“Nope, I can’t do that” was my immediate reaction when I was first invited to think about the idea of “filling myself up first”. I was being asked to think about prioritising my own needs. Over time I have learnt the value of self care and it is now something I do regularly. I also notice when I haven’t been “filling myself up” and quickly remember why it is so important.
What does it mean to “fill yourself up first”?
The short answer is that “filling yourself up” means different things to different people. Another answer is that for any one individual it might be something different depending on the day or situation or indeed any other variable. Ultimately it means looking after yourself so that you can be there for others. A metaphor like “you can’t pour from an empty cup” gives some indication as to what the general gist of this is.
Why did “me first” feel so wrong?
I was interested in why my reaction to this concept was so dismissive, which is what I aim to explore here.
I was very close to my paternal grandmother and spent many happy hours with her whilst I was growing up. We’d often be in the garden or doing the crossword at the kitchen table. She was a remarkable lady born in the early 1900s when manners were paramount. Her parents sent her to “Finishing School” to complete her education, where the primary focus was etiquette and academics came second. In her lifetime, which stretched just a few weeks short of 90 years, she witnessed significant political, world, social and technological changes. This included women gaining the vote, the First and Second World Wars, blurring of class boundaries, and the arrival of radio, television and aviation.
She taught me that manners were important and the social rules she instilled in me continue to shape the way I behave, even today. There were obvious things like saying “please” and “thank you”, not talking with your mouthful and holding doors open for others. I grew up understanding that it was just as rude to be early as it was to be late, that men ought to walk on the roadside to protect the woman, and to never help yourself first or take the last biscuit. And always ALWAYS pour a drink for others before yourself i.e. never fill yourself up first, ever.
I did not consciously learn those social rules; it was more that I absorbed them. Accepting them in the same way that I learnt about brushing my teeth twice a day and to cover my mouth if I coughed or sneezed. I did not think about it and assumed everyone had the same set of rules. I was rarely confronted with a situation that made me think about, let alone question this.
So in 2016 when I first explored the Fresh Air Fridays theme of “filling yourself up first” it jarred and was in direct conflict with something I had accepted as a truth all my life. It made complete sense to me that individuals need to take care of themselves first, especially when given the example of the aircraft passenger briefing about oxygen masks. Logically I understood it, but breaking the rule of “others first” felt so wrong. When I explored this theme in more detail I understood that I saw the “me first” concept as being rude, selfish and therefore uncomfortable. Yet the possibility that it could be okay to meet my own needs ahead of others made sense and something I was tempted to try, in spite of the guilt it caused me.
Breaking the rules
I played with the idea of breaking the rules the first time I experienced a Fresh Air Fridays session. My free taster covered the three core Fresh Air Fridays themes which are filling yourself up first, being present and practicing gratitude. The core themes are covered in every session alongside the focused topic, which is different each month. My first step in filling myself up was to become a Fresh Air Fridays member. It was a big commitment, juggling working part-time and looking after my two small children, but it felt right. I went on a facilitated session at least once a month. I also began to walk more by myself, usually evenings or early mornings at the weekend when my husband could cover the childcare.
Since then my list of ways to fill myself up keeps growing; pottering in the garden, watching a TV program without other distractions like emails, texts or social media, listening to music, reading a book, baking. Now I can choose how I want to fill myself up, which is a long way from the “nope, I can’t do that” where I started.
I’m pleased to say that over time and with regular, gentle opportunities to ask myself how to “fill myself up first” I can easily break the rules and no longer experience those uncomfortable feelings when I do. I take better care of myself and a direct outcome is that those around me, especially my children, see that it is not only okay, but also vital, to meet your own needs ahead of others. So now it’s “me first” all the way, within reason, which is fantastic because now I am better equipped to support others. Although I do still pour a drink for others before my own, and I smile and think of my grandmother each time I do.