Empty Cups need Self-Care
Picture this. You’re sitting in a crowded airplane on the tarmac. You are heading to your holiday destination; the flight attendants who have one essential safety task to complete before take-off. Not everyone chooses to listen. Many have their heads buried in a book, laptop, or iPad. Look closely, and you’ll see an occasional traveler hanging off every word. These people, listening carefully to safety advice, regardless of how many times they’ve heard it, maybe onto something.
Most plane travelers have experienced the safety demonstration, “Put your oxygen mask on first. Then you may help others with their masks; even your children”. Seems harsh at first, yet the underlying reason is essential. In the case of the airplane, parents are unable to help their children if already lying on the floor in a state of unconsciousness. Therefore, we must put our oxygen mask on first; then proceed to help others. Equally, this approach applies to other areas in life. The act of continuously putting the needs of others ahead of our own isn’t wise. Just like in the airplane, we’re likely to find ourselves in a state of distress; curled up in a ball on the floor, mentally crippled because we have nothing left to give. It’s a common trait that we need to address.
Some of us are more susceptible to putting ourselves last; it’s all we know, and it’s comfortable. On the other hand, putting ourselves before others is not so comfortable. It’s important not to misunderstand this message; there is a time and place for everything, and yes, sometimes, tending to the needs of others before self may be necessary. Maintaining a sense of balance and flexibility is perfectly okay. However, always putting the needs of others ahead of our own becomes problematic. This is when a door of vulnerability opens, and we may find we have nothing left to give to anyone; not even to ourselves.
“Fill your cup first; then you can give from a place of abundance” (Manymotivationalquotes.com)
This same message applies in different contexts. Over the years, I’ve developed a deeply engraved belief that putting my needs before the needs of others, demonstrates selfishness and confirms I’m a self-absorbed snob. This blunt and unforgiving self-assessment makes me feel a strong sense of discomfort, vulnerability, and of being grossly and unfairly misunderstood. The real Sam is genuine, loyal, and stuck within a people-pleasing mentality. If people could see more of the real me, maybe I would no longer feel a need to justify everything I do.
For many people, like myself, trying to avoid the disapproval of others, causes life to become a never-ending quest to ensure everyone else’s physical and emotional well-being is cared for, before our own. This way of thinking goes on and on; I struggle with this frame of mind daily. Worse, during times of great distress, like the pandemic, it is easy to appear indecisive and preoccupied when attending to the wants and needs of others. Currently, stuck in the state of pandemic lockdown, kids at home 24/7, finding a balance, in caring for self and caring for others, is difficult. The struggle to find ‘me’ time, quiet time, sufficient opportunities to tend to what is important to me, is draining my energy levels and in turn, my overall temperament and outlook.
Take the cup analogy. Instead of humans, imagine we’re all beautifully sculptured cups of many bright colors and intricate details. As cups, we’re filled to the brim with a delicious beverage of our choosing. This beverage represents our physical and emotional source of energy and well-being, and it’s essential. When our cup is full, life feels amazing. Now imagine carrying this cup for an entire day, every day.
I wonder what will happen during the daily rush, the highly repetitive grind that is life. Think of the pressure we put on ourselves to tick everything on our daily schedule. Maybe we feel more anxiety and pressure. Perhaps we fear letting someone or everyone down? Continued repetition will invariably contribute to our full cup slowly forming a tiny crack. Regardless, it doesn’t take much ‘constant giving’, for the cup to begin developing a tiny crack, but we might be too busy to notice. Slowly, the beverage begins to leak, its contents becoming less by the minute, yet we ignore this and focus on ensuring everything gets done, to keep everybody happy. So, we miss the leak and our cup’s source of emotional and physical well-being, the beverage, is drained and becomes severely compromised.
If we continue down this path of insufficient time for ourselves, we inevitably begin to eliminate things in life that we incorrectly deem as non-essential. Things like hobbies, mealtimes, recreation time; alone time. Sadly, we’ve become a cup on the run, each day trying tirelessly to fit as much into our daily schedules as we can. We run from one place to the next, taking one call only to hang up and take another call. We wish for more hours in the day, more hours to get more ‘stuff’ done; must be the answer, right?
The only way to stop the leak is for us to stop. Stop, think of ourselves for once, and take a much-needed break. We are only one person, and we have only so much capacity to give. What happens when we get to the point of being able to give no more is not a positive experience for anyone. So, there is much to be learnt from this cup scenario.
