Episode 1 - You Can't Give From an Empty Tank!
If you’ve ever been responsible for the care of small children, you know how important it is to stay ahead of what those children might need. You probably learned the day goes better if your children are well rested, well fed, have a chance to run around and play, and don’t spend too much time on screens. You don’t expect them to behave well when they are tired, hungry, or restless.
(If you don’t already know that, bonus tip, try it. If you anticipate your child’s needs and meet them quickly, you will all be happier for it.)
But here’s the thing. When was the last time you did this for yourself? Often we grind through our days without proper rest, or nutrition, or exercise, and then get down on ourselves for not being the person we expect ourselves to be. You don’t expect your child, or maybe even anyone else, to do well when their needs aren’t being met, but often we forget to give ourselves the same gift. Or we don’t even believe it’s possible.
Maybe right now you are rolling your eyes at me and thinking, “Really lady? You’re telling me to meet my own needs first? You obviously don’t know my life.”
There was a time when I would have said the exact same thing. I have 6 children. I remember when my first 4 children were all still quite little, and a well-meaning person would roll out that oxygen mask metaphor, “Don’t forget to put on your own oxygen mask first, so you can help them.” I’d roll my eyes and think, “Yeah, maybe in a decade I can do that. How about you hold this baby for a second so I can use the bathroom?” Even when I did have time, I felt so unproductive and far behind that I didn’t use it to meet my own needs, but to catch up on tasks, because crossing something off the list at least made me feel like I wasn’t a total waste of space.
When people told me to take care of myself I didn’t usually feel helped, or loved, even though they meant well. It felt more like one more item dropped on top of my never ending heap of things I “should” do. It felt burdensome, like just one more place where I was failing to do things the way I should be doing them. Add to that that most of my mothering examples were not showing me what it looked like to take time to fill up my cup, and I just spent years struggling through, barely surviving, and always feeling guilty about all the ways I was failing, including in taking care of myself.
It took me such a long time to understand that my busyness wasn’t the reason I COULDN’T fill my own cup, it was actually the reason I HAD TO fill my own cup first. You’ll have to maybe trust me on this until you experience it, but until I did that, made sure my own needs were met, every task, every thing, and every person around me suffered. I was not helping anyone by putting my own needs last. You are not helping anyone when you put your own needs last! And let’s be clear, I’m talking about needs, not wants or desires right now.
In his book 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson, who is a Canadian psychology professor, devotes a whole chapter to the statement, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”
Then he delves into the strangeness of the fact that often people will take better care of others, and even pets and houseplants better than they do their own selves. If we asked ourselves, “What would I do for myself right now if I was my own mother,” for example, we often see the areas where we are neglecting to care for our true health and wellbeing. Peterson delves into shame and how that is part of why we neglect ourselves. (Which is a whole other conversation I plan to have in a later episode.)
What I’ll say today is that, if right now your to do list feels like it keeps multiplying itself every minute, and you feel tired all the time and overwhelmed, and trapped underneath it all, and maybe even like you are failing at everything, because how could just one person possibly keep so many balls in the air? I’ve been there.
I constantly felt so far behind that taking time to care for my own needs only added anxiety. I felt like I would be even farther behind if I did that. I didn’t know how much better I would be able to do All The Things, if my cup was full.
Maybe, like I used to, you are telling yourself that you can’t take care of your own needs until all of the other things are done.
The problem is, you will never be finished. There will always be something on your plate, some urgent task demanding you pay attention to it, someone who needs you.
I know, I still have 3 children under the age of 10 at my house, and 2 teenagers, all of whom I homeschool, and I work full time from my home office. If I didn’t set boundaries around my time, and make sure to schedule filling my own cup, I would run myself ragged from morning to night.
Even if the circumstances of your life shift, there’s a good chance you would still feel as behind and overwhelmed as you do now. That’s how it worked out for me, anyway. It wasn’t until my thinking shifted that anything began to change for me. When I stopped putting myself last, even though nothing else changed, everything got better.
I had to experience how much better things became when I put my needs up near the top of my list, instead of so far down they kept getting pushed off until tomorrow, or next week, or next year, before I was able to make the mental shift and understand that the very best thing I can do for anyone I love, any work I care about, is to get my own self together first and be as strong as I can be.
I encourage you, this week, for just one week, to try this. When you are having a hard time dealing with whatever the day throws at you, stop and ask yourself the same thing you would ask about your child. “What need isn’t being met right now? Am I hungry? Am I dehydrated? Did I have too much caffeine? Am I tired? Am I over stimulated? Did I nourish my body today? Have I had too much screen time?”
As much as you are able in the moment, give yourself what you need. Eat a meal, rest, move your body, go outside and breathe fresh air. Maybe even leave your phone inside. Bonus points if you can anticipate your own needs and plan ahead for them. Bring yourself a healthy snack too. Put yourself to bed on time, or early, so tomorrow has a better chance of being a good day. Even if someone wakes up in the middle of the night, you’ll have at least gotten a few extra hours in beforehand.
Be so, so, gentle with yourself. Don’t turn this into another thing you use to beat yourself up with. Be at least as kind to yourself as you are to your children.
You are strong. But just because you are strong enough to manage things while running on empty, doesn’t mean it’s optimal. Imagine what you could do with a full tank, if you could bring your full capacity to the problems you and your loved ones face every day. How much better would the world be, if you could do your life with a full tank?
This world needs that. You need that. The people you love need that. Today, try this one simple way that you can be brave and choose strength, by making sure your own needs are met.
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