“Be good to yourself first—then be good to others”


A quote from Haemin Sunim, Buddhist Monk

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“Welcome aboard our 6 AM flight to New York’s La Guardia airport … even if you are a frequent traveler, please pay close attention to our safety briefing … in the event of loss of cabin pressure … yada, yada, yada.” The lights were dimmed, and we all tried to catch some extra zzz’s. I woke up suddenly, realizing it was getting a little difficult to breathe. Just then, the little yellow plastic face masks dropped down from the ceiling. What was that bit in the safety briefing about putting on your own mask first?

We have all heard the announcement. We understand it immediately, without question: take care of yourself first, so that you can then help those around you. We don’t think of it as a selfish act, but as common sense. So, why do we find it difficult to translate this maxim into everyday life? Why does it feel selfish to worry about our own emotional needs? And, most importantly, how can treating ourselves kindly improve our kindness towards others, not just in our personal relationships but in the workplace?

Thankfully, scary flight experiences happen infrequently—far more common are weekends dominated by must-do’s, being the kids’ bus service, and a failure to prioritize any “me time.” Such lack of self-care results in a deep-seated exhaustion and eventual resentment. Instead of feeling refreshed and ready for Monday morning, we often carry our unresolved baggage and exhausted, angry mindset into the workplace, where our frustration can spill over into the next problem or challenge that we face.

Just like an exercise regimen or a healthy diet (with the occasional chocolate chip muffin, of course!), regular self-care is important for maintaining a healthy mindset. The first part of the opening quote, be good to yourself first, is essential for navigating the storms of stress and anxiety that we face every day. But it is also a necessary steppingstone to the next piece, then be good to others. As Stanford professor Shirzad Chamine notes in Positive Intelligence, “Empathy has two targets: yourself and others. Both are important. Deeper empathy for yourself typically makes it easier to have empathy for others.” My takeaway: use self-empathy and self-care to recharge your batteries, to ready yourself for the challenges and stresses you will encounter, and to build your capacity to treat others well.

So, how do we go about looking after ourselves? It takes some “behind-the-scenes” work to ready ourselves for the hour, day, or week ahead. Consider building one or more of these techniques into your daily self-care “exercise” routine:

  • Accept: Acceptance of struggles and imperfections helps the mind to stop struggling and grow calm. Allow difficult emotions to simply be there. Take a quiet break to think about your problem-du-jour—through breathing and stillness, let those thoughts lessen and lighten. Do this for 5 minutes. This practice won’t make your struggles disappear, but perspective and acceptance will creep in.
  • Write: At the end of the day, make a list of the things that are weighing heavily on you and the things you still need to accomplish. Allow jumbled thoughts to flow out of the circle-loop in your head, through your hand, onto paper. In the morning, gain some momentum by starting with the simplest thing on your list.
  • Talk: A problem shared is a problem solved. Find people who are willing to listen without judgment. Talking through an issue, or just venting about your day, can help you to see things more objectively. Often, friends or loved ones delight in the chance help.
  • Walk: Exercise and the outdoors are resources for healing. Even a brief walk in nature can alter your energy level and help you to see things more objectively.

Practicing these techniques can help us to slow down so that we can acknowledge and accept our emotions—a critical step toward building positive work and home environments. As Dr. Melanie Katzman tells us in Connect First, “…organizations are run by people, and people run on emotions. Our feelings supply the energy to fuel our pursuit of profit and purpose. They are formidable and universal. They can’t be ignored. Yet, to our great detriment, we have long pretended that emotions have no place in the office…Employees and their bosses are crying out for greater respect, inclusion, and meaning at work…we care, and we want to matter.”

Empathy for yourself and others translates to expertise in building and maintaining relationships. It can help avoid the flashes of anger that can seriously undermine, in one moment, the years it has taken to build trust. And beyond avoiding such disasters, empathy strengthens that trust because it shows others that you genuinely care about them and the relationship.

If you are weighed down by the stresses of everyday life and your frustrations are negatively impacting your relationships and work performance, we at Epicoach can help you identify and practice ways to be good to yourself first. We work with our clients to build strong support bases from which to launch careers and find greater purpose. To find out more, email david@epi.coach or call 917 484-2771.