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The Airplane Rule: Why Self-Love Has Nothing To Do With Being Selfish

“Much of your strength as a woman can come from the resolve to replenish and fill your own well and essence first, before taking care of others.” – Miranda J. Barrett


If you have flown on a commercial flight before, you will most probably find the following scenario familiar:

You have finally boarded the plane, stuffed your (unwieldy) bags into the storage area above your seat and, as the Crew steps into the corridor to announce the emergency instructions, you start reading one of the magazines lying about….

No! Of course we all listen intently as the emergency instructions are presented by the pulling at, and blowing into, of various objects. In this context, there is one particular instruction concerning oxygen masks that I would like to draw your attention to:

“The cabin pressure is controlled for your comfort. However, should it change radically in flight oxygen compartments will automatically open in the panel above your seat. Reach up and pull the mask to your face. […] If you are travelling with children, or are seated next to someone who needs assistance, place the mask on yourself first, then offer assistance. […]”1

I have spent many years listening to – but not hearing –  the underlying truth and scope of that one particular instruction:

Only once I have taken care of myself first, will I be able to tend to the needs of others.

If I suffocate to death while struggling to help someone else don their oxygen mask– nobody has been helped. Well, the other person has, but I still die; that is clearly not a win-win situation. Additionally, as I am ME, dying is like the worst thing that could happen, as a result of helping someone else.

Nonetheless, we do this so often in our day to day lives. We die over and over again trying to help others, but without sufficiently taking care of our own basic needs. We slowly suffocate, while enabling everybody else to traipse about with oxygen masks. Sadly, these same people will often be too busy to help us put on our masks in return.

And, if you are one of those really lucky people, you might find yourself surrounded by those who accuse you of being selfish, if you don’t drop everything (even your ‘life’) to help them.

As I have talked with many people about the subject of self-love, and from personal experience, I know that one of their biggest problems with the concept of self-love is their fear of being (considered) selfish. Taking care of yourself before you cater to the needs of others, seems a truly selfish act.

Whenever someone expresses this fear to me,  I have two questions:

1) Why do you feel that taking care of yourself is selfish?

2) What/Who makes you feel that way?

Usually, our feeling of being selfish is based on the belief that it is good to help others (and give your proverbial last shirt), while investing too much of anything into ourselves (even positive self-talk) is bad.

There are so many stories of people who are celebrated solely for the fact that they sacrificed everything for the happiness of others.  However, there are not so many glorified stories of people who have clear boundaries and refuse to be doormats for the feet of everyone else. Hmm…..

Running yourself to the ground for others is something that has been valued for centuries, and it is often the people that want us to run in circles FOR THEM that make us feel that way.

Some people will turn vicious, once you start investing into yourself first.  This is understandable, as they are literally having their doormats pulled from right under their feet.

“You only have one life to live. Make sure it’s yours.” – Eleanor Brownn

The Airplane rule

When we have gotten into the habit of investing into everyone else, focusing back into and onto ourselves can feel like we are being selfish.

However, think back to the oxygen masks:

  • How helpful are you really, as you gasp for air and start panicking, while nearly strangling someone else with the chords of their mask?
  • How helpful are you really, when you are drained, exhausted, and malnourished, without the capacity for attentive love of yourself and others?

You are not helping anyone by sacrificing yourself.

Instead, you are running on such low energy, you will not be able to give a tenth of the value to others that you could otherwise. When we take care of ourselves, our capacity for loving and being there for others grows exponentially.

In contrast, when we have nothing more to give and go into ‘debt’, we can become mean, impatient, angry, resentful, and so many things more. Even though we don’t want to. (Not to mention how much we mentally beat ourselves up at the same time.)  Just think of how snide and unfriendly we can be to friends and family if we haven’t slept enough, let alone towards strangers!

Once you start filling up on self-love: You can (and genuinely want to) give more value to others

When you give from your own place of lack: There is nothing left of you to give, and you will not be willing, or able to, provide any true value

As a last note, it is also important to learn to differentiate between the people that you should and shouldn’t invest your energy into:

Imagine you are trying to help someone (person A) put on their oxygen mask. Instead of staying still, they struggle and claw at your face, refusing to let you actually help them. As soon as you stop helping, however, they will come running to you asking for help again. Because you are a nice person, you try helping them again, but the other person only refuses your help and  finally rips off the mask entirely.

On the other hand, you have someone (person B) whose mask has gotten stuck in their zipper jacket, and they need you to help take it out. After you have helped them, and explained how to put on the mask, they successfully put it on themselves.

The type A people will generally be the ones that perceive and accuse us of being selfish, when we withdraw from them.  The type B people will often support us in our pursuit to more wellbeing and authentic inner happiness.

There is a big difference between person A and person B. Being aware of this difference and what it means for us, is an essential piece to preserving individual wellbeing. Read about  this in one of my other posts: No More Capes! Giving Up The Impulse To Try & Save Everybody

Self-love is not selfish; it is survival on the most basic level.

When you are drained, lacking of love and everything else, you will become a black hole of misery, and there will be nothing you can give that truly helps anyone. You might be celebrated for your sacrifices, but only from those who expect you to sacrifice everything for THEIR happiness and needs.

Once you start looking for ways to love yourself more, you will authentically start looking for ways to love and serve others more.

It is possible to ‘help’ others without self-love, but always in exchange for some form of personal deterioration.

Self-love is a process and ongoing journey. However, you do not have to do a lot to  reap great results fast.

By allowing yourself to unashamedly invest in replenishing yourself first, every aspect of your life will be positively affected. And there is nothing remotely selfish about that.

Your entire world will gain from the decision to love yourself more.


Do you feel selfish sometimes for trying to take care of your needs and boundaries first?  What would your advice be to someone who is struggling with this?

Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!

Take care,



1Airline Announcements, “747 Widebody Aircraft Safety Demonstration.” Accessed February 5, 2015.

Photographs 1&2: Photographer: Bernd Rößler Model/MUAH/Styling: Cat De Pillar

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