It happens to a lot of us. Midterms pile up, laundry needs to be done, grades are slipping, and work needs you to come in for more shifts. Life gets busy and it can be overwhelming. Maybe you are feeling emotionally and physically tired. You can’t seem to catch a break. Now add another stresser on top of that, your best friend since high school just broke up with their partner. Or maybe one friend might be on academic probation. Another friend might be struggling with their mental health. 

It can feel like too much to suddenly have to take on the role of supporting your friend. Maybe you feel guilty for not being able to fully help out your friend. Maybe you feel even worse after supporting your friend. Maybe you feel like you need to help your friend out but don’t have the emotional capacity to do so. 

These are all valid and normal feelings, but they can still be so difficult to manage. 

I know personally, I struggle with this a lot. I take on a lot of responsibilities in my life generally. I have full-time school, work, and volunteering to boot. Life gets busy and it gets exhausting. I start to burn out. When my friends come to me for help while I’m feeling unwell, I find myself sacrificing other priorities in my life to accommodate others and this leads to even more stress and anxiety. I get even more exhausted, anxious, and angry than I did originally. I slip in my self-care and find it hard to get back on my feet. I find myself zoning out more, worrying about deadlines instead of actively listening to my friend, and dreading the next time I need to help out others. Eventually, I get resentful of my relationships despite genuinely caring for them. I feel neglected, drained, and angry at the helplessness I feel for not being able to help others as I normally would be able to. I find myself growing more irritated as I start feeling worse, which usually results in an angry outburst or two. Eventually, all these intense emotions accumulate and bubble up to the surface until I eventually explode via sobbing at 3 a.m. while eating a whole pint of cookie dough ice cream. Not taking care of myself makes taking care of others so much harder. 

At the Peer Support Centre (PSC), we like to use the analogy of the OXYGEN MASK. Imagine this. You’re strapped into your airplane seat - economy class. You are patiently listening to the flight attendant, secretly wishing for the pre-flight speech to be over so that you can finally sleep. Suddenly, the flight attendant grabs an oxygen mask from the ceiling and says, “Please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting another person in case of an emergency.” Now at first, you might feel this is callous. Why would anyone just abandon their family or friends like that? I’ve come to realize that it’s not callous, but essential for the survival of both you and your fellow passenger. If you had no air, how could you give air to another person? If you can’t breathe, it would be very difficult to help another person to breathe, right? 

The oxygen mask works similarly for our own emotional well-being. Let’s say you are struggling with something and you can feel yourself struggling, whether emotionally or however that might manifest in your life. Suddenly regular tasks require more emotional energy and more effort to do than when you are feeling well and bright, much less having a supportive conversation with a friend. It can feel difficult to maintain any conversation, let alone one that requires you to be actively engaged and present. This is where the oxygen mask comes into play. When you fill yourself up and take care of yourself - whether it be with friends, reaching out for help, self-care, or an upbeat tune - you are investing in your personal oxygen tank. When you are fulfilled, happy, or content, you might feel more equipped to meet your friends where they are at, than times when your oxygen tank is empty. 

As someone volunteering at the PSC, I often struggle with the balance of supporting others while ensuring my own well-being. It always seems like a tough question to answer whether I should prioritize others or myself first. It always seemed selfish to think of myself first. The PSC has helped me to rephrase this question in a different way. What is the best way I can support myself so I can bring my best for others? What do I need to do for myself to be an effective support for others? What does it look like to support myself? These are the questions I find myself asking, especially as a volunteer here at the PSC.

It can be so easy to slip into the mindset that it’s selfish to take care of myself over helping others. For me, this is where boundaries can come into play. Am I truly able to meet this person where they are at right now to help them? If the answer is no, maybe it would be best to be honest with myself that now is not a good time. Are there other ways I can support this person? Maybe there’s another time when I am feeling well enough that I can commit to? Another thing I have tried is to purposefully plan times to care for myself. Maybe I need to reach out to others myself. Maybe I just need to eat. Maybe I need to lie down and engage in some bed rot. This time ensures that I have intentional space to assess where I am at and if I might need additional support. Of course, how you take care of yourself will vary from person to person. We are all different people with different needs. However, we all have these needs in order to feel safe and well.

Self-care is not selfish but selfless. When we tap into ourselves, we can tap into others all the more. 

If you ever feel that you need support in supporting others, or just generally want to chat with someone, the Peer Support Centre is happy to help. Our email is if you have any questions. You can also book an appointment or drop in to our center in SUB 2-707. You don’t have to ride it out alone.

About the author
Alyssa Ma is a fifth-year Psychology Honours student at the University of Alberta. It is her second year volunteering at the PSC. If she isn’t in class or volunteering, you can find her trying out different coffee recipes from TikTok, napping with her cats, or contemplating moving to a warmer place.