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oxygen

Put Your Mask on First

Effective leaders prioritize taking care of themselves

My 9-year-old plopped himself listlessly in the back seat of the car and spouted, “I had a bad day at school.” My body instantly grew tense. Thoughts raced through my head: “Did one of his friends say something that hurt his feelings? Was he struggling in one of his classes? Was one of his teachers being unfair?” 

While my brain worked to assess and triage the source of his distress, my mouth simultaneously began blurting questions. He managed to squeeze in a reply during my rapid-fire inquiries, but I barely took the time to hear his response before I started offering unsolicited advice. He quickly ended the conversation by thrusting his hands in front of him and stating, “Mom, stop it! You’re talking so much that I can’t even think! I feel like I have to say that I have a good day at school — otherwise, you worry!” 

Guilty as charged. Needless to say, this clearly wasn’t one of my proudest mom moments. 

I was so busy rushing to take care of others while in my frenzied and frantic state, that I wasn’t present and available to take care of myself.”

Leslie Cunningham, Impact & Profits

I humbly share this story as an example of how many women leaders experience challenges with finding and using their voice during moments of stress, tension and conflict — in the workplace and in life. When we don’t feel safe our body can react in various ways, two of these reactions being to feign or to fawn. To “feign” means to pretend or put on a show, and to “fawn” means to seek approval from others. 

When we experience automatic responses to stress it’s very likely the nervous system compels the body to act in a particular way. It’s almost like we don’t get to choose what happens. And to make matters more challenging, our reactions can become more involuntary the more stressed we become. In terms of biology, a significantly larger percentage of women report having a higher rate of feigning and fawning stress response patterns than men. Getting stuck in stress response cycles makes us less effective as leaders. So, what can we do about it?

I have found it helpful to take on the perspective of a detective and to be on the lookout for indicators that I am starting to feel anxious, stressed or nervous. This allows me to acknowledge to myself that I am feeling this way. This can be challenging, because I hate feeling vulnerable and inadequate. I especially dislike admitting when I’m uncertain how to interact with a particular person, or how to tackle a specific situation. However, I have come to recognize that I have the opportunity, as well as the inherent right, to simply get over it and admit that I am human. Just like everyone else.

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Before I rush headfirst into the fire or make an expedient attempt to rescue and take care of another person, I have the opportunity to practice taking care of myself. I put the proverbial oxygen mask on first. The irony is that in the past I was so busy rushing to take care of others while in my frenzied and frantic state, that I wasn’t present and available to take care of myself.

With my son, I was trying to pretend that I was calm and had it all together. But I wasn’t fooling him at all. He knew I was anxious. My rapid speech and questions only resulted in him feeling like I couldn’t handle the truth — because it would only worry me. 

So instead, I now practice pausing and putting on my oxygen mask, by asking myself these two questions: “Is this situation [or person] dangerous or life threatening?” The answer is almost always “no,” unless there is an actual real emergency, like a fire. And then I ask, “Am I experiencing uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings?” This is almost always the case. 

When I recognize that there is no actual emergency at hand, I allow myself a few minutes to focus and become calm before interacting and proceeding. Sometimes it means making up an excuse to go to the bathroom, listening to the other person without interrupting or not responding immediately after the person has finished talking — even if it means experiencing a few awkward or even excruciating moments of silence. 

One woman leader shared with me that she attended a presentation at her son’s high school put on by the student leaders. A parent in the audience asked the group of students how she could most help her child. The student president paused only a moment before replying, “All we want is two things: 1. Calm and 2. Support from our parents.” 

Another leader explained that she would spend the majority of her time, energy and mental focus taking care of the people she led. Years later, one of the individuals — who had long since left — confided in her, “I always felt like you never believed in me or had faith in me.” 

Our noble, yet ineffective attempts to jump into taking care of others to relieve our own internal stress, ironically, undermines the faith and confidence of those around us — the ones we are trying our hardest to support. Since we genuinely care about leading effectively and supporting the people we lead, we can practice pausing, putting on our own oxygen mask and taking care of ourselves first. Only then can we provide true words of insight, wisdom and guidance in both our work and personal lives.