Put On Your Own Mask First: Why Self Care is Critical For Women Leaders

On the bar at The Tippler- Jennifer Mitchell PhotographerEach time I travel by plane I smile while quietly evaluating the alignment, physical fatigue, and footwear choices of the flight attendants managing the boarding process. The evaluation is almost subconscious.  As an occupational Pilates teacher and movement consultant, I teach people with physically rigorous jobs how to use their bodies as efficiently as possible so they can pursue their passion as long as they like, pain free.The smile is triggered by the phrase, “Put your own mask on first,” as it pertains to the need to care for ourselves before we can effectively take care of others. As a woman in a leadership role, this is the phrase you can say when you look in the mirror each morning, and repeat throughout your day.I came to this idea of taking care of myself before others the hard way. After 14 years as a marketing/advertising executive, I wore my stress as a medal of achievement. Pilates was my one allowance in my schedule. I pursued teacher training simply to be able to take care of myself while traveling for work bi-weekly.My training included a 450-hour comprehensive training course, followed by a year apprenticing in a studio while working full time in advertising. In 2004, knowing I had found my calling, I took the leap and left my job to begin teaching full-time.Since then, I’ve continued to study with Pilates teachers throughout the world, sought numerous myofascial release workshops, and spent thousands of hours teaching students. All of this leading to a specialization in clients who have extremely physically rigorous jobs. I spend time studying clients at work, retrain them to use their bodies in an organized fashion on a daily basis, and help them build their own wellness practice. Most of my clients share an incredible work ethic and the tendency to put themselves last on every to-do list.Many women leaders struggle with granting permission to take the best care of themselves possible. Growing up in the 1980s, I learned that a “successful” woman equaled the ability to be a martyr. The Sydney Morning Herald and Take The Lead Women articles read more like how-to articles than what not to do for a young woman starting a career (as I did) in the ‘90s.[bctt tweet=“Many women leaders struggle with granting permission to take the best care of themselves possible.”]We still struggle with the notion that taking responsibility for our own mental/physical/emotional wellness is equally important to our other jobs. But as women leaders, you tell your team, your clients and everyone in your personal life how to treat you by how you care for yourself.As a female leader, you are also telling every young woman who comes into contact with you that she should or shouldn’t value herself. If that sounds harsh, good. I want to shake you up and dump the idea that putting your needs first is selfish – or that selfish is a bad thing in this circumstance.Think of the person you love most on this planet. Now, if you were responsible for every decision in their lives, would you feed, rest, exercise and speak to that person exactly the way you do yourself?Men and women alike generally tear up when I ask that question. But I ask myself on a pretty regular basis too. If I don’t put my “own mask on first” – I am not going to have the ability to serve anyone else. I’m also setting a lousy example.First Step: AwarenessMany of us ignore a physical issue because we either don’t have time to deal with it or don’t know how. By teaching awareness, I help clients discover patterns and avoid injury somewhere up the physical chain. Let’s imagine you pay as much attention to your own patterns as you do the details of your job. You may unlock a pattern that allows you to solve your insomnia, understand how to manage a difficult client, or learn you solve complicated problems when you shift focus from them. Awareness allows you to recognize what makes you thrive and what robs you as women leaders of your leadership skills.Two different takes on awareness development come from Breaking Muscle and The Harvard Business Review. My students actually begin with both taking daily notes and on a daily 10-minute practice of engagement work. But I also ask them to start checking on their stance when doing things like brushing their teeth or waiting on the subway platform and to begin to make corrections. The mere focus of our attention on anything will build awareness.Be a ModerateWhen it comes to nutrition and exercise I believe in the no bullying approach. Using your body does not mean beating it into submission. Eating well does not require cleanses and fasts. Treat your body like your most prized possession – don’t be afraid to use and test it, but also remember you get exactly one and caring for it is your first job. Be willing to praise it for all it accomplishes in a day, a week, or a year.Figure out which part of your day you have control over. I schedule myself so that I have two hours of quiet each morning to manage my personal Pilates practice and prepare for my work day mentally and physically. Some mornings this includes a second cup of coffee while pouring over anatomy books. Other mornings may involve checking in on my pipeline and checking a few updates off my to-do list. But all of it comes after I check in on my physical/mental well-being so that I understand where I am that particular day.Develop a Routine I ask all of my clients to spend 10 minutes daily in “resting position” to reset their bodies, allow gravity to take over, and check in on where they are that day. The 10 minutes includes breathing exercises and some  myo-fascial release work (this French scientist’s  video shows first unhealthy and then healthy fascia under a microscope). Repeating this process before bed allows them to focus on the inside (versus their day), and sleep better. Some instructions via an article I penned on audition anxiety can lead you through this process.I also recommend Epsom salt, arnica gel, and Thermacare heat wraps to help with travel or overwork aches and pains. Finally, two ideas to try to allow you to feel better and engage your power on even the roughest day.

  1. Change your stance to have your feet one fist width apart. We are told that a wide stance gives us a feeling of power. I disagree. Standing wider over-engages our IT bands, forces us to stand on the outside or inside of our feet versus the entire foot, and causes us to tilt the pelvis, disengaging the pelvic floor, reducing the ability to be vocally resonant, and actually making us smaller.
  2. In the above position, squeeze your inner thighs. This forces you to use your entire leg properly, unlock your knees, and engage your lower abdominals and glutes in order to support your spine and hold your body on top of your joints versus “dumping” onto them. It frequently helps relieve low back pain. Plus, you will be using some of your strength in a positive way versus as a weapon against yourself!

[bctt tweet=“Women leaders can change the world, but that requires strength, patience, and stamina.”]As women leaders, we have the ability to change the world, but that requires strength, patience, and stamina. Remember that when you question taking the best care of yourself first, then put your own mask on.