“Save Myself,” the Culture of Confidence, Mental Health and Saving Others

I gave all my oxygen to people that could breathe,” sings Ed Sheeran in the final song, “Save Myself” on his 2017 album “Divide.” I love this song. Sheeran sings about something that I have heard repeated countless times since then, in first aid classes, in advice to friends, to myself, in movies, TV shows, music– the message is prevalent in today’s culture: do not put yourself in a situation where your care for someone else will hurt yourself.

In 2018, it is safe to assume that you should be trying and encouraging others to take baths, to meditate, and to take mental health days when life gets to be too much. And that is a wonderful thing, particularly given a past in which self-care was not viewed as important, or necessary, or even real. To live in a time when we are told to shout the things we love about ourselves from the rooftops rather than be meek and humble is deeply empowering, so in no way am I saying that it is time to throw out this “culture of confidence.” But maybe we need to think about it a little more.

Last week, I was speaking to a friend who was having some issues with her roommate. The night before, my friend had come home to find her roommate catatonic on the floor, suffering from a severe panic attack and breakdown. My friend, who is not particularly close to her roommate, had to sit and take care of her for a long time before she calmed down. After hearing this story, I had one response.

“You need to make sure you are taking care of yourself!” I cried, deeply concerned for her, “This girl has some serious issues, and you need to remember that you are in no way responsible, or qualified, to take care of her!”

“I know,” she said, calm in the face of my outburst. “And I am taking care of myself. But she has been through so much–”

I interrupted. “What she’s been through doesn’t mean that you have to damage your mental health for her sake!” This was a conversation that I’d had before, and I was sure that I knew best.

She was patient. “I know. That’s not what I’m saying.” And then she said something that completely shifted my perspective.

“I’m not going to put myself in a situation where I’m going to hurt myself. But I don’t think that means I don’t have to be there for her. She has been through so much in her life, and I’ve honestly had a pretty easy life. I’m not saying that means I should suffer now, but I do think it means that I can give up a little of myself to help her.”

For me, something clicked. I had been telling others, telling myself, for so long, that we should be protecting ourselves over others at all costs. It was practically my go-to advice: having issues with someone’s drama? Distance and take care of yourself! I realized that I had missed a key piece of that message. It is not enough to just take care of yourself; it is taking care of yourself until you have reached a place where you can take care of others. I know that personally, at least, I have enough of myself to offer some to someone who is lacking in themselves.

My friend touched on something that I think is painfully absent in the sermons of self-love and self-care. We have miraculously cultivated a culture of confidence from a world in which we were told to be self-critical of every breath we took, and this culture was born out of a desire to create a universe for future generations to love, not hate themselves. But if our determination to take care of ourselves gets in the way of saving someone who needs help, we aren’t creating a better world for those generations. We are creating a world of people who care too much about themselves to even think about caring for others.

Selfies, self-care, self-love, mental health days, healthy distance: we have created a vocabulary for loving ourselves, but we now lack the words to love others. Self-love is not being selfish. Self-love is caring about yourself enough to care about others.

“Before I save someone else, I’ve got to save myself.”

Don’t forget the first part of Sheeran’s award-winning lyrics. “Before I save someone else.” Don’t let self-care turn you into a selfish person. Take care of yourself, but don’t forget to take care of others, too.