One issue that I have come across again and again in my clinic is people feeling guilty about the fact they are battling mental health issues. Most often it is because they worry about being a burden to their family or no fun to their friends. They are already in pain, and then they are adding to it by feeling they shouldn’t be allowed the time or space to feel that pain.
We are told in the event of an airplane crash to ensure you put on your mask first. Without oxygen yourself, how can you help anyone else? If we were to follow the disaster protocol we should be putting our own masks on first. Does this mean no longer inviting your mother around as she always criticizes everything you cook? Or maybe cutting out friends whose lives seem perfect and we compare and despair our own lives whenever we meet them?
These are obviously deliberately extreme examples, which, I hope, most of us would never do. However, the question still intrigues me.
I am personally someone who wants to understand people. I enjoy analyzing why individuals and society act the way they do. I regularly see a disconnect between the way people perceive the exact same situation. It can lead to the expansion of people’s horizons and understanding, or, sadly, the destruction of that relationship.
The reality is we all see the world differently because we have all lived our own lives from our own perspective and felt our own emotions. We can sympathize and in some cases empathize, but none of us can truly live a day in another’s shoes, because we are unique and shaped by our experiences.
In hypnotherapy we explain to clients that these experiences make templates that allow us to learn. The brain likes patterns, so if doing X had the outcome of Y our brains will assume it will do so again. It will actively look for and expect the same outcome. If a child touches a hot stove they burn themselves—the shock and pain tells them it is dangerous and the brain makes a template that stoves are painful and keeps the child away in the future. This makes sense to us. Where the problems occur is when we are left emotionally burned by a situation. Our brains make the same template. We avoid getting burned again.
Getting back to the original question: if we have experienced a situation that left us depressed or angry we would naturally try to avoid it again—wouldn’t we? Yet, often we have to repeat behaviors that do not make us happy, for the sake of others. If you have a family or are in a relationship life quickly becomes about compromise. But where do we draw the line between preserving ourselves and making others happy? Shouldn’t others see our unhappiness and not make us ensure this situation again? Is saying no being selfish or being true to ourselves?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this. Only opinion, which for those reading this will be divided I am sure.
For me, and it’s only my perspective, self-preservation is vital. I am always telling clients to be kinder to themselves, to stop beating themselves up and to not see reaching out for support as a weakness but as courage. We wouldn’t think twice about going to the doctor if we break a bone, yet so many see seeking therapy to help mend an emotional trauma not as looking after themselves but as a sign that they are weak. I disagree—it takes great bravery to make that call and arrive to tell a total stranger the inner workings of their mind. In fact I think 90% of us would benefit from some therapy.
However, self-preservation is a sliding scale. On one end is helping yourself so you can be a good friend, parent, child, member of society. This is where you put on your own mask, but ALSO someone else’s. You are putting your needs on an equal par to everyone else’s, you deserve to live just as much as they do.
This seems to be where a lot of people fall down. They do not realize that considering others feelings does not have to eclipse their own. It’s a balancing act. The risk is you may end up on the other end of the scale and become selfish. By this I mean, putting yourself and your happiness above all others.
We evolved as a tribe that works together as a unit. We are hard wired to seek connections and we need each other to survive. Solitary confinement is used as a punishment in prisons for a reason: it makes people insane. No man is an island—if you choose to go it alone, you are destined to become the walking dead. Once you begin down the path of being out for yourselves above all else, you lose your humanity.
A film I watched recently, Sully, told the story of the pilot who crashed his plane into the Hudson to try and save the 155 passengers on board. He had 208 seconds to make that decision. Undoubtedly, he wanted to survive too. He made a choice based on both his own innate need for survival and those on board with him. He was still the last off the plane, checking the cabin for anyone trapped. At the inquest that attempted to prove he made the wrong choice to land in the water and could have made it to the airport he commented:
“If you’re looking for human error, make it human.”
In those 208 seconds he was being human. He no doubt panicked, felt his own self-preservation desire to live and see his wife and kids again. He also considered his fellow crew and the passengers who put their lives in his hands. When they crashed he could have leapt from the craft but he chose to help others.
I am not suggesting we should or even could all be heroes in our own stories but I think we can definitely strive to be human. We are all in this life together, and none of us are getting out alive, but we have a better chance of a happy ending if we are there to help others put their masks on as one day, they may be the ones helping us with our masks.