How do we avoid falling into this trap of giving, giving, giving? What needs to change to avoid getting to the point where we have nothing left to give? How can we refill our cups as they inevitably drain, resulting from the demands and stress of everyday life? Ironically, the solution is relatively easy. Pulling it off, however, is an entirely different story. The key here is the balance of lifestyle. Yep, it’s that simple! Are you wondering what I’m talking about? Maybe you’re not sold on this cup and airplane stuff. That’s okay, I understand, I’m still learning myself.
We might wish otherwise, but none of us are Superman or Superwoman. Our bodies do not possess extraordinary, superhero powers. We have our limits; some people have more significant leaks in their cups and less of a threshold than others. Others have smaller leaks and can persist a little longer. We all have different thresholds, but we need to honor whatever our level is, by giving ourselves time to refill our cup. What this means to me could be different for you; essentially it means allowing time just for you. Time to do nothing, time to do what YOU want, what makes your heart happy. Importantly, we should allow ourselves this time to recharge without feeling guilty for doing so, being mindful that, when surrounded by others, guilt can play havoc. Yet, guilt only serves to drain our cup even more.
A kind heart can result in an empty cup
This next anecdote is close to my heart. I’m fortunate to have children who have always shown a great sense of care, compassion and kindness towards other people. At school, they gladly give up their playtime to be of service to others. It’s lovely to witness, but on occasion, even children can push themselves too far. I see a lot of myself in my daughters, willing to give, yet reluctant to receive. Recently, at the end of another arduous home learning session, one of my young girls came to me, asking if she could help another child with their home learning studies. She was determined to help this other child; she considered this her job, her duty. Yet for myself, alarm bells rang.
I could see my daughter would be putting pressure on her cup of wellness. Even the suggestion that she could use her free time, her own time at the end of the remote learning school day when she gets to enjoy being a kid, served as no deterrent. She wanted to help this one child and was willing to give up a fundamental part of her childhood, whether it be playing, watching tv or spending necessary time chatting away (online) with her friends. To assist her friend, she was willing to go without one of the few pleasures she can look forward to during the difficult time of isolation and remote learning.
As a parent, I found this situation a challenge to navigate. Should I consent to her giving up personal time for relaxation, to be a kid, to help a buddy with their schoolwork? Or, listen to my gut instinct that screams what I know is right. In this instance, I knew what I had to do. I knew my daughter would desperately miss the social time on which she thrives. Unfortunately, I was also acutely aware of the angry and frustrated child I’d be left to reason with.
As a parent and an observer who has a history of being too willing to give to others at my expense, the thought of paving the way for my children to replicate my behavior is not something I wish to encourage. I know that this pattern of giving everything we can to others can become addictive; it can become essential to keep everyone around us happy. But at what expense? ‘Giving’ is the easiest option to choose, giving at the detriment of one’s self and replenishing everything our body craves and needs. Yet, it doesn’t end here. One day in the future, when my child chooses to do what feels right for her, before another person’s needs, guilt will become a relentless follower. Guilt for that one day she has chosen to say ‘no’. Guilt for choosing to refill her cup with much needed time for herself, guilt because she now sees herself as a selfish, terrible person.
Refilling our cup is a way of taking care of ourselves. Filling our cup is non-negotiable in life. Try to continue with only a half-filled cup and see how far you get. In a world that seems to come at us with more demands and less time for ourselves, we must stop to acknowledge, we need a break, time out, quiet time, whatever we like to call it. There’s only so much work, stress, and lack of self-care our bodies and souls can withstand before the cracks appear.
I really enjoyed this article Sam and it beggars belief with your writing skills as to why you did/could not take it up earlier as you express yourself very well and it is enjoyable if at not times confronting to read. You are not trying to use a collection of “fancy pants” words which would actually detract from your message and turn some people who may need to read this completely off. I understand your confusion regarding what to do about one helping another however, unfortunately I think this will always be coming back in your face with the kids and you may have to be gentle now but have some more difficult discussions as they grow a lot older have more life experience and can understand. They will hopefully then think Mum is looking out for me instead of the Mum is being mean to people I will just say this one to you that with over 30 years experience as a teacher in a Christian school helping one another was the order of the day and I can see that you are worried your kids will emulate your pattern. As I think you have them in a Christian school mixed messages may be very confusing, just something to think about that is sort of beyond your control. Keep it up, top job and above all, keep safe x