Needing to be needed

The other day, a brilliant colleague likened self-care to the oxygen mask drill on airplanes – specifically, the part about always affixing our own mask before assisting others. In other words, if your own ability to take a breath is compromised, how in the world can you be of service to anyone else? “Basically, if you don’t take care of yourself,” she told a client, “the rest of us are hosed.”

This made me giggle, and makes total sense, of course. But how often do you actually affix your own mask first? I know I don’t. This uber-heightened sense I’ve always had of being “needed” compels me more often than not to abandon self with alarming efficiency – to shatter boundaries and ignore calls from my body (and my loved ones). Days fill up, lack of focus leads to mistakes, and productivity actually ebbs despite all the “doing.” Pressure mounts, and before long I find myself lashing out at anyone who dare ask anything of me – even if it’s just wanting to know how I’m doing.

The thing is, when I pause to examine just how “needed” I am, I realize that I’m the only one who has the impression that, without my crucial involvement, the house of cards will collapse. I know I’m not alone. So many of us tie our identity and sense of purpose to our roles as parent, employee, volunteer, healer. We begin to believe that, if we remove our energy even one iota from our duty, the fabric of life will unravel.

There’s a vignette in an English sketch comedy show that begins with a close-up of a man wearing a jacket with the word “COACH” on the back, blowing a whistle and shouting to the lads to move along, hurry it up. As the camera pans out, you realize that he’s actually “coaching” a river downstream. (Ah, those Brits.)

Absurd, right? And yet how many of us exert our own energy in exactly that way?

When I was in the Professional Coaching Course a couple of years ago, I was talking to James about quitting a job I couldn’t stand. “What will they do without me?” was my guilt-ridden question. “What will they do without you?” he answered. “The same damn thing they’ve been doing for years. The same thing they’ll do long into the future.”

That’s the cool thing about life. It has a way of moving ever forward, doing its own thing, whether or not you impress yourself upon it. Yes, we can choose to shape things with our influence, but the flow of life doesn’t depend on any one person. It is a remarkably freeing concept to wrap one’s heart around.

Sure, the kids need to be fed and stopped from running out into the street. If you’re a barista at Starbucks, the coffee’s not going to make itself. Therapists and acupuncturists have clients who rely upon them for their wellbeing. There are things each of us do that fulfill a greater purpose, and affect others’ lives.

But there’s a fine line between meeting another’s needs and being consumed by them. And again – how equipped are we to handle anyone else’s anything if we spend every last bit of our own energy trying to, well, handle everyone else’s everything? Especially if there’s a possibility – however vague – that it will actually handle itself?

What I’ve been endeavoring to do of late is to pause and examine the nature of these “demands,” and who is actually placing them upon me. What would really happen to the systems, processes, people in my life if I was suddenly laid up and couldn’t do anything? Who really needs me? And the tough question – how important is it to me to be needed?

We can experiment with all of this by taking back just one hour a day to check in with ourselves, with our own needs and true desires, and – if we’re feeling saucy – acting upon them. Saying “yes” to something our higher self has been calling upon us to do for as long as we can remember, but that we’ve ignored because we were too busy addressing the whims of a world that needs us.

Perhaps we can give ourselves permission to put on our own oxygen masks and see if it isn’t easier to breathe.