’t sacrifice yourself to put someone else’s oxygen mask on first. The world needs you and all the love you have to offer. If you burn yourself out quickly and aren’t emotionally stable enough to offer your great love, the world is robbed of the gift that is you. Take care of yourself. Fill your empty cup. Remember that no one else can do it for you.

“Don’t be ashamed of seeking help on your road to recovery. As recovery is remembering who you are and using your strengths to become all that you were meant to be. By seeking help through self-care and therapy, you will begin to find yourself again. Mental health is as important as physical health and both your mind and body will thank you.” (Divinity, n.d.)



Baratta, Maria. (2018). Self Care 101. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Croissantboy. (2018). Self Care. In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from

Davis, Charles. (2018). Hypoxia and Hypoxemia. MedicineNet. Retrieved from

Divinity, Jeremy. (n.d.). Never Be Ashamed of Seeking Help. NAMI. Retrieved from

Halsey III, Ashley. (2018). Flying and that oxygen mask: Here’s the correct way to use it. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Hollis, Rachel. (2018). Girl, Wash Your Face. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books.

McBride, Karyl. (2013). Is Self-Care Selfish? Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Strayed, Cheryl. (2015). Brave Enough. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cover photo:

Semicolon painting: painted and photographed by me

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