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Jacinda Shows us How to Place Your Oxygen Mask First: 4 Ways Leaders Sustain and Have Impact

(And one way to support the women in your life practicing this)

By Julie Castro Abrams

“In case of emergency, please place your oxygen mask first before assisting others.”

I’ve built How Women Lead as a place where women support women, but sometimes the woman that you need to support is yourself. So how do we do that? How do we prioritize ourselves? And how do we support other women when they prioritize themselves? And how do we quiet the external messages and listen deeply to our internal voice?

Throughout my own life, I’ve found that the answer to that question has been in placing my own oxygen mask first. Now, let’s be clear, I had to hit the wall for that to happen (ok, many times). I grew up in a culture that made me feel like my value was in helping others - in fact running non profits is by definition putting others first. For me it has definitely been putting others before my financial health for sure. Growing up like this, I spent years putting everyone else first.

So, I’ve been looking to Jacina Arden as my role model. I’ve had to deeply learn that I can sustain others only if I myself am sustained. It doesn’t work the other way around. This is exactly what Jacina is doing right now! She just put on her oxygen mask.

Towards the end of January, the BBC published an article about the resignation of Jacina Arden from her post as PM of New Zealand. Jacina breaks the mold in many ways. As of September 2022, out of 196 countries, less than 30 had a female head of state or government. Jacina was one of those 30. Her leadership and political philosophy became known for kindness. She is a mother, and gave birth while serving in office. Yet, when she chose to step down, instead of being recognized, she was once again challenged, as the BBC titled their article “Can Women Have it All?” This needs to change. You can’t run anything, let alone a country when you are burnt out and importantly only you can decide when you’ve given everything you have. It is time to turn the tables and celebrate Jacina’s decision.

As I go through more details of Jacina’s life though, I’m surprised by how similar it is to many of the stories I hear everyday. How many of us, particularly women of color, are the only women in the room? How many of us have dealt with the challenges of being a working mother? How many of us have been told that our leadership philosophy, based on cooperation or kindness, is a threat? What I’m not surprised by is the challenge she received when leaving. That question, “can women have it all”, is one that has been asked to me countless times. So to answer the BBC’s original question and move us beyond this tired narrative—”No one ever has it all - we make choices every day and asking this question to women incessantly is part of the problem.

It is a false Hobson’s Choice. We all juggle choices all day long. Men and women decide if they want to play soccer or violin, quilt or ski. Ultimately we have to choose to focus on one or another. Why does this question only get directed at women? I believe what they are really asking is should women be working at all? Shouldn’t they be home taking care of kids? When asking this question, we get caught in a trap of defending ourselves, deep guilt and never being enough. My observation is women without kids don’t get asked this question. What the old establishments are saying is, see, Jacinda couldn’t lead and have a family.

My question is, when are we going to build systems that allow for better choices for everyone and what does that look like? When will we normalize stepping in and pulling back from various activities throughout our long lives?

Allow all people to prioritize their own oxygen mask!. This is harder than it sounds and goes against everything we, as women, have been conditioned to do. So how do we support ourselves?

Yes, there are tips and tricks and things I have learned over the years. I have put some of them below. Most important of all though is, please my friend, give yourself grace. You are enough. We are grateful for all you have accomplished and we need you playing with us for the long run. So rest deeply. And be a fierce advocate for yourself like you are for me and all of the women around you.

If you want some more ways of how to do that here are my thoughts:

1. Find your cheerleaders

Imposter syndrome is real and we are all plagued by doubts. Often the advice we hear is to just be more confident, but as I shared in January that leads to its own problems. So when you find yourself asking if you deserve to be where you are, find your cheerleaders. Reach out to them and be vulnerable. Tell them how you are struggling and ask them to help uplift you. My cheerleaders are Anne Devereux, Stacey Egide, Christina Bui, Kristin Hull, JeanAnn Nicols and so many more who remind me that I have earned my place. So who is your cheerleader?

2. Confront and change negative self-talk

Women Impact Tech lays it out well: our self-worth is shaped by our thoughts. So we need to confront those negative thought patterns. I love the third tip they give which they call “The Friendship Fundamental.” If you wouldn’t say the things you are thinking about yourself to a friend about their performance, you are probably in a negative thought pattern. Confronting that negative thought can be as easy as figuring out what you would tell your friend in that circumstance. My guess is you are more generous of spirit and giving to your friends. Try it and tell me how this works out!

We live in a culture that glorifies busy and sees a full calendar as the surest sign of productivity. Yet we know to do deep meaningful work, we need to nurture our souls and allow space to be creative. I’ve started practicing yoga again as a way to reclaim time to meditate and rest.. Radical rest can look different for everyone, it could look like praying, taking a nap, talking with friends, or playing with your pets. As Tricia Hersey, from Rest is Resistance, says “rest is anything that connects your mind and body.” Whatever rest looks like to you, find small ways you can practice it everyday. What does your rest look like?

4. Protect Your Time

What is important to you? Say yes to that! Say yes enthusiastically to that and negotiate other things that come up. Maybe your “yes” is spending time with your family, or a new work project, or writing a new book. If and when things come up, ask yourself, “is this worth taking time away from my ‘yes?’ Does this need to be done now or can it wait?”

So how do I support women practicing this?

Ask yourself what you are adding and taking away from the plate.

At work there are the ad-hoc requests, administrative tasks, and company culture-building tasks that frequently fall outside of any one person's job description. We know those types of tasks disproportionately fall onto women to do. So if you really want to support women, take an audit of your workplace. Who do you consistently go to with those requests? How can you redistribute the load so that the women in your workplace can focus on their yes?

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