Helping others.. starts with me

Settling comfortably into my seat on an airplane, listening to the safety briefing, looking at others around me doing the same, I ponder on the part where they say ‘Please fit your own oxygen mask before helping others’. A standard part of the briefing and yet I wonder how true is that of life?

For how many of us does our life revolve around other people, our work colleagues, our family, our partners, our friends? Where do we put ourselves in the priority list? Are we even on it? The irony is that unless we look after ourselves it’s impossible for us to really help other people. In the case of the airplane, if you don’t put your mask on first, you are physically unable to help others because you are dead. In life in general if you start ‘putting on your mask before helping others’ you not only help yourself  it is also an enormous gift to those you want to help. If you don’t, this can lead to feelings of low self worth, anxiety, stress and depression. If our happiness depends on us making other people happy, we are stuck in a vicious circle.

It’s only natural to want to put others first. For many of us as children we were told not to be selfish, to share our toys and that if we are good girls and boys people will like us. This is all part of our development as children, learning to interact with the world. As adults though, these beliefs can become unhelpful when we begin to ignore our own needs.

Whilst our intention may be to help someone else, by putting on our red pants and donning our capes we are denying them the opportunity to find a solution for themselves. By rescuing others we are in effect keeping them as if they are a victim, dependant on other people and not able to do things for themselves. This is not empowering for them and exhausting for us.

This is not to say that we all need to do what we want and to hell with everyone else, that’s what our teenage years were for! It’s just about putting ourselves back on the priority list. How good would it be knowing that by feeling happy and relaxed yourself, you enjoy spending quality time with your kids rather than playing with them whilst worrying about getting the tea on, cleaning the bathroom and the other twenty things on your list? How would it be if you could react appropriately to situations at work in the moment rather than keeping it all inside, exploding when it all gets too much? Rather than growing a list of why it’s not working, how would it be if your relationship regained its intimacy?

Become aware

The first step in this positive change is awareness. Begin by noticing where you spend your time, money and energy. This doesn’t mean making a long list, simply get a sense of how much of it is on you and how much is on others. This will begin to bring to your attention where the imbalance may be. Notice how you feel about doing the things you do, if you get genuine enjoyment out them that’s great and if you feel a bit resentful or fed up then it might be worth noting that down. The right balance is different for everyone. I know people who really enjoy doing their housework or their filing; it’s about discovering what works and what doesn’t work for you.

Express how you feel

The next step is to be able to express how you feel.  Not in the sense of ‘you made me feel like that’, actually no one else can make us feel anything and others will more often than not, not be aware of the impact of their behaviour on you. We can however say it in a non judgemental way, for example ‘when that happened, I felt this’. Owning our own feelings without blaming others is the beginning of expressing ourselves in a way that opens up discussion because people don’t feel judged.

Say what you want

This is not easy for many people or if done is done in a negative demanding way. We are often aware of what we don’t want but ask us what we want instead and we are stumped. This often comes from our childhood, we learn that ‘I want doesn’t get’ or have feelings that it’s wrong to say what we want or that we don’t deserve it. As an adult this may not make rational sense and yet it can run very deep to the point where you think you don’t actually know what you want. This may be new to you, so start with the small things; like what you’d like to do today, or even what you want for lunch. Of course you won’t always get what you want, but you are more likely to get it if you express it. It takes out the need for others to have to try and read your mind and internally it programs your mind to look for possibilities and gives it a direction towards something positive.

Stand back and let others make their own choices

As any parent will know, it’s important to let children make their own mistakes. When we are learning to walk and we fall down and it hurts a bit, we quickly learn a better strategy to stay up. If as parents we never let go of their little hands, how would they ever learn this? It’s the same as adults, if you keep picking someone up and not letting them learn and grow for themselves, how will they ever know how to? By rescuing them you are only narrowing their choices by showing them your way, and that may not work for them. Of course we like to feel needed but it’s even more rewarding to know you helped someone find their own way. You can support them by finding out what they really want and helping them to express themselves. I am constantly inspired by what people do when you give them the opportunity to find their own way.

Do something just for you

It doesn’t matter how small it is, a quiet cup of coffee, ten minutes with a book, phoning a friend, these things will start to bring the balance back.

I’m not suggesting any of this is easy. People often think that big problems need big solutions; we have to change jobs, leave our partner, find a new one, leave the country and yet it’s the small changes that build into the big changes and in a much easier way. Find twenty minutes to take a walk in the sunshine, make yourself your favourite food, and notice some of the special things about the people you love. Smile, and be careful where you do it, it may just infectious. You get the point.

The great thing is that everyone wins. By taking care of yourself you become a role model for others to do the same. And if you still believe you have to sacrifice yourself for your family or work colleagues, ask them, you may find that you don’t. You inspire others when you allow yourself to be all that you can be, at work, at home and in our relationships. By allowing your light to shine, you give others permission to do the same.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Show comments

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals