We all have heard flight attendants make those announcements prior to taking off, but we rarely pay attention. Among other tidbits of information, the attendants remind us that in an in-flight emergency oxygen masks will drop from the cabin above at each seat and that we should put the mask on ourselves first before trying to help others. The attendants know that our immediate reaction in an emergency is to help our loved one, e.g., a child, before ourselves. Under such circumstances we do not have the presence of mind to understand that unless we take care of ourselves first, we will be of little use to others. This is a valuable lesson for life in general.
A few weeks ago a patient of mine, who happens to be a physician, came into my office sniffling and sneezing complaining about a severe cold he had contracted. He indicated that he had to work all day in the hospital and was exhausted. When I asked him whether he had worn a surgical mask during the day, at first he looked at me with a perplexed expression. And then he realized that he had been infecting people all day with his cold. In his zeal to be helpful to others and minister to their needs, he had not been taking care of himself and therefore was not truly taking care of his patients.
If we drive a car to pick up someone at the airport when we are exhausted are we doing it for the person we are picking up? Or are we doing it because we want to be appreciated or because of a need to seen in a certain light? In other words, are we serving our own need rather than the need of the person arriving at the airport? Driving while exhausted puts ourselves, others on the roadway, as well as our passenger at risk. When my patient went to the hospital to treat others, was he thinking about his patients or was he living up to some internalized value that says that we should not let a cold keep him from work; after all, it is only a cold!
If we truly wish to be helpful, whether as a parent, a physician, or friend, we must recognize the importance of self-care. As a psychologist, if I want to be most effective with my patients, it is important that I arrive at the office rested, stress-free, physically and emotionally healthy, and able to focus my attention totally on my patient. A parent owes it to his/her children to be similarly available. Anytime we are responsible for ministering to the need of someone else, it behooves us to first take care of ourselves. As employees don’t we have a responsibility to our employer who is paying us and the people whom we serve to be at our best? Doesn’t a pilot owe it to her passengers to be alert and fully functional? Doesn’t a ball player owe it to his team to be physically fit to give his best performance?
We tend to think that it is a good thing to show up to work when we are ill, to play a game when we are injured, and so on. But whose need is being met? Isn’t it selfish for us to think only of our need to be of service or to live up to some internalized work ethic without considering the welfare of the person whom we are intending to serve?
Of course there may be times when we are not 100% at the top of our game where we will still be effective. What I am suggesting is that we give greater consideration to the idea of self-care. Sacrificing our own well-being serves no one. A pilot will examine the plane before it takes off; a trucker will make sure that his 18-wheeler is in top shape before going cross-country. They both may take better care of their machines than they take care of themselves! Physicians are admonished, “physician, heal thyself”; psychotherapists undergo their own personal therapy. If we are to be most effective in living our lives fully, including proving service to others either personally or through our work, then self-care must take a higher priority on our agenda.
[Please add your thoughts and experiences on this topic in the comment section of this blog. This blog is intended as a forum for folks to raise issues, share experiences, and promote dialogue on important issues of contemporary life. Please sign up as a Facebook Fan at www.docdreyfus.com/fanpage. For additional information about me and my practice, please visit my website at www.DocDreyfus.com.]